If you have ever pondered abandoning your desk job for an adventure and an opportunity to give back, Wood's story will inspire you. He 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 the world's most pressing social problems.
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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.
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