Changing the world, one reader at a time

In advance of his Beatty Memorial Lecture (Sept. 24), former Microsoft executive and founder of Room to Read, a global non-profit organization focused on literacy and gender equality in education, spoke to the Reporter about social entrepreneurship and "the major choices facing the world at this epochal moment."

John-woodDr. John Wood (who received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from McGill in 2014) is a former Microsoft executive and the founder of Room to Read, a global non-profit organization focused on literacy and gender equality in education. Dr. Wood is this year’s Beatty Memorial Lecturer. The Beatty Lecture will take place on Thursday, September 24, at 5:30 p.m. at Pollack Hall. Dr. Wood’s talk will address what he sees as “the major choices facing the world at this epochal moment”, on education, immigration, and the rights of women. In advance of the lecture at Pollack Hall, Wood spoke to the Reporter.

Register to attend and get more information about the Beatty Memorial Lecture to be held at McGill on Sept. 24.

Room to Read has reached a major milestone in 2015 – the organization has provided educational resources to 10 million children in developing countries. What have been the major challenges in reaching this milestone over the last 10 years – and now that you’ve reached this goal, what’s next?

One of the biggest challenges we have faced was making a case for education in low-income communities. The data, however, speaks for itself. Over 200 million kids in the developing world don’t go to school and 1 out of every 7 people in the world are illiterate, 2/3 of those being girls and young women. We know that many problems in the world can be solved through one tool—education. When communities are educated per capita income rises, risk of conflict decreases and child mortality rates drop. Without education, the poor will always remain poor and it takes a nominal investment to change that. Through Room to Read, for $50 you can help a child learn to read for a year and for $300 you can change a girl’s life forever by supporting her to complete secondary school for a year. Forget about war and military spending – educate the children, and the future is forever changed.

As for what’s next for us, we aim to impact 15 million children by 2020. To achieve this goal, we are deepening and broadening our impact and will work with organizations and government ministries to build their capacity to better deliver programs like ours. We plan to scale our programs to more quickly address the global need for our work.

In your life as a social entrepreneur you have, in your words, “capitalized on your background as a Microsoft executive to get your foot in the door.” What would you say to individuals who are interested in social entrepreneurship, but don’t come from similar backgrounds? What will set-up a social entrepreneurship initiative for success?

I recommend future social entrepreneurs gain experience in the for-profit sector before they become full-time agents of change in the non-profit world. The corporate world teaches valuable skills that are equally as valuable to a non-profit organization: sales, marketing, finance, accounting, leadership, and how to build and run high-performance teams. However, one doesn’t necessarily have to choose corporate life over effecting social change. Today, many businesses are run by executives that encourage employees, leading by example, to be more socially responsible through innovative business models. While everyone does not need to follow my path sequentially to be successful, I will say that my career at Room to Read has been greatly enhanced and informed by the 12 years I spent in the corporate sector.

In your opinion, how can universities better support social entrepreneurship on their campuses?

First, don’t treat social entrepreneurship as a sideline, extracurricular activity. Make it part of the core curriculum DNA for university students, and make sure every level of university leadership (up to the very top) embraces it. If students see their university’s leadership taking social entrepreneurship seriously enough to get personally involved, this behaviour sends a strong signal to students that they should personally involve themselves, too.

Second, don’t apologize for fund-raising, or sweep it under the rug. Without fund-raising, nothing happens in the social sector. No money = no mission.

Finally, connect to alumni, since they have more expendable income to give than current students. I admit, development offices might be scared of this idea since they often want alumni to donate directly to the university. However, I believe engaging alumni this way will connect them to their alma mater more strongly than before. Room to Read has tested this theory while working with students at Miami University of Ohio. We launched a campaign where students pitched alumni for their support to help fund and build a Room to Read school in Nepal. Through collective efforts, $35,000 was raised in a week and now the school has been built. While we didn’t survey the alumni who donated, I would bet that they have an increased sense of pride for their alma mater and will continue to support university initiatives in the future.

On Sept. 24, you plan to give a lecture entitled “Whose Version of the Future is going to Win?” Without giving the content of your talk away entirely, what do you hope the audience will take away with them from this lecture?

I hope many students will join us, as I am very fired up about this speech. I will be talking about the major choices facing the world at this epochal moment, and how each choice will determine whose future of the world is going to set the agenda and ultimately “win”. For the rights of women, who will decide – the Taliban, ISIS and Boko Haram, or those of us who passionately believe in gender equality? Will the future of capitalism be one of “winner take all” or will we have a more inclusive version of capitalism, one where social purpose is part of the core DNA of every company? On immigration, whose vision will win – those of xenophobes who want to build walls topped with razor wire or those who remember that so many great nations such as Canada were built on immigration? The future is very much “in play” and in my view we can’t make it a spectator sport. We need to pick the issue(s) for which we have the most passion and dial up our action so that the version of the future that wins is one that is positive, inclusive, and something we’re all happy to include as our legacy here on this earth.