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The power of ‘action figures’

Social entrepreneur John Wood issued a bold challenge to the Northeastern students, faculty, and staff who packed Blackman Auditorium on Wednesday evening for a panel discussion on gender equality and literacy education in the developing world: “If you are educated, you have a moral obligation to give the same opportunity to one child in a less developed country,” he told them. “We need more action figures in this world.”

Wood, who returned to Northeastern on Wednesday following his lecture on campus in the fall, is a prime example of an “action figure.” In 1999, he quit his job as Microsoft’s director of business development for the greater China region to found Room to Read, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to improving literacy in poverty-stricken areas around the world. Since its incep­tion in 2000, the organization has built more than 15,000 libraries and 1,600 schools in poor com­mu­ni­ties throughout 10 coun­tries in Asia and Africa, including Laos, Nepal, and Vietnam.

In 2011, Forbes mag­a­zine named Wood to its “Impact 30” list of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. On Wednesday, the selfless humanitarian was in good company, seated beside fellow panelists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists and co-authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Published in 2009, the bestselling book argues that the oppression of women is the present era’s “paramount moral challenge.”

“These speakers are personal heroes of mine,” said Diane MacGillivray, senior vice pres­i­dent for uni­ver­sity advance­ment, in her opening remarks. “Their passion, commitment, and generosity are an inspiration to all of us.”

The event was titled “Education: Empowering Girls One Book at a Time” and co-sponsored in part by the D’Amore-McKim School of Business; the College of Social Sciences and Humanities; Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute, which pro­vided a $5,000 seed grant to help Northeastern start its own chapter of Room to Read;  and Women Who Inspire, a university ini­tia­tive designed to pro­mote the advance­ment of women in sci­ence, sus­tain­ability, engi­neering, and technology. The 90-minute discussion was moderated by Sheila Marcelo, founder and CEO of Care.com, an online platform that connects families with caregivers.

Panelists fielded questions from the audience during a Q-and-A. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

Panelists fielded questions from the audience during a Q-and-A. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

Halfway through the discussion, she asked Kristof and WuDunn whether progress has been made in the battle against sex trafficking, maternal mortality, and girls’ education—the foci of Half the Sky. Kristof answered in the affirmative, saying, “The mistake journalists make is that they focus so much on the problems and don’t adequately acknowledge the progress.”

For example, he pointed to the global illiteracy rate, which has plummeted from 44 percent in 1950 to 16 percent in 2014. “Illiteracy has gone from a condition of the vast majority to the province of the elderly in very poor countries,” he said.

Marcelo then asked Kristof why he chose to write Half the Sky, which she said brought tears to her eyes. “There is a deep human yearning to try to make a difference,” he explained, noting that the brain’s pleasure centers are aroused when giving back. “We really all have that yearning to find a purpose and have an impact.”

In her conversation with Wood, Marcelo focused on how the social entrepreneur has used his business acumen to promote Room to Read’s mission to improve literacy education.

“You can’t be afraid to ask customers to buy your product or service,” Wood explained, noting the cost of building a new library for children in the Room to Read program. “My job is to make sure the world knows that we need its support,” he added. “Shame on us if we don’t take the opportunity to reach out to every single kid.”

Marcelo later asked Wood what role gathering data plays in driving positive change. “What gets measured gets done,” Wood said, quoting a nugget of wisdom from his days at Microsoft. “We’re metric-driven,” he added, noting that Room to Read tracks every project in an extensive Salesforce.com database and conducts independent evaluations of its completed projects.

In the Q-and-A following the panel discussion, one student asked what could be done to increase the number of female executives. “Research shows that there is an argument to be made for affirmative action for women,” WuDunn replied, “and I think we should have something like that.”

“Every guy has to care a lot more about that issue than we do,” Wood added, eliciting audience approval. “It’s good to challenge ourselves to do better.”

Another student asked how U.S. undergraduates could make a difference in the lives of people living thousands of miles away. “All it takes to create change is a little bit of your time,” WuDunn replied. “Don’t be ashamed if you don’t want a career as a social entrepreneur,” she added. “Give a little bit of your talent and that’s fine.”

In closing, Marcelo asked each panelist to give a piece of advice to the aspiring social entrepreneurs in the audience. “Start tonight,” WuDunn said. “Form a group of friends and figure out how to contribute to the issues you care about.” Kristof, who noted that Northeastern has more social entrepreneurship students than any other university, encouraged undergrads to explore the world, saying that “Now is the time to get out of your comfort zone and see things you haven’t seen before.”