How John Wood, Formerly of Microsoft, Became Andrew Carnegie with a Yak

john wood

John Wood began his entrepreneurial journey with a trek through Nepal. At the time, Wood was a senior marketing executive at Microsoft. Wood took the trip, he said, to get away from emails, Monday morning management meetings, and (semi-jokingly) to get away from Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft.

This vacation from work turned into an obsession when the trek took his group to a small, dilapidated schoolhouse.

Wood was saddened to see that the students were studying in overcrowded classrooms, holding 80 students in a space better suited to 20. Even worse, the school’s library had only a handful of well-worn books. As Wood was leaving the school, the headmaster left Wood with a simple sentence that would change Wood’s life forever:

“Perhaps you sir, will come back here with books.”

With those haunting images in his mind and the headmaster’s words ringing in his ears, Wood went back to the United States and planned his return trip. He collected thousands of books to fill the school’s library. Because of how remote the school was, the books were ultimately transported to the school on the backs of many yaks.

Wood said during a recent keynote address at the Public Relations Society of America’s International Conference:

“Andrew Carnegie used his fortune to endow public libraries. I wanted to be Carnegie – with a yak. I wanted a full frontal yak attack with thousands of books in tow.”

That first effort of filling a library led Wood to leave Microsoft and found Room to Read, an organization dedicated to building schools and libraries and engendering educational equality.

Learning the ABCs of Entrepreneurship

Going from a massive operation like Microsoft to an unfunded startup, Wood had to learn the ABCs of entrepreneurship. He sought out advice from several leading venture capitalists, including Don Valentine of Sequoia Capital. They schooled him on a variety of topics, including fundraising and how to build a great company from scratch. He said:

“The initial hires are the ones who are going to hire the next ring out and the next ring out and the next ring out. So if you get those early hires wrong, you have to acknowledge it pretty quickly. Thankfully we got most of those early hires right and got some really great people. Our CEO today was my co-founder. She was my first paid employee.”

In terms of fundraising, Wood has built an international network of 12,000 volunteers, with chapters in 57 cities around the world. Room to Read has raised over $250 million since its founding in 1999.

Cutting Overhead

john wood

While raising money is one key to entrepreneurship, cutting overhead is just as important. Wood reached out to a number of organizations for help and has gotten an overwhelming response. Among the contributors are Credit Suisse (free office space), Goldman Sachs (millions of frequent flyer miles), Lenovo (600 ThinkPads) and Scholastic (over 1 million books).

In the ensuing 14 years, Wood has worked many miracles. Among Room to Read’s astounding accomplishments are:

  • Over 1,675 schools opened.
  • Over 15,000 libraries opened.
  • 13 million books donated to kids.
  • 7.8 million children have access to schools built by Room to Read.
  • 23,000 girls are currently on long-term scholarships and 96 percent of them have moved up to the next grade.
  • 70% have gone on to university or technical training.
  • Room to Read has already produced 875 original titles in the languages of the countries where the schools and libraries are located. That number is expected to top 1,000 by the end of 2003.

Wood attributes much of his fundraising success to some of the excellent media coverage he’s managed to garner over the years. It took several years before he was able to get coverage, but the breakthrough came in 2002 with a major article in Fast Company. He recalled:

“The Fast Company article was such a breakthrough. We were averaging about 10 emails a day before the article. All of a sudden, we got like 300 emails within three days of the magazine hitting the newsstands. At that time (2003), Fast Company was the hot magazine. It was like the gift that keeps on giving.”

The Fast Company article was followed by a column by Nick Kristof in The New York Times. That column resulted in over $500,000 in donations.

An appearance on Oprah brought so much attention that all eight of RoomToRead’s servers crashed. When they were back up, $3 million poured in. Wood said:

“We try to tell a story about the results, because people are inspired by results. We tell very positive stories. So many organizations that go into the developing world you see a picture of a child dressed in rags, covered with flies and it is very guilt based marketing.

We think these kids have an inherent dignity. Every picture we show, the kids are smiling. It’s a very hopeful picture. The reason why we get so many public speaking opportunities is because our stories speak to the heart, but also speak to the head. You need both of those things.”

Has your business journey inspired you in any unexpected, unimaginable ways?

Images: Room to Read


Jon Gelberg Jon Gelberg is a Principal at The Dilenschneider Group, a strategic communications and public relations agency in New York City. As a journalist, Jon has won more than 20 national, state and regional journalism awards and has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Professional Football Writers of America, The Society of Professional Journalists and many other organizations.

2 Reactions
  1. Sometimes, it just takes one experience to wake you up and tell you that you are really not making all that money for yourself. You are going to use that to help other people. Big companies help others out of social responsibility so I don’t see why individuals should not do the same.

  2. That last bit, about Room to Read not using guilt-based marketing; I like that. I really do and wish more charities would choose to follow the same route.

    I think what John’s done and is doing is incredible, along with the staff/volunteers, donors and promoters that have helped make it happen.