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New Chicago GSB Student Group Sets High Goals with Social Entrepreneur

If corporations can operate internationally on a huge scale, why can’t organizations with a higher calling?

That was the thinking of John Wood, a former top Microsoft executive, who discovered his higher calling—bringing books to children in underdeveloped countries—while on a Himalayan mountaintop in 1998.

“At Microsoft we always used to say, ‘Go big or go home,’ and that’s how I feel about doing something in the charity world,” Wood told GSB students in a Hyde Park Center classroom, September 29, at an event sponsored by the student group Chicago Global Citizens.

Wood founded the nonprofit Room to Read. It works with people in undeveloped areas of Asia to build schools, libraries, and computer rooms as well as providing scholarships for girls and coveted books in native languages.

It started out as a hobby born out of a Nepalese headmaster’s simple plea for books while Wood was on a mountain retreat reflecting on his life. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces when the books were passed into their outstretched hands made Wood commit on the spot to doing more of the same, he said.

The next year Wood quit Microsoft to pursue his mission of spreading education full-time. In its five and a half years, Room to Read has built 130 schools and 2,000 libraries, delivering nearly a million books and 1,600 girls’ scholarships, and helping 600,000 children in 2,300 villages.

There are about 850 million illiterate people in the world, one seventh of the population. Room to Read aims to help at least 10 million children, an “audacious” goal, Wood admitted. But a single cocktail party often yields enough money to build a school, he said, showing a Powerpoint slide of a small pastel blue building surrounded by green mountains and little else. The work sometimes requires running supplies along dirt roads or trekking across huge suspension bridges in the mountains in countries that have been ravaged by war or poverty or both.

The Chicago Global Citizens group plans to raise $30,000 by December 31 for Room to Read to cover most of the cost of building five libraries and a computer lab in Cambodia and publish a children’s book in the Khmer language. A student visit to Cambodia is set for spring break.

Wood encouraged future “social entrepreneurs” to ignore critics and “think big from day one.”

“People like people who are bold,” he said.

Mary Sue Penn