My Three-Phrase Philosophy for Changing the World Through Education

by John Wood, Founder, Room to Read

As we celebrate the milestone of reaching our 10 millionth student, I’ve been thinking about how we got here in just fifteen fast-paced years. I believe much of this goes back to our founding DNA. From the day we launched Room to Read we’ve been driven by three sayings we’ve built into our work ethic. If you spend even a day around me you’ve heard at least one of them (for which, apologies). And they’re not just sayings — they are our core philosophy that helps keep us motivated and focused on what’s important as we strive to change the world through the power of education for millions of children.

Bold goals attract bold people

I love “big, hairy, audacious goals” — or BHAG — which is a saying I borrowed from Jim Collins’ classic book Built to Last. Erin, Dinesh and I took this phrase to heart when we founded Room to Read and set the bold goal of reaching 10 million children by 2020. We had to go big because of the need: 250 million kids are not receiving a quality education and nearly 800 million people worldwide cannot read. Here’s the amazing part: Today we’re celebrating this very milestone five years early! Now that’s some serious BHAGing. And for those who helped us get here — a hearty and sincere thank you!

Room to Read Co-founders Dinesh Shrestha, John Wood and Erin Ganju visit the Room to Read partner library at Sophy Primary School during our celebration in Cambodia this November 13, celebrating reaching 10 million children across 10 countries

Erin, Dinesh and I knew from the start that to reach 10 million children we needed to bring on the best and the brightest people who possessed our driving passion for education. One thing I am proud of is the global movement we created that now has more than 10,000 volunteers from around the world who help us raise awareness and funds in over 50 cities. And then there’s our staff: over 1,000 of the most passionate people you will ever meet, 87% of whom come from the communities where we work. These are talented individuals driven to give back to their countries, to improve education for the children in their homeland.

Allow me to tell you about one of these individuals: Mr. Kall Kann, our country director in Cambodia. I’m thrilled to be celebrating our 10 million milestone with him this week in Siem Reap.

Room to Read’s Country Director in Cambodia Kall Kann on what education means for Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge

Kall was 12 years old when the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia. Both of his parents were killed in the genocide. Kall fled into the jungle to hide though eventually he was forced to work in the rice fields. He wasn’t allowed to go to to school.

Before young Kall’s parents died they had ingrained in him one thing: “No matter where you are, make sure you go to school.” Not until age 20 was he finally able to follow through on his parents’ wishes — and he stayed in school until he turned 35.

The Khmer Rouge was known for its extreme hostility to education, which had a detrimental effect on Cambodia it is still recovering from; this is one of the main reasons we decided to launch Room to Read there. Keenly aware of what happens when children are denied an education, Kall has been an invaluable champion of education in Cambodia as Room to Read’s country director for the past six and half years. He firmly believes that with a quality education many of the deep-rooted issues Cambodia still suffers from can be solved.

First Lady Michelle Obama during her visit to Siem Reap last April meets with Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program participants

Thanks to Kall’s leadership and our local staff, our programming in Cambodia has grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, earlier this year our work in Cambodia was recognized by First Lady of the United States Mrs. Michelle Obama and First Lady of Cambodia, Mrs. Bun Rany. (Read more about this exciting trip and the girls who inspired these first ladies).

Get Sh%#t Done

For those who know me, Get Stuff Done— aka GSD — is the clean version of this saying, which I lifted from my old boss at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. It’s about getting the job done no matter what the obstacles may be. Yes we set bold goals and hire passionate people, but those passionate people need to be action-oriented and innovative problem-solvers to navigate around challenges and not see them as barriers to success. I often say that action is better than talk.

Let me tell you about one man I’d like to single out for his supreme ability to GSD: our co-founder Dinesh Shrestha. During the early years of our work in Nepal, Dinesh acted as our non-paid country director while still working his day job with the United Nations’ World Health Organization.

Room to Read Co-founder and Director of Field Operations Dinesh Shrestha

On weekends he’d drive for six hours followed by three hours of trekking steep mountain paths to visit our first few schools and libraries. To me this is the definition of having an action-oriented work ethic. Now at about the time we were patting ourselves on the back for our work in Nepal, we discovered through program evaluators that students were not using the libraries as much as they could. Our libraries had a lack of local language books for the children to read — a common problem in low-income regions. Why? Because the for-profit publishers have little incentive to publish children’s books in languages spoken by poor people. It’s an age-old problem that causes the poor to remain poor — without education, there is a much more difficult path out of poverty.

Dinesh told it to us straight: there was no reason for publishers in Nepal to produce children’s books for a population that couldn’t afford them. But even as Dinesh explained the problem to us, he was already coming up with a solution — to publish our own Nepali language children’s books using local authors and illustrators.

Thanks to his GSD attitude and Room to Read’s entrepreneurial spirit, within a few months we had enough manuscripts and funding to publish 10 Nepali-language titles. Since then, we’ve published over 1,100 original children’s book titles in 27 languages — including Nepali, Sepedi, Kiswahili, Lao and Tamil. Every book is created by local authors and illustrators we helped develop and train. The local language books we publish benefit children like little Ntokozo in South Africa who struggled to learn how to read until he picked up a book published in his mother tongue.

Thanks to Room to Read’s publishing efforts, little Ntokozo can learn to read in his mother tongue

We have since won more than 20 book awards that attest to the quality of our local language children’s books, including the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, which acknowledges Room to Read’s contribution to children’s book publishing. (Read a story about our book publishing).

A hand up, not a hand out

With every project we commit to we’re creating a partnership with a community that is also engaged. This can mean the community is providing contributions in time, money and labor, or it can be parents who show their commitment to educating their children, or the local mentors — social mobilizers we hire to work directly with the students in our Girls’ Education Program. It ensures each community has ownership in a project and that they’re part of its success!

There have been so many examples in my travels that showcase this, like Agnes, the librarian I met in Zambia who created a piggery behind her library so that the sale of the annual piglet litter could fund additional school costs for students unable to afford an education.

Girls’ Education Program alumna Mulenga at the University of Zambia where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in education

And Mulenga, an alumna from our Girls’ Education Program in Zambia I met when she was 16 years old. With the community behind her — including her social mobilizer and our supportive staff — Mulenga graduated high school and I just learned that she is currently in her third year at the University of Zambia, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in education! Mulenga is now giving back to that supportive community by acting as a role model for the younger girls currently enrolled in the program, providing motivational talks to them and their parents to demonstrate that they too can accomplish their dreams.

And a student named Shabnam from India. She has been an extraordinary catalyst for girls in her community who a few years ago wouldn’t have dreamed of going to university.

Watch how Shabnam inspired an entire community of girls in India to go to school

While this week Room to Read is celebrating a major milestone — reaching 10 million children just like Ntokozo, Mulenga and Shabnam with our programming in literacy and girls’ education — tomorrow it’s back to work. We have another milestone to reach: We want to impact 15 million children in five years. Because our “big hairy audacious goal” was never just to reach 10 million children. Our goal is to ensure that every child on this planet has access to quality books and a quality education. Archimedes once wrote “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the earth.” We humbly hope to do that for millions more deserving young students.


Read CEO Erin Ganju’s Medium post on the 10 key findings about global education Room to Read learned from educating 10 million children across 10 countries.

Read more of our impact stories from the field in our special report, Thanks to Education.

Find out more about Room to Read and learn how to get involved!