John Wood is the founder of Room to Read, an organization that believes World Change Starts with Educated Children.® Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in developing countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education.
At age 35, John left his position as Director of Business Development for Microsoft Greater China region to form Room to Read. The business acumen honed there, combined with his passion and an unparalleled track record at changing the world, makes John a unique and inspiring speaker with universal appeal.
John’s award-winning memoir, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children (Harper Collins, 2006), tells how he raised over $350 million from a “standing start” to develop one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in history. The book was described by Publishers’ Weekly in a starred review as “an infectiously inspiring read.” Translated into 20 languages, it is popular with entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and educators alike, and was selectedby Amazon.com as one of the Top Ten Business Narratives of 2006 and voted a Top Ten Nonfiction title of 2006 by Hudson Booksellers. The book was also featured during John’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show and the resulting “Oprah’s Book Drive” with Room to Read raised over $3 million from viewers.
John’s follow up book, Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy (Viking Penguin, 2013), tells the story of howthe organization successfully tackled the next steps of scaling beyondhis wildest dreams while maintaining integrity and raising money in a collapsing economy.
John has been named by Goldman Sachs as one of the world’s 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs, has been a three-time speaker at the Clinton Global Initiative and is a five-time winner of Fast Company Magazine’s Social Capitalist Award. He has been honored by Time Magazine’s “Asian Heroes” Award, selected as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum and is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. He was selected by Barron’s as one of the “25 Best Givers” in 2009 and 2010, ranking 11th and 9th on the list, respectively. In 2014, John won the World’s Children’s Honorary Award Laureate through the World’s Children’s Prize, the annual educational program for the rights of the child and democracy—often called the Children’s Nobel Prize. In recognitionof his passion to open libraries for the most under-served populations, he was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “the Andrew Carnegie of the developing world.”
John Wood holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Colorado, and honorary doctorates from McGill University and the University of San Francisco.
He also serves on the advisory board of the Clinton Global Initiative and is a frequent lecturer at Harvard Business School and at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy.
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10 Lessons Learned On the Way to Helping Ten Million Children
It takes a bold leader to publicly declare his intention to reach 10 million children with the lifelong gift of education. Especially when he is a newly unemployed former Microsoft executive without an organization behind him, or a single day of fundraising experience.
But based on his belief that bold goals attract bold people, John Wood set out to build a global movement. His rallying cry was that no child should be told “You were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you will therefore not gain an education.” The initial deadline for his ambitious goal was 2020. But Room to Read has scaled beyond his wildest dreams, and in 2015 the organization will reach their 10 million student.
John is often asked what lessons on leadership he has learned while building a global team and movement. In celebration of this year’s milestone, John has looked back and written a new presentation. Audiences will be inspired and motivated as they learn lessons from John’s journey, including:
Get Outside Your Comfort Zone: Wood was told that he had no business starting a global education movement, yet he did not let that stop him from traveling the world to pitch governments, investors, potential employees and volunteers to join the cause. He had to learn new skills, make cold calls, and be fearless about leaving his comfort zone each and every day.
Think Creatively: In a crowded media landscape it gets constantly harder to stand out, thus requiring companies to think creatively. Wood inspires audiences with his own campaigns, such as the time he commandeered a brand-new Cathay Pacific 777 as a promotional stunt called Literacy One, and how he turned the Burj Khalifa, the worlds tallest building, into the worlds highest “fundraising thermometer" with the help of Sheikh Mohammad.
Optimize Cause-Related Marketing: John and his team were early pioneers in launching creative and inspiring cause-related marketing campaigns. With modern companies feeling increased pressure to thrill their customers, attract talent and motivate employees, many have found CRM campaigns to be a win-win that helps them to “do well, while also doing good”. John will highlight case studies of how Room to Read has worked with companies as wide-ranging as skincare, technology start-ups and investment banks. One example: how a small but growing software firm turned a small spark of a promotional campaign idea into >$5 million of support for Room to Read, while simultaneously using the campaign to attract and motivate talented engineers.
Innovate: One problem Wood’s team faced early is that for-profit publishers don’t publish many books in languages spoken by the world’s poorest people. So the team took on a new challenge, finding and training local authors and artists to be “the Dr. Seuss and JK Rowling’s of their generation”. Today, Room to Read is “the biggest children’s publisher you’ve never heard of”, having published over 1,000 original titles in 25 languages.
What Gets Measured, Gets Done: The Room to Read team has been fanatical about measuring all aspects of the organization’s metrics – from overhead ratios to reading scores to the number of books the average student checks out of one of Room to Read’s 18,000 libraries. John even used a data-driver approach to challenge his team to open libraries at a faster rate than Starbucks opened coffee shops – and they succeeded!
Don’t Forget (or disempower) the Women: There is a lot of talk about hiring and empowering women, but not enough action. From the beginning, John and the founding team set out to recruit and empower thousands of women to join Room to Read as executives, employees, Board members, and volunteers. He worked with his Board to bring on a strong second generation female CEO, and today half of Room to Read’s 1,000+ employees are women. Wood often says that “when the world is full of a generation of educated, empowered and butt-kicking women, that’s when things change”
Never be afraid to ask for the order: When Wood was surprised with a phone call offering him every author’s dream – – an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show – – he initially pushed back. Why? He insisted to the producers that they needed to be a fund raising component built in to his television appearance. He negotiated hard against initial resistance and skepticism. The result was history -- Oprah's Book Drive for Room to Read was announced on-air by Oprah herself (next to a grinning founder), and raised over $4 million.
Make Cost Cutting Fun: It’s hard to get a team to be excited about cost cutting, but John has found a way. Room to Read has pioneered a unique approach to cost control that has earned it the distinction of being rated in the top 1% of U.S. charities for economic efficiency and transparency. It all started with his famous “No Land Rovers” policy, and evolved rapidly from there as a team sport.
Embrace social media and use it as a competitive weapon: Like many executives, Wood was originally perplexed by the rise in social media. But that did not stop his team from convincing the co-founders of Twitter to make Room to Read their first corporate social innovation partner. Wood is now one of the most followed charity leaders in social media. Combined with the Room to Read account, they’ve built a following of over 1 million. Wood will share ideas for company’s products and services stand out in a crowded field.
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