How John Wood Left Microsoft to Change the World

I wrote this post back in 2010 in my original blog, I decided to repost it here since it’s a really inspiring book for me, especially now that I’m thinking of a special birthday project later this year.

Last month, I decided that I won’t buy new books until I’ve read all the books on my shelf! But I came across one book that I couldn’t resist buying: John Wood’s Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. It is 278 pages long but I read it in just six days! It was so interesting and attention grabbing that I couldn’t help but be drawn to the book.

This book presents John Wood’s account of how he founded Room to Read, a non-profit organization that provides books, classrooms and computer rooms in developing countries, particularly Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and South Africa among others. John Wood showed amazing transformational leadership in the realm of social entrepreneurship!

The life-changing 3-week vacation

It all started with a three-week trek in Nepal. John Wood was enjoying a great career at Microsoft’s Australia office. Nice house. Nice car. Demanding but rewarding career! What more could he ask for? Yet, after years of working, he had to take a three-week break to recapture his energies. He spent those three weeks trekking in Nepal.

John Wood met a headmaster named Pasupathi who told him about Nepal’s very high illiteracy rate. Pasupathi then offered to tour John Wood to the schools that he was supervising. It took several hours of walking and climbing.

Along the way, John Wood saw the dismal plight of the educational system in Nepal—the lack of desks, the dismal lack of libraries and books that students could use. He wondered how he can help them.

After that, some students and teachers asked him to come back with books!

As he went through his three-week vacation, he kept thinking about how to come back with books. He simply could not imagine a childhood without books!

Pursue your passion! Act on your dream right away!

Throughout the book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, Wood keeps saying that if you want to change the world, don’t wait until you have it all figured out! By the time your plan is perfect, the world shall have moved and passed you by.

Right before leaving Kathmandu to return to his job, he sent an email to his friends asking for books or for donations that could be used to purchase books or cover the cost of shipping the books to Nepal.

With his initial project, he got a total of 37 books! The next year, he and his father Woody went to Nepal together to bring the books there. By this time, John Wood felt that he could do infinitely more for the cause of education in the country.
A conviction was forming in his heart that this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life!

Say goodbye to your previous life.

A series of events led John Wood to rethink his present relationship with Microsoft. He was moved to China. Some of his plans for Microsoft in China didn’t achieve the results he wanted. His live-in girlfriend did not share his passion for helping the developing world and his parents told him of the continued support for his efforts in getting books for Nepal.

Eventually, he decided to leave Microsoft for good and pursue the path of his passion! He said:

“I knew that I had to free myself from any constraints that would prevent the pursuit of these dreams.”

Those dreams were no longer for himself but for the eradication of illiteracy in the developing world. In essence, it was a bold move for him to change the world!

It was a painful decision for him to make. His immediate supervisor in China and his girlfriend felt betrayed because of his decision. But John Wood knew that the path of dreams is not easy and would require a little sacrifice from him.

Calculate the cost of pursuing your passion.

Before he left Microsoft though, he made an important calculation. He looked at the level of his savings. At the Microsoft stocks he owned and listed the adjustments he had to make.

If you want to be a transformational leader or a leader who wants to change the world, you need to calculate the cost of pursuing your passion. You don’t want to start now and then quit after six months because you realize it is a difficult road to take!

Establish the Foundation!

This means two things: you lay the foundation in which you will be working and secondly, you need to put up a non-profit organization that would be the vehicle of the change you want to accomplish.

John Wood established Books for Nepal, which was eventually renamed to Room to Read right after he realized he didn’t only want to help Nepal but other developing countries as well.

He did some research about how to put up his organization. What kind of tax classification he needed to attain and how he can raise funds for his operations. It was a one-man show at first but he eventually found a strong second-in-command and eventually, Room to Read grew to over fifty staff people in several countries.

Dream boldly. Set high goals!

Right at the start of his foray into the non-profit world, John Wood aimed for the stars. He proclaimed bold targets and, in a sense, world domination!

He said that if you proclaim bold goals and work towards them, you attract the best people and the best supporters who will help you achieve those goals.

The people who contacted John Wood to help in launching Room to Read in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Cambodia were passionate people who saw what he was doing! They simply wanted to be part of something great and something big! They then contributed to making Room to Read expand beyond Nepal.

Get the right people.

If you get the right people, you will not have to worry about motivating them or coercing them to work! You simply define the results and let them go! In this case, you maximize their creativity while focusing on the things that need your attention.

Room to Read attracted bold people and ambitious people who truly wanted to change the world.

Give others the chance to change the world.

Not everyone can quit their jobs to follow their dreams. John Wood recognized that. Which is why, he decided to give them a chance to help in his advocacy by donating for his cause.

A lot of business people, employees and even pre-teen kids contributed their help for Room to Read! His account showed that if you do pursue your dream and let other people know, they will help you out.

A lot of times, John Wood said that the universe conspires to make your dreams come true if you only pursue them wholeheartedly!

Aim for low overhead costs.

John Wood did not take a salary for his work as CEO of Room to Read. Instead, he opted for low overhead cost so as to maximize the provision of programs and books to the countries where Room to Read operates.

This meant using his rental house as the first office. He did not hire staff as quickly as he wanted. Yet, he did not sacrifice the quality of the services delivered by Room to Read. A low overhead cost would mean that more money would go to books, classrooms and libraries.

Be transparent. Show the direct correlation between money given and results.

If there’s one thing that non-profit organizations should learn from John Wood and Room to Read, it is to be transparent and show the direct correlation between the money given and the results.

Room to Read’s model was that donors were sponsoring for one school or one library. This way, they can easily see the results through pictures and the number of children benefiting from those classrooms, libraries and computer rooms!

This principle would also attract more people to give to the cause of the organization.

Change the world one school and one library at a time.

To date, Room to Read has put up 1,129 schools and 9,196 libraries. They have published 433 books in the local languages of countries where they operate; they have distributed 7.4 million books! Sponsored 8,725 scholarships for girls and all in all, they have benefited 4.1 million children all over the world.

Who would have thought that Room to Read could grow this big! Right at the first steps of building this non-profit organization, John Wood was dead serious about reaching the world and growing big to combat illiteracy around the world!

Your turn to pursue your dream!

John Wood’s story is very touching! He let go of his personal comfort—his high paying job at Microsoft and even a romantic relationship—just to pursue his passion of helping put books in the hands of children all over the world!

I suggest you get a copy of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. It can inspire and challenge you to do something out of the ordinary.

You may not be able to afford to leave your job for some social entrepreneurship but there are numerous opportunities for people to help in making the world a better place.

Please do check out the Room to Read website and the book of John Wood for more information and more inspiration!

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