Who hasn't dreamed of ditching their day job to help change the world? John Wood stopped dreaming one day and actually gave it a shot.

At 35, the director of business development for Microsoft's Greater China Region called it quits following a life-altering trek through Nepal then launched Room to Read, a 15-year-old nonprofit that's on track this year to reach 10 million children through its literacy and girls' education programs. But creating a movement like his isn't natural for someone steeped in the business world. Here's how Wood navigated the bumpy transition in a discussion that's been edited for clarity.

 

Take me back to the beginning of the end at Microsoft. Why did you leave what seemed to be a stable and successful career?

I never expected to end up in that position. In 1998, I was celebrating my seventh anniversary with Microsoft by going on a three-week trek in the Annapurna region of Nepal. It's a 180-mile trek. On the second day I met a headmaster and, like at many schools, his was somewhat sad because all the kids were showing up but their library was completely empty. I came back 13 months later with books on the back of eight donkeys.

I knew I'd be sucked back into the corporate machine and that this would be a part-time hobby and I'd maybe create one library a year. Meanwhile, the education divide would get worse and worse. I had to extricate myself.

 

What's been the biggest challenge transitioning from a business point of view to the nonprofit world?

I didn't make enough money at Microsoft to start a foundation. I made enough to start a charity. Basically I had to be fundraising in the early years and that was tough because I had no fundraising experience. It was hard to be taken seriously and, of course, 2000 was a terrible time to launch. Then we had 9/11. In the early years, if I knew what the first two years would have been like, I wouldn't have done it.

 

What became the tipping point?

The first one was when Fast Company wrote a pretty glowing profile, which led to this incredible deluge of messages from people like Seth Godin and those wanting to fundraise.

Another was when I published my book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. At the time we were probably a $5 million to $6 million-a-year organization. Last year we finished at over $50 million. The book really started the feedback cycle: the more they sold, the more readers would take action--and that led to more speaking opportunities.

 

Tell me about the importance of goal setting.

I'm a big fan of Jim Collins. We decided we'd set a big hairy audacious goal of reaching 10 million students by 2020. I've always believed--working for people like Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates--that bold goals attract bold people. Wimpy goals attract wimpy people.

The founding team all gave up the private sector to be in the literary space. We said, "If we're going to do this let's hope bold goals attract bold people." We're hitting our goal five years early.

 

Many business leaders have causes they feel strongly about. What's the key to transforming a passion into a legitimate movement?

You have to be as egoless as possible and do everything in your power to invite people in--to let them know it's not your cause but our cause.

 

Which business lessons did you use to help scale Room to Read?

Measurement, measurement, measurement. Microsoft didn't invent measurement but you were certainly held to high standards. The questions asked in a business review meeting were very intense and data driven. In the charity world, when you hear people speak, there's a lot of blah, blah, blah and process, goals and emotion. We've tried to go with the data--not just quantity but quality, like reading comprehension.

Secondly, you have to control your costs and that has to start from the top. We want to be like Southwest Airlines and where more money goes to educating children.

 

In Nepal, your literacy programs have helped more than 3,000 girls and 3,700 communities. What happens now given the tragedy there?

We'll know more soon. Our teams have been fully focused to make sure everybody has been accounted for--all 190 employees are accounted for. Some have lost families or homes. They've been focused on that.

We know over one-quarter of Room to Read's programs in Nepal are in two of the provinces hit by the earthquake. It would be a great miracle if every one of those schools and libraries wasn't affected.

Published on: May 6, 2015