Saturday, May 5, 2012

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

Author:         John Wood
Published:   2008
Publisher:    Collins
Paperback: 284 pages

In late 1990s the author John Wood ,then a Marketing Director in Microsoft, was on a three weeks  trekking vacation in Nepal.
He came across a school in a remote village. The school had 450  students . But all it had in the name of a library  was a miserable collection of  20 odd books which included -a Danielle Steel romance, an Umberto Ecco novel in Italian, a Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia, a copy of "Finnegans Wake" ! Certainly not what you would expect to see in a school library.  It was obvious that the collection had been put together using books discarded by the previous trekkers. These books were both physically (the books were kept in a locked cupboard !) and intellectually out of school children's reach.
The headmaster of the school had a strong desire to inculcate the habit of reading among the students but was seriously hampered by lack of resources to build a good school library. He told the author "Perhaps, sir, you will someday comeback with books."
This sentence changed John Wood's life forever. It deeply moved him. He contacted nearly 100 friends and made a strong appeal to them to donate books for the school. This campaign was a huge success and thus the foundations of a massive social entrepreneurship undertaking  now known as "Room to Read" were laid.

Room to Read's mission is to provide opportunity for under-privileged children to gain the gift of education. Its strategy includes:
  • Partnering with villages to build schools
  • Establishing libraries and filling them with donated English books and local-language books published by it.
  • Providing computer and language labs to improve employment skills, and
  • Providing scholarships for under-privileged young girls who cannot afford fees that are required of all students, even those attending public schools.
To ensure the likelihood for success and long -term sustainability, Room to Read enlists community involvement and co-investment. Instead of  just doling out funds in a condescending manner , Room to Read believes in making the beneficiary earn it by working in partnership with Room to Read. Thus it preserves the dignity of the beneficiary and also teaches them to take care of themselves in future. 

Till date (May 2012)  Room to Read  has helped build over 1500 schools and 13,000 libraries and benefited about 6 million children of Third World countries like Nepal, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa and Tanzania.

This book tells  how it all happened. It has three parts.

Part 1 - Discovering Nepal; Leaving Microsoft: In this part Wood talks about how he discovered a pathetic school library during his vacation and helped in enriching it with children's books with the help of his father and friends. He also tells  how  after debating a lot he walked away from  Microsoft and also suffered a break-off  from his girl friend who did not share his passion for the ambitious child education mission he wanted to undertake.

Part II -  Starting Over: This part deals with the early days of Room to Read after Wood left Microsoft and how he built the organization making full use of lessons and skills he learned in Microsoft (especially from Steve Ballmer).

Part III - Hitting Our Stride: How 'Room to Read' expanded its operations through numerous fund raising campaigns is the main theme of this part.

All the chapters in this book narrate several touching stories  of how the author received help from various sources and how hard some under-privileged people work for a better education. Some of the chapters in this book  have a side-box to highlight  a  success story or a lesson learned or some tips on entrepreneurship.
The book has also several heartwarming  photographs of smiling children whose life have been positively impacted by Room to Read programs.

This book is an  inspiring and fascinating saga of Room to Read with doses of humor sprinkled in it. It is also a sort of post-Microsoft autobiography of the author. The author comes out as an ambitious, passionate and sincere person dedicated to the cause. It is a very noble cause indeed and everybody who is involved in this organization has to be admired at.

A must read for  entrepreneurs, educationists , social workers and anyone who cares for children !

Key takeaways from this book:
  •  "You are old enough to know that the only person  you have to satisfy in life is yourself. Do what you think is the right thing to do and get used to answering only to yourself" - Advice given by author's father when the author  was a school kid.
  • "Look , there are two ways to remove a Band-Aid: slowly and painfully, or quickly and painfully. Your choice." - A friend's advice to the author when he was debating whether to leave Microsoft.
  • Most people in the nonprofit world hate to ask others for money. They need to get past this barrier, quickly or their organization will suffer.
  •  5 Core principles which Wood  reviews  before meeting with prospective donors:
    1. Play up the fact that the donors, who would have been helped in their own life by education, now have the opportunity to give that same gift back to hundreds of children in the developing world.
    2. Show the donors a direct connection between what they give and what gets done as a result.
    3. Keep the overhead for running  Room to Read low, so donors will know that 90 percent on the dollars goes to the projects, not to administrative and fund-raising expenses.
    4. Passion sells. There is not enough of it in the world, so when people meet a passionate individual, that person really stands out.
    5. People are looking for more meaning in their lives. Funding education provides a great feeling that you have helped to change the world for better.
  • Hope and Optimism, Not Doom and Gloom - Some charities find it effective to show photos of a child covered in flies, or a malnourished family lying in  dust. These images negate the inherent dignity of each human being. Guilt should not be used as a marketing tool. This is also in the financial interest of the charity because potential donors want hope and optimism in their lives. They want to see solutions. If we accost them with images of a poor person, they are likely to be sad, but may not take action. If you instead present a photo of a kid from the inner city in his graduation cap and gown, a little girl smiling as a result of a successful cleft palate operation, or farmers in Honduras using their new well, then people are more likely to share in that optimism by donating to the cause.
  • Think Big from Day One - There is a saying at Microsoft - "Go big or go home" - and this lies at the heart of John Wood's advice to anyone who wants to create change. The problems facing the world today are immense. This is not a time for incremental thinking. If a cause is worth devoting your time to, you owe it to yourself - and those you will serve - to think in a big way. Thinking big can be self-fulfilling prophecy, because bold goals will attract bold people.
  • Every entrepreneur needs a strong second-in-command.
  • The positive and proactive forces in this universe will always defeat the dark and nihilistic ones. We simply must create spaces in which concerned citizens are offered a way to take action.
  • Lessons learned from Microsoft  that helped the author :
    • Intense Focus on Results - Rather than talking about what we are going to do, talk about what we have done.
    • You cannot attack a person, but you can attack an idea.
    •  Be data-driven. Passionately study every facet of your operations to such a degree that related facts and figures are seared into your brian.
    • Be loyal to those who work for you
  • True change requires mass participation, because one person writing a large check is never enough. Rely more on small contributions from large number of people rather than a few big donations from a small number of  donors.
  • True entrepreneurs are not afraid to declare to the world that they are going to fill a market gap or offer a new product or service, even if they are not yet entirely sure how they are going to do so. They simply take the leap. 
  • The hope that comes through education, the belief that in schooling lies the key to a brighter tomorrow - those are ubiquitous throughout so much of the developing world.
  • "Do not wish anything to be what you are, and try to be that perfectly" - A quote from St. Francis de Sales, which a friend of the author wrote on his birthday card.
  • Social Entrepreneurship - Social entrepreneurship is the melding of the best practices of the business world with the social focus of the charitable sector. Social entrepreneurs embrace ideas like reporting on their results, measuring the return on their investments, keeping their overhead expenses low, and constantly improving their programs.
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