Room to Read’s Wood: “Young women from developing countries see wage increases of up to 20% for every year of education”
Twenty-one years ago, John Wood founded Room to Read, an organisation that is working on bringing literacy and gender equality to the poorest parts of the world, after realising that unlike what he experienced growing up, not all children, especially girls, have access to libraries and books
Wood left a lucrative position as director of business development at Microsoft when he started his campaign to give every child a chance to read and write. He made use of corporate knowledge to advance Room to Read’s agenda and engaged other corporate leaders to help out in his vision to educate the young people of the world.
At present, Room to Read has reached 23 million children in 17 low-income countries, supported over 100,000 young women in its Girls’ Education Programme, and has worked with over 40,000 schools to implement its Literacy Programme. It counts well-known organisations around the world as among its top funders such as Citibank, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Google, UNICEF, and Dubai Cares.
“We want to make sure that every kid grows up having that chance to read and write. We can't declare defeat. We have to really get out there and find our best way to reach these kids at a very young age and get them into the habit of reading,” declared Wood.
The following key points were discussed:
- There is a greater demand for Room to Read’s programmes compared with the supply of capital
- Room to Read works with host governments and education departments to implement their literacy and library programmes
- Several companies partnered with Room to Read to tie in their social responsibility objectives and philanthropy commitments
- Top executives around the world have helped spread the word about Room to Read
- Room to Read literary coaches work with local teachers to prepare them for the literacy programme
- Room to Read’s aim to address issues such as high school drop-out rates among girls aligns with government’s priorities
The following is the edited transcript:
Gordian Gaeta (GG): Welcome to Wealth and Society. We want to understand your personal journey on how you got to Room to Read. We also want to understand about your impact strategy. In fact, that is the way you bring the power of your ideas and your concepts to those who you want to target and to the market. And how you do help business leaders achieve their targets. Because it's also good for you since you depend heavily on donations and contributions from the major companies. You have quite an interesting journey of getting to where you are today.
John Wood (JW): I grew up in a small town in America, middle class family. We were never rich. We were never poor. But one of the best things I had growing up was I went to a really good public school. We had a school library. We had a community library. So I grew up in a household that we consider to be rich in books. I always had books around. I always loved to read as a young person and that's really influenced my journey in even how I got into graduate school, how I got to Microsoft at a young age and a lot of it was just self-education, learning, reading as much as I could.
It always struck me as a cruel irony that I grew up – even though I was middle class in a small town – that I had access to books from a young age. But I saw so many kids in so many parts of the world where I went as a backpacker – post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Vietnam, places like the mountains of Nepal – where kids didn't have that same access to books. And it just always struck me as the cruellest irony when a headmaster I met in Nepal said to me, “We're too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we're going to always remain poor”. And that struck me as almost a topic sentence for poverty. Seven hundred and seventy million people in the world today can't read or write. One hundred and fifty million kids don't go to school every day. Two-thirds of those who are out of school and two-thirds of those who are illiterate are girls and women. I know myself as a product of an educated mother, that when women are educated, that changes everything for the family. So Room to Read’s all about getting out there and bringing literacy and gender equality to education in the poorest parts of the world. We want to do it with enthusiasm, with passion. We want to do it also with serious scale so we can reach millions of kids.
GG: Hopefully, almost anybody will agree with that. But there are still some people who don't agree with that. But if you look at today's developments, just as a counterpoint, most young people can't write anymore because they write SMS. And they can’t write a proper English sentence anymore. Most young people look at videos or short versions or presentations and people read less and less. Isn't that a problem?
JW: Well, it's definitely a problem. But I think you have to segment what part of the world you're talking about. If you and I are hanging out in Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Geneva –
wealthier parts of the world – the situation for children there is going to be very different, because maybe they have technology that can distract them from reading. Kids, in the poorest parts of the world, especially the rural areas, oftentimes don't even have basic access to things like books, libraries and trained teachers. So our goal is to go to those really low income countries, and start those kids in the same journey that you and I embarked on as young persons, which is to have a print-rich environment, to have a supportive environment with teachers who teach the children to read and write in their mother tongue, whether that be Bengali or Nepalese, or Camaro. We want to do that and make sure that every single kid grows up having that chance to read and write. We can't declare defeat. We have to really get out there and find our best way to reach these kids at a very young age and get them into the habit of reading.
GG: I'm absolutely behind you in every respect. I just feel that when I talk to the more educated or the more wealthier classes, the kids are less and less inclined to read. That concerns me greatly. Of course, it's less of a concern than children in developing countries because it's much more important for them. For them, it's a question of life or career, or death while it's not for the others. So I do understand the emphasis.
JW: For me, nothing is really better than going and literally picking up books off the shelf, knowing you're going to read them to your one-year-old, even if he's not quite able to fully grasp it yet, he gets the pictures, the colours, the page. To me, there's just something really helpful not just when you see kids connecting with books but when you see parents encouraging their kids to make that connection to read.
GG: The examples you gave us are the very best outcome of the strategy that kids got. Now, you also have your specialty which is gender equality or the emphasis on girls during their most vulnerable age. That's something which is within a sub-segment even more important because they suffer in some developing countries even more. Doesn't that occasionally conflict with customs, morals, habits, possibly even religion, or the way parents look at girls during that age?
JW: We were formed in 2000. So we've been going strong for 20 years now. What we find with girls’ education is quite often the biggest barrier is an economic barrier. It's not an attitudinal barrier. I've met literally hundreds of parents, grandparents who said we want our daughters to go to school but quite often they can't afford it. It could be the school fees, it could be the exam fees, it might just be the books, the bicycle that the family cannot afford. We have at Room to Read supported, believe it or not, over 100,000 young women in our girls education programme.
Supply and demand
JW: Every year when we announced our targets, we’re immediately oversubscribed, e.g. there's more demand for what we do than there is supply of capital. So that is in a certain sense a good problem to have. I wouldn't want to be fighting this battle if there were huge attitudinal issues. Certainly there are pockets of society that believe that girls and women should not be educated. But our goal is to either ignore those critics or convince them of the benefits of girls and women getting educated. You can look at all the problems of the world today from poverty, lack of opportunity, even overpopulation. So much of it ties to whether girls and women get educated. The best way in the world I know to basically make sure that people get out of poverty in one generation is to make sure that every young woman gets educated because she's going to have fewer children. She's going to have children that she can educate because she's educated. So we're in this battle for the long term. I will not be happy until every young woman everywhere in the world gets that same chance I had to go to school. I don't think that I should get to go because I’m a boy but a young woman should be denied.
GG: I fully agree. And as an economist, there's a compelling argument that the future of the world will be to include all women in the process of any economic development, which means that they have to be educated.
JW: Like you, I'm very data-driven. So the statistics I love are number one, for every year a girl or young woman in a developing world gets educated, her eventual wage is increased by 15% to 20%. That's per year. So if you can get a girl six additional years of schooling, her eventual salary will double or triple. Your second statistic is at 90% when a woman in the developing world earns a marginal dollar, she spends 90% of that for her family: on food, clothing, shelter, education, medicine. Men, like myself are not quite as enlightened on how we spend that marginal dollar. Men spend more on themselves. So if you can put those marginal dollars in the hands of young women and young mothers, they take care of the family. So it's a giant no-brainer.
GG: Absolutely and there's a multiplicator effect. As you said, an educated woman or mother will educate her daughter. So you have to start somewhere. As soon as they become mothers, they will multiply that and also educate their daughters.
JW: My mother's mother was born in the year 1900. So that was 120 years ago. The fact that she was educated, the fact that she read to me when I was a young person, I was about 4-6 years old. So 120 years after her birth and about 45 years after her death, that’s still paying dividends through myself and my siblings.
GG: Tell us a little bit about how in the modern world, you will call them products and services, but I call them sort of how do you get your rubber unto the road? What do you actually do? Because except for real extremists, most people will agree with the value of your goals. The question is how do you get this Ferrari out of the starting box?
JW: I go to a lot of conferences and hear people talking about their theories of change and the question always is, how do you actually implement that? So Room to Read's model is very clear in a number of ways. Number one, everything we do is through strong local teams. So our team in Tanzania is a hundred percent Tanzanian. Our team in South Africa is a hundred percent South African. We don't send expats overseas to go tell the local people what to do. We want to have strong empowered local teams who understand the conditions, speak the language and can solve problems. So well over 90% of our employees are local, national. They're close to the customer. They're close to the students and they're able to get things done.
JW:The second key part of the model that ties into that is we work very closely with our host governments. We're not off doing things totally on our own. What we do is we work with the department in the ministries of education to say we can help you. But we want to work with you in partnership. So Room to Read now has worked in over 40,000 schools to implement our literacy and library programmes. And all of those cases, the host governments have supplied the librarians and helped train them and pay their salaries. So that we know at Room to Read that our host governments have skin in the game. They value what we do enough to actually put their own resources in. Third, we ask for community support. Maybe the parents don't have a lot of money but we'll ask the parents, for example, to help build the bookshelves, to help paint the walls, whatever it might be.
Our first country director for South Africa used to tell communities there are two types of help, self-help and other help or help from others. You have to prove that you are going to help yourself before you can ask other people to help you. So those are the three key parts of the model. The fourth thing is we really run Room to Read like a business. We have detailed plans. We have detailed budgets. We have key performance indicators, we hold ourselves accountable. And we treat this not like a charity, although we are certainly reliant on public funding for what we do. A lot of our leadership team actually comes from private sector backgrounds. They're people like me, we call corporate refugees: ex-Goldman Sachs, ex-Credit Suisse, ex-Unilever, ex-Microsoft, people who hit a certain point of their career and say, maybe now I'm going to go work for a group like Room to Read. So our chief financial officer (CFO), Shari Freedman, she spent about 18 years working in private equity. And at one point she just said, “I want to go work for the children and work for Room to Read”. So we have some incredibly talented people in our leadership team who originally came from the private sector but apply those same skills to the social sector.
GG: That's a very practical model. You come from a successful rolling career in the private sector so you know how to get things done and therefore you inevitably chose an intelligent strategy. But if I understand correctly, your two pillars are librarians and educators. You look for people who build libraries and educators who create the usage of libraries.
JW: I would go a little bit higher level than that and say that the first umbrella is literacy. Literacy is the key goal that children can learn to read and write in their mother tongue and get a habit of reading. Then the libraries, the books and the teacher training are all a subset under that umbrella. So our two umbrellas really are literacy and gender equality. A key part of that is getting books printed in the mother tongue. So these kids have books in the language they speak at home and get a beautiful print-rich library setup. So every child has an incentive to hopefully go into the library every day to read, check out books and get in the habit of reading from a young age.
GG: Your economic model, charity by definition, is on the expenditure side. But do you have an economic model to generate income that strengthens your ability to expand?
Quest for purpose
JW: Definitely. Very early on we were working with a lot of companies, from startups to some of the biggest banks in the world like Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Citibank, with whom we all have decade-long partnerships with all three of those financial institutions. We've worked with entrepreneurs and what we do is try to find a way that we can tie that company's quest for purpose and with Room to Read’s quest to educate the world. So I'll give you a quick example. There was a startup in San Francisco called Tatcha, a skincare brand. If you think about skincare, that's a tough market to crack because you've got all these big incumbents as Estee Lauder, Procter and Gamble, Clinique, you name it. So Tatcha was a startup but their co-founders approached Room to Read to work with our team. They started something called ‘Beautiful Faces, Beautiful Futures’. The idea behind it was a beautiful face was their promise to the consumer, a beautiful future was their promise to the world. They basically said that every time that somebody buys one Tatcha product, we’ll donate $1 to Room to Read. A dollar puts one girl in school for one day. So the consumer can feel good knowing that he or she has gotten a great product, they look good but they know that their product is helping to educate the young women of the world. It sounds small. One stock-keeping unit (SKU) equals one girl a day but Tatcha has now funded over four million girls days of schooling. So that's just one of our many partnerships where we're tying the company's desire to motivate their employees and win the war for talent and keep their customers happy by saying we're not on earth just for profit. We're also on this earth for a purpose. And a lot of the way we do our purpose implementation is through Room to Read.
GG: Those are quite effective programmes. We see that in crisis situations where people say are you willing to donate $1 a day and you have a large number of people donating and this amounts to a very significant contribution.
JW: I think part of that is because we've become close allies with a lot of executives and a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of places to say let's not do something that’s just a little one off, a small little band aid. Let's really think systematically. Citibank, starting about 8-9 years ago, was trying to move more of their foreign currency trades into their electronic platform called Velocity. A lot of people were still trying to do their FX trades the old-fashioned way: pick up the phone, I call you, I give you my order, I tell you what to do. And Citibank said, we'll give you an incentive. If you move that order from the telephone to the electronic system, every million dollars you trade, we’ll donate $1 to a basket of children's charities. They called it E for Education. It started small but every year, different groups and Citibank said we want to hook ourselves unto that platform. For the six weeks during Q4 we run it. They've now generated over $30 million for a basket of 10 education charities, including Room to Read support. So again, this is a classic case of smart business leaders in Citibank saying let's take a business goal, tie it to a social outcome and see if it inspires people to change their behaviour. So to me, it's just the future of business finding ways that companies can tell their employees, their recruits, their customers we're on this earth not just to make money, we're on this earth to also make the world a better place.
GG: Absolutely. I think it's a pretty clever way of tying in two sets of objectives and avoiding the stigma of charity that here we have a lump of money and then people run off and do something with that. You don't see anything except you have the feel-good factor of giving a lump of money. That alone is not enough.
JW: I agree with you totally. I published a book back in 2018. Thankfully, it released the same day that Larry Fink from BlackRock released his CEO letter saying that if you're a business leader, you need to be about more than just profit. You have to be able to say why your company exists and what your purpose is. What was fun about writing that book, my co-author and I did most of the research in 2016 and 2017. I was going out and interviewing over 100 executives and entrepreneurs, and hearing from so many of them, how motivated they were when it came to work in the morning, knowing that if the business objectives were achieved, a social outcome would be tied to that. That really is something that every business leader needs to think about. How do you keep your employees motivated? How do you win the war for talent?
A lot of the people I interviewed in the book, including young people would say, I want to go to work every day and know that my company is making a difference in the world, that we're here for the right reasons. Who's attracting the best engineers in the world right now? Elon Musk. Between Tesla and SpaceX, you have two companies that are tied to social outcomes. In the case of Tesla, you get a cool car, it's solar-powered, zero emissions, you're not putting money into the hands of big oil. We all know SpaceX. What an amazing success story. And I think Elon Musk is a classic case study of a leader who's winning the war for talent because he stands for something bigger than just himself.
GG: Well, by definition, all aspiring young people want to join a visionary. It is a lot more attractive to join a visionary than to join a traditional business. We still need carpenters and bricklayers and less sexy business. I will go further. I will say that all stakeholders are motivated. We have more and more development in the shareholder group that says we want to do more for those who do good. Like us, Western society is all about doing good while you do well. And that to me it's more than the employees. It's all of the stakeholders, the clients.
JW: I have so many friends who say I want to invest in a startup that I can brag to my kids about. What was interesting about helping Green Monday, with their fundraising round was how many people told me, “I want to be able to brag to my kids about this and say that I'm investing in way that my kids are proud of me, that my kids want to learn more about that”.
GG: Your strategy of actually educating the next generation of active economic participants is a lot stronger than changing habits of the consumers.
JW: Probably, but I'm a little bit diversified. In my life, I'm trying to find multiple ways that can make the world a better place. And ideally if I place 10 bets then even if seven or eight of them work out then I'll be happy.
GG: You said that you're in multiple countries. How fast can you grow? What are your real limits to growth?
JW: Like any company, when you have the right leadership team, the right board and the right teams on the ground, and I humbly believe Room to Read has all three of those things, there's not really a huge limit to your growth. The biggest limit is really capital. You have not just enough capital but a predictable cash flow. So when you go into work, for example in a village, you're not going in there and work for a week and then disappear. You will stay in the village for three or four years and work with the teachers over time to improve their skills. So for Room to Read, the biggest barrier to our growth is not lack of demand. We have governments all over the world asking us to come in and help them educate their children. The biggest gating factor is capital. We're proud that we're raising over $50 million a year. But honestly, we'd like to find a lot more corporate partnerships, a lot more individual donors, a lot more whether it be a small gift or a really big gift, we would love to have a lot more support so we can continue to grow.
A fun fact is Room to Read has now reached over 23 million children in 17 low income countries. This is an organisation that in our first year, 2000, we started with a budget of $35,000. In our second year, we made $165,000. We've grown meteorically but from the board down including our third generation chief executive officer Geetha Murali, nobody is satisfied. We're kind of like stay humble, stay hungry, be proud of what you've accomplished. But just remember, every four-year-old, every five-year-old not getting educated today, that's an opportunity lost. Every day we lose, we can't get back. There is for us that fierce urgency of now, whether it's a Rohingya refugee in eastern Bangladesh or whether it is a Syrian refugee in Jordan, let's not let those kids fall behind. Let's do everything in our power to find ways to reach them.
GG: Talking about financials, you seem to be achieving a very low expense ratio, in other words, a very high efficiency ratio. How do you manage to do that? Because given that you're geographically spread and you have multiple programmes, you seem to be doing very well in comparison to many others.
JW: If you look at Charity Navigator, which is one of the most respected rating agencies for non-profits, we've achieved four-star ratings year after year. We're easily in the top decile for non-profits for economic efficiency and also for transparency, which Charity Navigator also ranks. We believe transparency is super critical also because when people trust Room to Read with their money that they've worked hard to earn, they deserve to know how we're spending the money, where it's going, how it's being allocated. So how do we achieve economic efficiency? Well, a lot of it for at least in the early years, and this continues to this day is we have a lot of our fundraising done by volunteers. So a lot of our fundraising is done by board members.
We've established a United Arab Emirates board, a Swiss board, a United Kingdom board, a Hong Kong, Singapore, etc., where we go out and we get business leaders. In Singapore, the board is chaired by Helman Sitohang who is the Asia CEO of Credit Suisse. So technically, Helman works for us. But he's been a good friend for 10 years. He's super supportive of Room to Read.
JW:One thing that's really nice about this model is when you have people like John Lindfors from DST, when you have people like John Ridding, the CEO of Financial Times who are on your regional boards. As they travel the world, as they talk to different people, they bring up Room to Read. So it's for us a way to make really good connections without having a huge staff on the payroll. Now, clearly, you have to have enough people on the payroll that when that call comes in from city banks, and we want to see a proposal to see a report, you still have a team. But I would say for us, a lot of it is just driven by the fact that we've always tried to keep our overhead low. From the earliest years, I had bankers donate frequent flyer miles so I could fly around the world for free, so I could be efficient in my role or effective in my role of travelling the world and telling the story. When I pitched up in London or Tokyo, the flight was free. Quite often the hotels were free, because hotel groups like Swire, Rosewood and Hilton supported Room to Read with free room nights. Sometimes that just starts from the top saying let's set an example from the top saying we want to spend money where it needs to be spent – on the education programmes – not on fundraising, not on high administrative costs.
GG:It's very impressive. The one issue that you face is that your strategy is long term. So the impact you are having will require you to support and carry your objectives for five or 10 years, just for one particular generation, then another five to 10 years, the next generation. That puts an enormous burden on you and requires you to have a very long-term perspective on what you're doing.
JW: Yes, that's accurate in some ways. But I should stress that when Room to Read works in a community, we do limit the amount of time we're going to work there. So we say to the teachers, we say to the community, pay attention and try to learn as much as you can from us because we're going to stay in your community for three or four years, get the literacy programme off the ground. At that point over time, you take over, the government takes over, the community takes over. So when we opened our first libraries, we said we're not going to be running these things for 20 years. We're going to be with your community for three or four years to get it off the ground. But then the community takes over and then runs it from there. For the girls’ education programme, we tell the girls we’ll stick with you to get through the end of secondary school, which is usually 12th grade. Then after that you are on your own. You need to find your own way to university or your first job, hopefully enhanced by our life skills training. So if the girls do have those skills to be able to go out. So I think we want to work in every community long enough to be effective, but not so long that we create a long-term dependency.
GG: Yes, that's the danger. Libraries are a little bit easier because they are an asset. Once you install a library, they tend to develop a life on their own. And with a halfway decent librarian, you actually create something that lasts. But with the gender equality programme, when you have to take girls under your wing and give them life skills in addition to other education, that is something that is very hard to dedicate. And by definition, they will want longer term air cover. Essentially, you're providing air cover.
Literacy program me success
JW: Yes, that's very true. What our local teams do, and I've seen this countless times when I've travelled to see our work – whether it be in India or Nepal or in Cambodia – is that when we do the life skils classes for the girls, we will invite the teachers to sit in on some of those classes. So ideally when that Room to Read instructor is giving a class on financial literacy, on job opportunities, on a woman's rights over her body, you have other teachers who are paying attention and who are observing who can then, over time, also pick up those same skills. So similarly with the literacy programme, we have on staff at Room to Read three literacy coaches who work with the teachers for several years. But our goal, and we have data to prove that this has worked very well, is when Room to Read stops working in a community after three or four years, that those teachers have really been upskilled during that time we have been able to work with them. They can then run the literacy programme without our day-to-day or week-to-week assistance.
GG: If you want to leave or reduce involvement in the market, you have to leave something behind. It's not like withdrawing an army from a country which we know might end in catastrophe. But you actually have to leave something behind that does very similar activities at the same level.
JW: I think that's why the partnerships with the ministries of education at both the national level and the provincial level are so important because we work really closely at that provincial level so that the ministry knows what we're doing and we know what they're doing. We're setting expectations of what we're going to do, what we're not going to do, how long we're going to be there, what our exit strategy is. And as long as we're clear with the ministries on that, then we can really work hand in hand and be very coordinated with them. We don't want to try to be all things to all people, which is why we have to say to each ministry, we can work in each community for a certain set length of time. But guess what, at a certain point in time, it's time to move on to the next 100 schools, the next 1,000 schools that also need our help.
GG: So do you go back sometimes? Have you done one audit on how it works, the handover?
JW: Definitely. Our team is really data-driven. So we have an entire group, an entire team that basically goes out to try to collect the data to prove the efficacy of our work, figure out where are we strong? Where are we weak? Where do we need to improve? Where are we doing best? So if the best reading scores in the world and the Room to Read world are from the team in Vietnam, let's go study what makes that programme effective. Then how can the Cambodian team, how can a Nepalese team, how can a South African team learn from the best in the business? So if people want to go to our website, I can just throw out roomtoread.org, it’s super data rich. We publish a lot of our evaluations up there and we publish a lot of our data. We look for example on how many words per minute can a child read at the beginning of the school year versus the end of the school year? How does that compare with other schools where we don't work? What are the children's comprehension levels for our young scholars in the girls’ education programme?
Educating young women
JW:We look for the top reasons that a girl drops out and we try to figure out whether or not our programme is doing everything in its power to make sure that we're going in and really attacking those reasons. So for example, in our earliest years working in Zambia, we found that one of the top reasons that young women were dropping out of school was child marriage, ages 14-16. And the team recommended let's get the girls into the programme earlier. So we’re teaching them all about delaying marriage and the benefits of that and the benefits of not having children until you've actually graduated from high school, if not university. We can inculcate those habits and teach those lessons earlier. When you collect data, it's important to analyse it. And it's really important to make sure that you're then changing certain parts of your programme based on what that data tells you.
GG: In the example you Room to Read do are very much in line with government priorities, the priorities of our host governments. If you look at Zambia, for example, if you look at the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, they wanted to reduce dropout rates for young women. They wanted to reduce child marriage. In many of these countries, child marriage is illegal. But word just haven’t reached the right people or it's not been enforced. In terms of the families, we try our hardest through our local teams run by strong local women to develop relationships with the parents, develop relationship with the grandparents and with the guardians to say this is our programme, we would love to have your daughter, your granddaughter in it. Now clearly, we can't force you to do that. What we can do is we say if your daughter actually finishes secondary school, think how much more money she can make. She will take care of you in your old age. We've never had a year where we couldn't have brought more girls into the programme, if we had the funding to do it. The demand is really there from the parents and the societies.
GG: How do you play as a partner, or as a competitor, or as an augmenter? Or how does it work with the other organisations?
JW: We definitely don't view any other educational groups as competitors. We wish everyone well. Anyone who's out there trying to get kids educated, whether it's United Nations Children’s Fund or whether it's a university, we wish them well. We don't want to compete with anybody. What we want to do is find ways where we can cooperate with other like-minded groups. So for example, we're working closely with Sesame Street, Sesame Workshop, along with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on a programme that they have to help refugees. We’re a relatively small part of that. The work that IRC and Sesame is doing is absolutely amazing, to go out and help the children of refugees. What Room to Read did is we went to them and said, if there's any role we can play, we would love to be able to be helpful. It turns out, because we've become such a big publisher of local language, children's literature and we've worked with hundreds of local authors and local artists. We've published books in over 30 different languages. We were able to then be a part of that coalition of IRC and Sesame Street, and do our little bit to help make sure that more of these kids had books.
We work closely with one of our major funders, the Dubai Cares Foundation, along with Queen Rania’s office in Jordan, to produce our first Arabic language books four years ago in Jordan. Jordan, as we all know, is hosting a huge number of refugees. Quite often, those families don't have books for their kids. So working in partnership with others, including Dubai Cares and Queen Rania and the Jordanian Ministry of Education, we were able to produce hundreds of thousands of Arabic language, children's early readers, kids who have access to high quality books. So our goal is wherever we can to cooperate with others and try to find a way to work together. To quote an old proverb from somewhere in Africa, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together”.
GG: You actually commission and publish books?
JW: We do. Room to Read publishes books in languages that have traditionally been overlooked by the for-profit publishers because the for-profit publishers publish books in languages spoken by wealthy nations. It's not hard to find children's literature in French, German, Japanese, Korean, English. But it's been traditionally very difficult to find high-quality children's books in Swahili and certainly in languages like Nepalese. So starting in 2004, we went out and interviewed students to ask them what would cause them to use the libraries more often? The number one answer we got was they wanted more books in their mother tongue. In this case, it was Vietnamese and Nepalese, so we decided to become a publisher. The model is we produce original children's literature so we're not taking and translating something. We're not translating “Pippi Longstocking” or “Heidi” into Khmer. We're producing original children's literature using local authors and local artists who really can create books and create stories that local kids can understand and relate to. I'm super proud of our teams. We've done over 1,700 original titles, thus far. So it does make us one of the biggest publishers of children's books in the world.
GG: So you commission the authors then you also have the ability to generate revenue from these books?
JW: We probably could if we made an effort to sell them. But the reality is that most of what we do in the publishing space is gifting the books, whether it be to departments of education, or schools or other non-government organisations (NGOs). It's not super expensive to produce children's books so it's a nice thing we can literally distribute them by the millions.
GG: Everybody is bamboozled by the pandemic, of course. How did that impact your business model? Were you able to include elements of the pandemic, supporting or easing the pain of the pandemic into your strategy?
JW: I don't think any organisation anywhere in the world has been able to have a completely optimal strategy during COVID-19. That runs from richly-endowed universities down to the poorest of the NGOs. If you think about Room to Read, one of the things local teams did was try to figure out how can we use technology to reach kids during the pandemic? But what is the appropriate technology? Because our kids may have access to iPads and 5G networks. A child in rural Nepal, a child in rural Rwanda does not have that. So our teams worked really closely with the ministries and they did radio hours where they would tell kids, pull your textbooks out, we're going to read stories from your textbook. Then TV hours. For the girls’ education programme, our team was sending tens of thousands of text messages to check in with the girls to make sure that the girls are doing their homework. But quite often, for these young women, they may not have a current generation cellphone, so the way you communicate with them is not over Zoom. It's going to be over something very simple like text or voice. So our team is definitely doing its best. But everyone will just be totally thrilled the day that all these kids are back in school. Nothing to me is more hopeful than seeing that kid in their school uniform with their backpack proudly walking to school. So I'm double vaccinated and I'm hoping that billions of people will soon be also double vaccinated.
GG: Well, total vaccines are in excess of three billion at the moment or even more. So we're moving in the right direction. Question is, is the virus smarter than the vaccine? And will it overtake our defenses? History shows that nature can be pretty powerful and we human beings are not always in the same way. So we'll see.
JW: Again, it goes back to the value of education. I think there's a statistic that a woman who's educated is twice as likely to vaccinate her children. That goes back pre-COVID-19, measles, mumps, rubella, etc. so much just goes back to our people educated or not. And if they're educated, can they then make the right decisions for themselves, their family and their society?
GG: That's compelling. An educated mother improves the chances of a child by a multiple faction or all areas and that makes it so compelling. I wish you the very best of luck and I'd love to get together and maybe we can do something and develop something together. Thank you very much for your time.
Keywords: Tesla, Space X, Sesame Street Workshop, Ngos, Covid-19
Institution: Room To Read, Credit Suisse, Unilever, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Tatcha, Blackrock, Green Monday, Charity Navigator, DST, Financial Times, UNICEF, IRC, Dubai Cares
Country: USA, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, Tanzania, South Africa, Bangladesh, Syria, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Singapore, Zambia
People: John Wood, Gordian Gaeta, Shari Freedman, Larry Fink, Elon Musk, Geetha Murali, Helman Sitohang, John Lindfors, John Ridding, Queen Rania Al Abdullah