Saturday, November 11, 2006

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

When I began reading Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children, I was a bit skeptical. The book was recommended by a staff member at the Tattered Cover, my wife's favorite bookstore in the world, and it seemed to play right into an increasingly idealistic businessman's interests. However, I was turned off by the inside back cover, which gave a brief biographical sketch of author John Wood:

After earning an MBA at the prestigious Kellogg School of Management, John Wood worked for several years in banking before joining Microsoft in 1991. Through hard work and determination, he ascended rapidly, earning coveted overseas assignments in Australia and China...

"This guy sure likes to toot his own horn," I thought, as I started reading the book on a drive to visit my in-laws one week ago. A few pages in, I was already sharing a number of brief passages with my wife, and she asked me to continue reading to her. By the end of the first chapter, I was choked up with emotion and could not read aloud any longer. Looking back at the back cover, I can only imagine that either John or his publisher wanted people to realize that this was a very accomplished person who chose to channel his talents and energy into a better cause. Maybe they thought it would inspire others to do great things, or perhaps they thought people would give more credibility to his non-profit. The inside back cover still sounds pretentious to me, but then again, after finishing the book I'm now a huge fan of John Wood and his Room to Read non-profit.

Seven years into his career with Microsoft, John was somewhat burned out by climbing the corporate ladder, and he often had chosen not to take vacation days or holidays because he was so absorbed by his work. On the advice of a friend, he decided to go on a three-week trekking trip in Nepal. While there, he met a school administrator who made John aware that 70% of people in Nepal are illiterate. John had the opportunity to visit one of the schools the administrator oversaw, where he noticed the library had no books on its shelves. When he inquired about the lack of books, he was taken to a small closet, where ~20 books were locked up to avoid damage or theft. Titles included a Danielle Steele romance novel and The Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia, clearly both left behind by other trekkers, but also clearly not appropriate educational material for young children in Nepal. Before John left the school, the headmaster said "Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books."

That experience was on day one or two of his trek, and by the end of three weeks trekking and thinking about what he could do to help, he went to a cybercafe in Kathmandu and appealed to his friends and family for help. He hoped for perhaps 300 books to donate to Nepal, but instead he got 3,000. The following year, he and his father delivered the books, and upon seeing the reaction of the children and the local community, he knew he had to quit his job and provide greater help to the people of Nepal. John calculated that he could live without a salary for four years, and he quit his job before having his whole plan worked out.

John noted that Andrew Carnegie "used his wealth to set up over 2,000 public libraries across North America. Three generations after his death, they were continuing to pay dividends...I did not possess Carnegie's wealth. But I had a thirty-year head start on him." John was 35 when he began his quest to educate the children of Nepal. In 2000, he founded Room to Read, a 501(c)3 charity which today has operations in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, India, South Africa, and of course, Nepal. In 2006, only its sixth year in operation, his organization will pass the 3,000 mark for number of libraries established in the developing world. That's amazing to me.

If I were to suggest reading either Mountains Beyond Mountains or Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, I'd have a tough time deciding. (I still need to post an entry on Mountains Beyond Mountains). They're both incredibly inspiring books to me. Here's the easy solution -- if you're like me, once you pick up either book, it will be hard to set it down. You'll probably be finished with one in a week, at which time you can pick the other one up. Happy reading!


Anonymous said...

thank you for youd king words about my book - it's an honor to be compared to Mountains Beyond of my favorites!

warmest regards from O'Hare
John Wood

Chetan said...

Hi Ryan,
Thanks for sharing this nice and noble work to people. i am restless to read the book from the time i came to know about the same. I want to join that organisation, room to read.

Thanks again.

Ryan said...


Check out the volunteer link at If there's not already a chapter in your area, you could start one.