Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World


The book of this title is my personal book of the year. Since other contestants this year included The Kite Runner, A Fine Balance, The Time Traveler's Wife and The Tipping Point (finally!), that's really saying something.

But for sheer, real-life impact, I've got to give my vote to John Wood's moving, informative book. Wood marries business lessons based on Microsoft's driven, results-oriented culture with his experience in building a nonprofit from a kernel of an idea to a $10 million organization in seven years.

Read this book to renew your spirit, warm your heart and sharpen your thinking. Then give it to all your friends this holiday season.

The back story. During the booming 90s, Wood was on the fast track at Microsoft, earning high-profile assignments in Australia and China. In 1998, when he’d just relocated to China to serve as director of business development, he took a fateful trekking trip in the Himalayas of Nepal. By chance, he met a director for the regional school system who took him on a three-hour hike to a local school. After touring the over-crowded classrooms, Wood asked to visit the library, where he found a handful of books under lock and key, lest the students damage them through use.

The seed was planted. The next year, Wood resigned from Microsoft to found a nonprofit initially called Books for Nepal, with the mission of building libraries. ("Microsoft didn't need me; the children of Nepal did.") Two years later, when starting work in Vietnam, the organization’s name was changed to Room to Read. (Business lesson #1 – pick a name that scales.)

Since its formation, Wood has brought a high-tech sensibility to his nonprofit. Another business lesson: “What gets measured, gets done.” No surprise that Room to Read has delivered quantifiable results, building more than 220 schools throughout the developing world, establishing nearly 3,400 school libraries and donating 1.2 million books. (These stats reside in the email signatures of all Room to Read staffers, driving home the point that donors know where their funds go.) The nonprofit has expanded from its initial work in Nepal and Vietnam to Cambodia, Laos, India and Sri Lanka. Next up: Africa.

I had the pleasure of hearing Wood speak in Boston last week, and he does not disappoint. Great content, lots of self-deprecating humor. Catch him on book tour if you can.

Finally, for a more complete picture of Wood and the book, read Tom Peters' (In Search of Excellence) wonderful Q&A with Wood.

A word of warning. Tom Peters doesn't strike me as a pushover, but he tells Wood:

I think you do a really great job. In fact, I haven't cried so much reading a book in a long time.

I'll second that. I cried buckets.

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