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John Wood, Founder of Room to Read, Discusses Literacy In Developing Nations

By Hamna M. Nazir, Contributing Writer

Before an audience of students, professors, and other members of the Harvard community, John Wood, founder and board co-chair of Room to Read, discussed his experiences founding the educational non-profit and laid out key lessons about social entrepreneurship and leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Monday.

During the talk, Wood emphasized the importance of education in improving not only individual lives, but also the general welfare of a nation.

“Education is what provides economic lift-off for developing nations,” Wood said.

According to its website, Room to Read, an award-winning non-profit organization that focuses on improving gender equality and literacy in the developing world, has built 1,681 schools, established 15,320 libraries, and has benefited 7.8 million children to date since its establishment in 1999. Wood said that the organization is on track to achieve its goal of helping 10 million children receive an education by 2020.

After discussing the non-profit’s humble beginnings as a “bootstrap” with no employees, no money, no academic expertise, and no experience, Wood presented his “12 key lessons of the last 12 years,” offering general advice on running a social enterprise. Among the strategies discussed included the importance of strong, entrepreneurial local teams.

“You can’t get things done in a local context if you don’t have people who understand the history, the culture, and the language,” Wood said.

Wood added that the organization implemented this strategy by drawing 85 percent of its employees locally and nationally, as well as publishing 887 books in the mother tongue of the nations in which it serves.

“We want to build as much indigenous capacity as possible,” Wood said, adding that the strategy has made these institutions sustainable by giving local communities a sense of ownership.

Wood also outlined the power of storytelling in attracting potential donors.

“People don’t remember the words you speak. They remember how your words made [them] feel,” Wood said. “What we try to do is tell the stories that invite people in by showing the promise and potential.”

When asked to give advice on social enterprise specific to college and graduate students, Wood stressed the importance of passion and work ethic.

“Most of the really big things that have happened around social change have been inserted by people who didn’t really know what they were doing, but they had the passion and the work ethic,” Wood said.

Allison G. Celosia, a student at the Graduate School of Education, said she “enjoyed the discussion.”

“John Wood is able to harness the energy of his organization share that with an audience anywhere,” Celosia said.

The seminar, which was part of the South Asia Institute at Harvard University’s social enterprise seminar series, was co-sponsored by SAI and The International Education Policy Program.

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