Social entrepreneur steadfast in pursuit of global literacy

By: news@Northeastern

Students, faculty and staff filled the Curry Student Center Ballroom to hear John Wood, founder Room to Read, discuss the global literacy and gender equality advocacy and action group. The event was sponsored by the Social Enterprise Institute. Photos by Brooks Canaday.

John Wood’s belief in the power of edu­ca­tion prompted him to leave his job as a Microsoft exec­u­tive in 1999 to start Room to Read, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to improving lit­eracy in the devel­oping world.

“At Room to Read we are trying to be social entre­pre­neurs who edu­cate as many chil­dren in the world as pos­sible,” Wood told more than 250 stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff who filled the Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room on Monday evening. “In this day and age, anyone who wants to can have an impact on the world.”

Since its incep­tion in 2000, Room to Read has grown into one of the world’s most suc­cessful, fis­cally effi­cient social entre­pre­neur­ship orga­ni­za­tions. Over the last 13 years, it has built more than 15,000 libraries and 1,681 schools in poor com­mu­ni­ties in 10 coun­tries in Asia and Africa, including Laos, Nepal, and Vietnam.

The edu­ca­tion non­profit has already reached 7.8 mil­lion chil­dren and will achieve its goal of 10 mil­lion in 2015, a full five years ear­lier than expected. In 2011, Forbes mag­a­zine named Wood to its “Impact 30” list of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

Monday’s event was hosted by Northeastern’s Social Enter­prise Insti­tute, which has con­tributed to Room to Read’s suc­cess by donating money to build libraries at schools in India.

At the event, SEI’s exec­u­tive director Dennis Shaugh­nessy announced that the uni­ver­sity would form its own chapter of Room to Read, for which the insti­tute would pro­vide a $5,000 seed grant. The chapter will be led by stu­dents in Shaughnessy’s freshman Honors Seminar.

“We have been reading John’s books for many years now and studying his pro­gram as a model for social enter­prises,” Shaugh­nessy noted. “John is one the leading social entre­pre­neurs in the world today, and Room to Read is one of the best orga­ni­za­tions in that space.”

Wood attrib­utes much of Room to Read’s suc­cess to its employees, the majority of whom are locals who know the lan­guage, people, and needs of the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. “These are the most impor­tant people at Room to Read,” he explained. “They’re more impor­tant than I am because they are the ones out in the rural vil­lages get­ting things done.”

Another impor­tant aspect of Room to Read’s suc­cess is its method for building schools and libraries. Rather than asking vol­un­teers to travel to the coun­tries in which they build the edu­ca­tion facil­i­ties, the non­profit chal­lenges locals to help with the work, allowing them to con­tribute to the process.

“We honor the work ethic of the local com­mu­ni­ties by saying we aren’t going to build it for you, we are going to build it with you,” Wood said. “Let the local people con­tribute the sweat equity because many times par­ents there are cash strapped and this is what they have to offer.”