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John Wood discovered his passion, his greatest success, and his life's work—not at business school or leading Microsoft's charge into Asia in the 1990s—but on a soul-searching trip to the Himalayas. Wood felt trapped between an all-consuming career and a desire to do something lasting and significant. Stressed from the demands of his job, he took a vacation trekking in Nepal because a friend had told him, "If you get high enough in the mountains, you can't hear Steve Ballmer yelling at you anymore."
Instead of being the antidote to the rat race, that trip convinced John Wood to divert the boundless energy he was devoting to Microsoft into a cause that desperately needed to be addressed. While visiting a remote Nepalese school, Wood learned that the students had few books in their library. When he offered to run a book drive to provide the school with books, his idea was met with polite skepticism. After all, no matter how well-intentioned, why would a successful software executive take valuable time out of his life and gather books for an impoverished school?
But John Wood did return to that school and with thousands of books bundled on the back of a yak. And at that moment, Wood made the decision to walk away from Microsoft and create Room to Read—an organization that has donated more than 1.2 million books, established more than 2,600 libraries and 200 schools, and sent 1,700 girls to school on scholarship—ultimately touching the lives of 875,000 children with the lifelong gift of education.
Leaving Microsoft to Change the World chronicles John Wood's struggle to find a meaningful outlet for his managerial talents and entrepreneurial zeal. For every high-achiever who has ever wondered what life might be like giving back, Wood offers a vivid, emotional, and absorbing tale of how to take the lessons learned at a hard-charging company like Microsoft and apply them to one of the world's most pressing problems: the lack of basic literacy.
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About the Author
After earning an MBA at the prestigious Kellogg School of Management, John Wood worked for several years in banking before joining Microsoft in 1991. Through hard work and determination, he ascended rapidly, earning coveted overseas assignments in Australia and China. While serving as Microsoft's Director of Business Development for the Greater China region, Wood decided to change his life's focus to help children break the cycle of poverty through the lifelong gift of education. In 2000, he founded Room to Read, a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and soon in Africa. When not traveling the world fund-raising and visiting Room to Read communities, he lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
Leaving Microsoft to Change the World
"Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books"
An icy wind blew off the mountain as I Zipped my fleece jacket against the encroaching night. Looking up from my journal, I watched the sun sink behind the soaring snowcapped Himalayas. Clouds appeared massed behind the ridgeline, ready to march into the valley like night sentries. A young Nepali boy interrupted to offer a drink. This eight-year-old appeared to be running the small trekker's lodge on his own; I had seen no one else during my two hours at the table.
I asked if they had beer.
"Yes!" was his enthusiastic reply.
As I wondered about child labor laws, and whether this might be the youngest bartender I'd ever been served by, he ran off.
On a normal day I would be ordering another coffee at sundown, preparing for the three or four hours left in my workday as a marketing director at Microsoft. Today was blissfully different—the first of 21 days of trekking in the Himalayas. I wanted the beer to toast the start of my longest holiday in nine years, and a break from the treadmill of life in the software industry during the breakneck 1990s. Ahead lay three weeks without e-mail, phone calls, meetings, or a commute. Three weeks where the biggest challenge was walking 200 miles over "donkey trails" with all my gear on my back. On day ten, the trek would reach a Himalayan pass at 18,000 feet. This would be the highest I had ever climbed to in life. The challenging mountain pass and the long break would be a fitting reward for years of nonstop work.
My bartenderreturned with a dusty bottle of Tuborg, which he wiped on his black shirt. "No chiso, tato," he said, apologizing for the beer being at room temperature. Then his face lit up. "Tin minut," he said as his spindly legs carried his body recklessly down to the river. As I waited the requested three minutes, he plunged the bottle into the icy glacier melt, smiled, and waved.
A middle-aged Nepali man at the next table laughed aloud at the boy's clever, low-tech solution. "Who needs a refrigerator?" I asked as a way to start conversation. "Are all the children in Nepal this clever?" He replied that the people here needed to learn to make do, because they had so little. For example, dinner was cooked over a wood fire because people lacked luxuries like stoves and ovens.
The boy returned with a very cold beer—and a look of triumph.
Pasupathi appeared to be in his mid-50s, with thick glasses, weather-beaten dark pants, a Windbreaker, and a traditional Nepalese topi cloth cap. The sun and wind had carved fine lines of wisdom into his face over the years. The Nepalis, I quickly learned, are a friendly and welcoming people, and I struck up conversations with almost everyone.
Pasupathi was eager to tell me about Nepal, so I asked him what he did for a living. "District resource person for Lamjung Province," he explained. He was responsible for finding resources for the 17 schools in this rural province. I noticed his worn-out tennis shoes. In Nepal, that meant that most of the schools were off the main road and far out on the dirt paths I had spent the last seven hours trekking.
I told Pasupathi that I had always loved school as a child and asked whether Nepalese children were eager learners.
"Here in the rural areas we have many smart children," he replied with a rapid-fire assessment. "They are very eager to learn. But we do not have enough schools. We do not have sufficient school supplies. Everyone is poor so we cannot make much investment in education. In this village, we have a primary school, but no secondary school. So after grade five, no more schooling takes place unless the children can walk two hours to the nearest school that teaches grades six and above. But because the people are poor, and they need their children to help with farming, so many of the students stop education too early."
As Pasupathi poured himself tea, he told me more.
"Some days I am very sad for my country. I want the children to get a good education, but I am failing them."
Eager to learn more, I peppered him with questions. I found it hard to imagine a world in which something as random as where you were born could result in lifelong illiteracy. Had I taken my own education for granted?
Pasupathi told me that Nepal's illiteracy rate, at 70 percent, was among the world's highest. This was not the result of apathy on the part of the people, he insisted. They believed in education. The communities and the government were simply too poor to afford enough schools, teachers, and books for their rapidly growing population. His job could be frustrating. Every day he heard about villages that lacked schools, or schools where three children were sharing a textbook. "I am the education resource person, yet I have hardly any resources."
He had many dreams. For example, he wanted to help one village move up from a one-room building in which grades one to five were taught in shifts because the school was crammed into a small space. His enthusiastic voice dropped as he next described the reality of having no budget. All he could do was listen to the requests and hope that one day he could say yes.
Our conversation drew me into his world and incited my curiosity. Here was a potential opportunity to learn about the real Nepal, rather than the trekker's version of the country. I asked where he was headed next. I lucked out. He was leaving in the morning to visit a school in the village of Bahundanda, which was along the trekking route. It was a three-hour walk up steep hills. I asked if I might join him. He agreed. "I would be proud to show you our school. Please meet me here again at seven for tea."Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. Copyright © by John Wood. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“Room to Read is one of the best long-term investments I have made.”
“One-third business saga, one-third world travelogue, and one-third human drama a 100% great book ....”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reading this book changed my life and inspired me to take action. This was one of the few books where I willed my eyes to move faster than I could digest the words because I was so enraptured and desperately seeking to know what happened next in Wood's mission to change the world. I loved the details he recalled about the people of each country and his thoughts, fears, and passion each day as he built the foundation for Room to Read. I cried numerous times throughout the book at the heartwarming images that entered my mind, and was extremely moved by the pictures inside. I am proud to be a part of Room to Read and am grateful that someone introduced me to this book. I continue to pass it on every chance I get!
This book was great and a fast read. It's inspirational for people just looking into ways to help the world. It's also informative for people already involved, pointing out some great business lessons that should be applied to working in a charity organization. The story was great and uplifting!
John Wood is the Real Deal. This is an inspiring account of a remarkable idea that's working. Will lift you right out of your seat to want to pitch in. You'll make friends talking about the book and end up writing the title down on more napkins... Everyone I know has loved it. "World Change Begins with Educated Children" YES!!!
There are schools without books. John wood saw this and left Microsoft to try to get books to the children. Also strongly recommend Three Cups of Tea
I see John Wood as an exceptional example of pragmatic idealism. He has transformed his desire to improve the world into an expansive, replicable project that affects thousands of students, and successfully applied business principles and focus to the nonprofit sector. This is a MUST READ for anyone interested in philanthropy - a very accessible, fast-paced, interesting book for corporate execs and activists alike.
I read this book and was blown away. It's quite often that we see people who become internet millionaires become stuck up guys who care only for themselves. John has gone the other way. This was a guy who had everything and gave it all up to do the right thing. Moreover, he applied everything he knew about building successful businesses to building a successful organization to use the power of the people to help erradicate illiteracy. This book should be a must read for anyone with aspirations of using their skill, wisdom and intellect to affect positive world change.