Room to Read is Born: 1998 – 2000
It all started with a case of job burnout. As an overworked Microsoft executive, John Wood escaped to Nepal for a much-needed backpacking getaway. While hiking in the Himalayas, John met a Nepalese “Education Resource Officer” who invited him to visit a school in a neighboring village. Little did John know that this short detour would change his life forever. At the school, John saw the harsh reality confronting not only this village, but millions of Nepalese children–a dilapidated schoolroom and a severe shortage of books. John was stunned to discover that the few books this school had had–a Danielle Steele romance, the Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia, and a few other backpacker castoffs–were so precious that they were kept under lock and key...to protect them from the children!
As John left the village, the headmaster made a simple request: "Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books." His request would not go unheard. John emailed friends asking for help collecting children's books, and within two months had collected over 3,000 books. The following year, John and his father, accompanied by a train of eight book-bearing donkeys, returned to the village in Nepal. Seeing the faces of the children with the books convinced John to leave the corporate world and devote himself to becoming the Andrew Carnegie of the developing world. In late 1999, John quit his executive position with Microsoft and started Room to Read.
Beginning in Nepal, John and his Nepali Co-Founder, Dinesh Shrestha, started by working with rural communities to build schools (School Room) and establish libraries (Reading Room).
Growth and Expansion: 2001 - 2005
John and co-founder, Dinesh Shrestha, quickly recognized the need to expand the scope of work beyond libraries and wanted to address the fact that many girls in the developing world are overlooked in the educational system due to cultural bias. To that end, in 2000 Room to Read began the Girls' Education program which targets young girls and provides a long-term commitment to their education.
In 2001, Erin Ganju joined the team as Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer (now Chief Executive Officer) and was instrumental in our expansion into Vietnam, at which point the organization became officially "Room to Read." With growing demand for our programs, John and Erin worked together to further expanded our work in Cambodia in 2002, followed by India in 2003.
Children’s books in local languages were very difficult to find, and in 2003, Room to Read launched the Local Language Publishing program. The colorful books, written and illustrated by local authors and illustrators, together with donated English-language books, now fill the shelves of libraries and schools.
A year later we celebrated one of our first major programmatic milestones by opening our 1,000th library in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Later that year, just days after the December 24th Asian tsunami devastated thousands of villages, we made the bold decision to launch operations in Sri Lanka and help this community rebuild itself.
In 2005, Room to Read expanded into our sixth Asian country, Laos. And, on September 2nd, we opened our 2,000th library, once again in Cambodia–less than 18 months after our 1,000th library ceremony. We ended 2005, with another big milestone–the donation of our millionth book!
Scalable and Successful: 2006 & beyond
Room to Read experienced a year of expansion in 2006–both in awareness of the organization and geography of its work. John’s memoir, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World was published by Random House and was an important vehicle for sharing the Room to Read story. The book received extensive media coverage and is now available in 18 languages through the world. Also in 2006, Room to Read finished a five-year strategic plan and expanded to a new continent–Africa–initially in South Africa in 2006, followed by Zambia a year later.
Following major media exposure with John's appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007, Room to Read took another bold step at the Clinton Global Initiative by announcing a commitment to double the programmatic reach by building 10,000 bilingual libraries by the year 2010. Part of that commitment included launching the Room to Dream campaign to help us reach that ambitious goal.
In 2008, Room to Read began laying plans for expanding into Bangladesh and successfully started operations there in 2009. Looking ahead to the next decade, in 2009 Room to Read conducted a thorough and participatory strategic planning process to articulate our goals for the next decade and beyond. This plan, Envisioning Our Future: A Roadmap for Learning, was released in 2010 and it presents our future organizational vision and sharpens our focus to two objectives: Literacy and Gender Equality in Education.
As part of our focus on Literacy, Room to Read began piloting a Reading & Writing Instruction program in 2008, designed to fill gaps in early grade literacy curriculum that exist in many of the countries where we work. Through teacher training, material development and the support of literacy facilitators in classrooms, we have seen great improvement in children's reading levels, and rolled out the program to all of our countries of operation.
In 2012, we also began operations in Tanzania, our tenth country of operation. Now operating in thousands of communities across Asia and Africa, we maintain a laser-sharp focus on program quality and continue to invest heavily in measurment and evaluation.