John Wood

Founder, Former CEO, and Board Co-Chair of Room to Read
John Wood
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At age 35, John Wood left an executive career track at Microsoft Corporation to form Room to Read, a nonprofit organization that “combines the heart of Mother Theresa with the scalability of Starbucks.” In fact Room to Read is one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in history, opening more libraries in its first decade than Starbucks did coffee shops. Razor-sharp business acumen honed at Microsoft combined with a passion to change the world makes John Wood a unique, inspiring, and popular speaker with universal appeal. Smart, quick, energetic, and inspiring, he addresses social entrepreneurship, business strategy, managing cross-cultural companies, and talent strategy.

Since its start, Room to Read has sponsored the opening of 1,675 schools and more than 15,000 multi-lingual libraries across the world. The organization has distributed over 13 million children’s books in multiple languages and supports 22,000 girls with long-term scholarships. It has also found and supported local authors and artists who have created more than 1000 titles. Wood describes these results as “total tip of the iceberg” as Room to Read is on track to increase this literacy network to 20,000 libraries and schools serving at least 10 million children by the year 2015. In presentations, he fires up audiences and challenges them to adapt more rapidly to a changing world. With heart-warming tales, he shares his model for massively scalable growth. His experience has made him an authority on overcoming the obstacles of culture, language, geography, and technology to grow a truly global organization, and his insights on the promises and pitfalls of rapid expansion – gleaned through experience, intuition, and trial and error – are sought by leaders everywhere.

Business Background at Work. Room to Read is among the elite two percent of charities that consistently (seven years running) receive four-star ratings from Charity Navigator. It owes much of this success to Wood’s expertise and founding principles: ROI maximization, massive scalability, and absolute transparency. In his award-winning memoir, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, John tells the story of how he raised over $125 million of financial commitments from a “standing start” to develop one of the fastest-growing non-profits in history. The book was described by Publishers’ Weekly in a starred review as “an infectiously inspiring read.” Translated into 21 languages, it was selected by as one of the “Top 10 Business Narratives of 2006” and voted by Hudson Booksellers as a “Top 10 Nonfiction Title of 2006.” He is working on his second book, Creating Room to Read.

Awards. Wood was twice named by Barron’s as one of the world’s 25 most effective philanthropists. He received a nod as one of Goldman Sach’s “100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2013” and is a five-time winner of the Fast Company Magazine and Monitor Group Social Capitalist Award. He was TIME magazine’s first non-Asian recipient of the “Asian Heroes” Award, and he is an advisor and a four-time speaker at the Clinton Global Initiative, a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, and a two-time winner of the Skoll Foundation Award for Social Innovation. He was selected as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum, profiled by the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) as one of “America’s Great Leaders, and was the second recipient of the Draper Richards Fellowship, America’s largest fellowship for early-stage social entrepreneurs. He also won the UNESCO Confucius Prize for his local literacy program and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Speaker Video

What the world needs GSD: John Wood at TEDxUNC

Leadership Lessons from the Front Lines of Social Change. In this presentation, John highlights the leadership lessons that can be learned from the front lines of social change. He contends that leaders must be continually disruptive – finding better ways to do business and challenging not only their organizations but themselves in a quest for continual improvement. His brand of leadership balances an uncompromising commitment to the bottom line with deep organizational humility – a willingness to acknowledge problems and consider solutions no matter the source. John Wood inspires audiences to think differently and more boldly about what they can accomplish as leaders. He insists that audacious goals attract audacious people, and that when they work together in an organization that inspires and recognizes innovation, there are no problems they can’t solve. Leadership is a subject on which John lectures at leading business schools, including University of Chicago, Harvard, Kellogg, Wharton and Stanford, and this is an increasingly popular topic amongst corporations, universities, and membership organizations.

Setting Great Expectations (And Finding Great People to Meet Them). In studying and working under great leaders, John Wood has come to believe that bold goals attract those with courage and self-confidence. The corollary is also true. When he started Room to Read and set the BHAG (Big, Hairy Audacious Goal) of reaching 10 million children by 2020, people thought he was crazy. But that bold goal attracted more 10,000 people to get involved, and he will now reach his BHAG in 2015, five years early. Room to Read’s core business is empowerment, a concept that applies as much to its staff and volunteers as to the millions of kids now pulling themselves out of poverty with freshly opened textbooks and minds. John explains how sharing ownership – over programs, outcomes, and ideas – has helped rally thousands of exceptional people to Room to Read’s banner. “I have never wanted to be the leader of an organization. I want to instead be one of many, many leaders of a global movement.”

The War For Talent. “If you are highly educated,” John says, “and you have both a global network and a track record of success, there are more opportunities available to you in this globalized world than ever before. That puts the onus on the employer to attract, motivate, and retain those talented people.” John shares the “five simple things” he does every week to help Room to Read win the war for talent – even though, as a non-profit, it can’t compete on salary, benefits, or other perks. Any organization whose leaders implement these five low-cost methods will yield immediate – and massive – ROI.

Doing More With Less. John talks with the audience about his own parents’ adage that “It’s a blessing to be born poor, because that makes you scrappy and entrepreneurial.” John applied that wisdom to boot-strapping Room to Read from the earliest days, with zero budget and zero fundraising experience. Whether he was borrowing office space, begging for frequent flier miles, or convincing global firms to donate free cement (Lafarge) and millions of children’s books (Scholastic), John lived the example he wanted every employee to internalize: “We can always do more with less.” Few other global change movements reached nearly 8 million children in their first 13 years. “It’s all the more special,” John says, “that we did this not as a well-funded foundation or a U.N agency but as a scrappy little start-up that originally didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. John’s first-person account of following his passion, and the lessons learned in doing so. He discusses what’s possible when a committed person dares to take risks and leave his or her comfort zone. It is a popular “inspiring close” or “bring people to their feet” dinner speech at corporate, industry, and education conferences.

Absolute Accountability. Most NGO’s hide their annual figures, or publish them grudgingly. Room to Read posts all financial statements to its website – not just for one year, but for the last six. It makes all external evaluator reports public as well, “warts and all.” As a result, Room to Read has earned top marks for transparency from Charity Navigator, and donors have come to appreciate – and reward – its radical approach to openness. John himself has written two best-selling books in which he’s not afraid to discuss “all the things I’ve screwed up.” Admitting his mistakes, he says, “gives others the freedom to take risks, knowing that our response when things don’t go as planned will be to laugh, forgive, learn a few lessons, and then get back onto the playing field to take another shot.”

Reaching Out To The World. Starting with very little social media knowledge, John has amassed 370,000 Twitter followers in just two years, building one of the charity world’s most popular profiles along the way. Today, he and his team coordinate a worldwide network of employees and volunteers, requiring a vast comprehensive communications effort that spans literacy levels, time zones, and technological gaps to get the job done and the message across.

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Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World