NARRATOR: John Wood is the founder and board co-chair of Room to Read, a global nonprofit organization focused on literacy and gender equality in education throughout Asia and Africa. In 1998, after a trek in the Himalayas brought him face-to-face with extreme poverty and illiteracy, John left his position as a Director of Business at Microsoft to found Room to Read. Since 2000, Room to Read has impacted the lives of more than 6.7 million children by providing increased access to high quality educational opportunities and to date has opened 1,600 schools and over 13,000 bilingual libraries. John has received countless honors for his work, including recognition as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and as one of Time magazine's Asian heroes. He continues to dedicate his life to bringing the amazing gift of literacy to millions of kids around the world.
JOHN WOOD: My abrupt U-turn in life started in 1998. I went off to this incredible trek in Nepal, the Annapurna circuit, 18 days of trekking. When I got there, I didn't expect that it would be a life altering trip. I just thought I was going to be out and walk 200 miles over the course of 18 days with a backpack on my back and enjoy the beauty and the serenity of the Himalayas.
What happened to me, however, was I ended up meeting a headmaster drinking tea by the side of the trail, and he said, come see my school. And I got excited. I thought this would be a chance to see the real Nepal, not the trekkers or the tourist Nepal.
The school, like many schools in the developing world, was pretty dilapidated. They had dirt floors. They didn't have desks for the children. The sheet metal roof leaked during the three-month rainy season, turning the dirt floors to mud.
The headmaster then said, let's go see the school's library. And I got excited. I'm proud to say I was a library nerd as a kid, and I thought the library would be the happy part of the tour, right? The scene itself was pretty sad. It was a big empty room where theoretically a library could have existed, but they didn't have any books.
And I said to the headmaster, how can this be? And he said, well, we have some books. And if you see in the back, there is a cabinet that has a padlock on it. And he said, the books are so precious. There are so few, we must protect them from the children. Fans of irony, note this. We are protecting the books from the children.
But when he opened the cabinet, they probably had about 20 or 25 books, and they were mostly backpacker castoffs. They were things that trekkers had left behind. I said, this doesn't make sense to me. You have 450 children coming to school. You get it that you need a library. You've actually allocated the room. You don't have books.
And the headmaster said, well in Nepal, we are too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we are always going to be poor. And that struck me as the cruelest irony I could possibly imagine. Too poor to afford it, but if you don't have it you're always going to remain poor.
Now thankfully, the headmaster, like me, was an action-oriented optimist, and he spoke a sentence that would forever change my adult life. Chapter 1 of my book is titled, "Perhaps Sir, You Will Someday Come Back with Books." This was his simple request. You'll come back maybe, and you'll help us to open the library.
And I got excited because like many of you, I want to do good things for the world. And this just was an opportunity served up on a silver platter, saying, this is waiting for you, John. There's 450 kids. Find a way to come back.
And we're really excited about where we are. We're more excited about where we're going. Because what we've done so far is a drop in the ocean compared to what we plan to do in the next 10 years. But it's fun to pause and to celebrate and to recognize where we are today.
I'm really proud of the fact that every day 17,000 girls can wake up and put on their school uniform and grab their backpack and walk to school with pride in their face. Or take their bicycle that we provided and ride to school and go to school each and every day. I believe the world is so much better when we bring educational equality to both genders and eliminate the idea that any girls [? limit ?] is not going to go to school because of her gender.
We're super excited about the success these girls have, year after year after year. Last year, 97% of our girls passed to the next grade, which is pretty incredible because if you're born as a girl in a rural village in one of the world's 50 poorest countries to illiterate parents, you have four strikes against you. Yet these girls do not think that way. They think like all of us think. They think give me that book. Give me that exam. Let me add it.
That abrupt U-turn I made was made for a right reason. It was not without its risks. It was not without its trepidation. It was not without a lot of people telling me that I was fairly crazy.
And now we want to play for bigger stakes. And I no longer think that 10 million is the goal. 10 million kids by 2015 is the short-term goal.
The longer term goal is bigger. The longer term goal is better. The longer term goal for us is very, very simple. We want to end the notion, eliminate the idea that any child can be told, you were born in the wrong place at the wrong time to the wrong parents, and you therefore did not get educated.
We believe that idea belongs in a scrap heap of human history. We believe that every child should be told, you were born in the right place at the right time because we were there for you, to look out for you. And it was no longer acceptable to say a child was born in rural Africa, therefore they do not get educated. We have to reach as many of those kids as possible and as many places as possible and not stop till every kid is reached, till every child is reached. Thank you. Thank you very, very much.