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Life After Options
Robyn Meredith, 11.24.03
A Hike in Nepal Made John Wood Think a Microsoft Career Wasn't So Important After All
John Wood was two days into an 18-day trek along Nepal's Annapurna Circuit when he stopped for tea. At the teahouse he met a teacher who invited him to visit his village school. What shocked Wood was the library. "Where are the books?" he asked.
The answer to that question led Wood to ditch a nine-year career at Microsoft--and options worth seven figures in a good year--to start a new career running a San Francisco nonprofit group that builds literacy in some of the world's poorest places.
It turned out that the Nepalese town's school library had a cabinet full of books, mostly castoffs from backpackers like himself. But because books were so precious, they were locked inside. So at a cybercafe in Kathmandu, Wood sent an e-mail to 100 friends, telling the story of the library, saying he'd promised to send books and asking them to mail him books for Nepal. "I thought I'd get 100 or 200 books," said Wood.
A couple of months later he was back in Nepal to deliver the books--all 3,000 of them. How do you get 38 boxes of books to a Himalayan town that is two days' walk from the end of paved roads? You ship them to Kathmandu, truck them to where the road ends, lash them to eight mules and start walking. Two days later hundreds of Nepalese children greeted Wood and his mule train with garlands made of marigolds.
"I loved working at Microsoft, but something in me absolutely snapped on that trip," says Wood, who was director of business development for Microsoft in Beijing at the time. "I'd sit at my desk, and I didn't have passion for my work anymore. The bonus didn't mean anything to me. The stock options didn't mean anything."
So he quit in late 1999. He walked away from unvested options with strike prices as low as US$1, at a time when the stock was trading in the mid-40s. He says he never did calculate exactly how much money he left on the table. "If I had, I would have probably not had the courage to leave. It was too big a number," he says.
Wood thought it would be easy: just open his card file and ask his friends and business associates to invest. Most of those in his file said no. Friends thought he was crazy to leave Microsoft. And who invests in a startup charity?
Four years later he has expanded Room to Read from Nepal to include Vietnam, Cambodia and India. The charity has built 63 village schools. It has stocked 700 libraries with 300,000 books--half in English and half in local languages. In towns with electricity it has built 22 computer labs and language labs. And it has raised enough money for scholarships to send 412 girls to school for ten years in countries where families who can't afford the fees for public schools usually send only boys.
He's the kind of guy whose idea of effective fundraising is taking prospects on a long run, then talking over a couple of beers. That worked on Thomas Romary, vice president of marketing at Alaska Airlines. After hearing about Room to Read from a fellow mountain climber, Romary turned his planned ascent of Cho Oyu in the Himalayas into a fundraiser. He made it to the 26,906-foot summit, raising US$10,000, then trekked to the villages where his two schools would be built with the money.
Five months later two rural Nepalese schools had clean, well-lit classrooms, new desks and libraries full of books. Before, they had had dirt floors. One was short on windows but had a missing wall to let in light.
Wood, who is 39 and has no children of his own, made mistakes along the way. No more book donations from individuals. "People sent us a crossword puzzle book with the answers already filled in," he says. Instead publishers and booksellers like Amazon.com donate books in bulk. Scholastic donated 40,000 children's books last month. Microsoft and some employees have sponsored schools and libraries.
Corruption has been an occasional problem, especially in Vietnam. In Northern Vietnam one town's officials demanded US$100 to allow Room to Read to build a computer lab there. Room to Read built elsewhere. Another town asked the charity to pay expenses for a town elder to fly to a boondoggle conference in Washington, D.C. No dice. Wood gave in to one request: A town asked the charity to donate 100 pounds of rice in addition to paying for a library.
To keep an eye on the money, Wood, his staff and investors go back to schools and libraries the charity has paid for once they've been built. If they want to know how well a school is doing, they ask the parents, not the teachers. To Wood it is the same quality control he saw in the business world. "I asked myself, what would [Microsoft boss Steven] Ballmer do?" says Wood.
To keep costs down and local responsibility high, Wood has hired just 14 paid employees--2 are in the San Francisco headquarters and the rest in countries where the charity operates. So far Wood hasn't taken a salary. The charity's overhead runs at a rock-bottom 5.3% of donations. This year Room to Read collected US$1.3 million in cash investments and US$1.2 million in kind, mostly books from publishers. The charity requires villages to contribute half the resources required to build schools or libraries, such as land or labor.
Wood's goal is to help educate 10 million kids in 20 countries. He is 2.5% of the way there, the equivalent of a half-day's walk on the Annapurna trail.
Source: Room to Read
|This year Room to Read has collected US$1.3 million in cash investments and US$1.2 million in kind, mostly books from publishers.|
|Room to Read projects||Cost||Number|
|Build a school||US$5,000||63|
|Stock a library||1,000||700|
|Computer lab or language lab||12,000||22|
|Ten-year scholarship for one girl||2,500||412|