John Wood

John Wood is the founder of Room to Read, an organization that believes World Change Starts with Educated Children®. From its humble origins as a cash-strapped and unknown organization, Room to Read has now reached over 10 million children in developing countries with a focus on literacy and gender equality in education.

At age 35, John left an executive career track at Microsoft to follow his passion that “no child should ever again be told they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time and therefore will not get educated.” The business acumen honed in the fast-paced world of technology, combined with his passion to change the world, makes John a unique and inspiring speaker with broad appeal.

John’s award-winning memoir, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World tells how he raised over $400 million from a “standing start” to develop one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in history. The book was described by Publishers’ Weekly as “an infectiously inspiring read. Translated into 23 languages, it is popular with entrepreneurs, philanthropists and educators. Amazon named it one of the Top Ten Business Narratives of 2006 and Hudson Booksellers voted it to their Top Ten Nonfiction list. John’s author interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show raised over $3 million from viewers.

John’s latest book is entitled Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy. Kirkus Reviews called it “an absorbing personal account of a remarkable achievement”. It was endorsed by Bill Clinton, Melinda Gates and Sheryl Sandberg.

John is a five-time winner of Fast Company Magazine’s Social Capitalist Award and is one of Goldman Sachs’ 25 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs. He was named an Asian Hero by Time Magazine, selected as in the inaugural class of Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum and is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Bill and Melinda Gates presented him with the first-ever Microsoft Alumnus of the Year medal. Barron’s twice named John to their list of the 25 Best Givers. In 2014, John was awarded by Queen Silvia of Sweden with the World’s Children’s Prize. The WCP is often called the Children’s Nobel Prize, and in the same year Malala Yousafzal was a fellow honoree. He has also won the Asia Society’s “Service to Society” award and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Tribeca Film Festival.

Room to Read has been voted by the Young Presidents Association as their Social Enterprise of the Year, was awarded the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, and was chosen as the Inaugural winner of the Library of Congress David Rubenstein International Literacy Prize.

John holds a MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in finance from the University of Colorado, and honorary doctorates from McGill University, Westminster College, Wofford College and the University of San Francisco. At the invitation of former President Bill Clinton, he served three years on the Advisory Board of the Clinton Global Initiative. John is a frequent lecturer at Harvard Business School, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy. He is a former Board member of the College Advising Corps, Net Impact and the One Acre Fund, and serves on the Advisory Boards of Global Citizen Year, Possible Health, and the “Getting to Carnegie” competition.

John’s past corporate speaking engagements include:

Aon, Atlassian, Barclays, BHP, Bloomberg, Boeing, Citibank, Clinton Global Initiative, Credit Suisse, Cushman Wakefield, Deutshce Bank, Fidelity, Fossil, Goldman Sachs, Google, Hilton, IBM, JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, National Australia Bank, Nike, Oracle, Pepsi, Royal Bank of Scotland, Starbucks, Twitter, UBS, YPO, Wal-Mart, Wells Fargo and WPO.


Purpose: The New Competitive Advantage

John Wood didn’t set out to change the world; he was simply taking a long vacation. But a trip to Nepal turned into a book drive, which turned into Room to Read — one of the world’s fastest growing and award-winning charities. A former Microsoft executive, John has always said that the key to the success of his “second act” is that he treated it like a business. He has spoken frequently about what lessons the non-profit world can learn from the corporate world.

But now, as Room to Read reaches its 10 millionth young student, John has written a new presentation, this time illuminating what businesses can learn from the social sector.

In a word: purpose

John argues that corporate social responsibility is more than just a buzzword or a publicity stunt, but instead represents the new competitive advantage — a way to re-engage both customers and employees, and improve the bottom line. His presentation posits that it’s no longer strategic for companies to think that building a sense of purpose into their work is either optional or a “nice to have”. Companies that have a sense of purpose are significantly out-performing their competitors when it comes to four critical areas of business success:

–Employee recruitment: Increasingly, young people don’t want to work for companies that they feel do not have a strong sense of purpose. In the words of one technology executive: “There is a very blurred line between work and life – they really just want to bring their whole selves to work. And so they expect from their company that they are going to do good in the world while conducting their business.” Leading-edge companies like Atlassian, Kickstarter, Solar City, Tesla and Warby Parker are using purpose as a cutting-edge and very effective recruiting tool.

–Employee motivation and retention: When people work for companies that have a deep sense of purpose, they are much more likely to be motivated and at peak performance. They treat customers better and are more likely to be team players. They are also much less likely to be demotivated “dead wood” or to be a “flight risk”.

–Customers: The best companies find ways to delight their customers. They win and retain that loyalty when the customer feels they are doing business with a purpose-driven company. In a market that is glutted with consumer choice, companies that can’t convince their customers that there is a larger purpose embedded in the company’s DNA are at risk of losing market share, revenues, and social media buzz.

–Governments/regulators: Companies with a built-in purpose can prove they are socially minded and this wins them points with both governments and regulators. They can also avoid criticism from the rapidly-growing “informal regulatory sector” that uses social media as a tool to celebrate companies they love and to vilify those they don’t agree with.

In this fast-paced, hyper-competitive world, companies and business leaders are always looking for an edge. From social media to data mining to employee perks, today’s businesses are under constant pressure to stay ahead of the pack. John uses colorfuI anecdotes, survey data, and the example of what he has built, to demonstrate that purpose is the answer to many of today’s most pressing corporate challenges.

This powerful new presentation shows business audiences big and small, new and experienced, that “cause” is no longer the enemy of commercialism, but the key to it. Audiences will be inspired to re-think old assumptions, to dream big, and to take immediate and concrete steps to be aligned with the business world’s newest – but often-overlooked- competitive advantages: purpose.

10 Lessons Learned On the Way to Educating Ten Million Children

It takes a bold leader to publicly declare his intention to reach 10 million children with the lifelong gift of education. Especially when he is a newly unemployed former Microsoft executive without an organization behind him, or a single day of fundraising experience.

But based on his belief that bold goals attract bold people, John Wood set out to build a global team. His rallying cry was that no child should be told “You were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you will therefore not gain an education.” The initial deadline for his ambitious goal was 2020. But Room to Read has scaled beyond the founding team’s wildest dreams, and in 2015 the organization reached their 10 million students.

John is often asked what lessons on leadership he has learned while building a global team of over 1,000 employees and 15,000 volunteers. In celebration of this year’s milestone, John has looked back and written a new presentation focusing on ten lessons he’s learned during his entrepreneurial and world-changing journey. Audiences will be inspired and motivated to apply these lessons in their own positions and careers. Some of the topics covered include:

  • His first-person case study of “getting outside your comfort zone” in order to accomplish great things in previously-uncharted territory.
  • Creative thinking as a way to stand out in a crowded and competitive marketplace. This includes the time he commandeered a brand-new Cathay Pacific 777 as a promotional stunt called Literacy One, and how he turned the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, into the world’s highest “fundraising thermometer”.
  • The power of cause-related marketing campaigns to thrill the customer, attract talent and motivate employees, using case studies from dozens of innovative and pioneering corporate partnerships with Room to Read.
  • Gender diversity as a competitive advantage. From the beginning, John and the founding team embraced the adage that women “hold up half the sky”. Over half the “C suite”, half of employees, and 33% of the Board of Directors are women, as are over 60% of the organization’s volunteers.
  • The use of social media as a competitive weapon. From a standing start, John and Room to Read have attracted over a million Twitter followers, and have won awards for their online videos and marketing campaigns. They were also Twitter’s first Corporate Social Innovation partner.
  • The power of gratitude – how small things (like his Thank-a-Thon) can make a big difference in keeping a dispersed and global team feeling recognized and highly motivated.
  • Setting Moon-shot Goals in the belief that bold goals attract bold people. Wood set the crazy goal of opening libraries during Room to Read’s first decade faster than Starbucks opened outlets after their IPO, and actually attracted the talent and the resources to do so.
  • Making Cost Cutting a Fun Team Sport. John and his team pioneered a unique approach to cost control that has earned Room to Read the distinction of being rated in the top 1% of U.S. charities for economic efficiency and transparency. It all started with his famous “No Land Rovers” policy, and evolved rapidly from there as a competitive team sport.

We hope that audiences will be inspired by these ten lessons, and can put many of them to use immediately as they look at their own unique work challenges and opportunities. We have typically found the Q&A sessions after this talk to be particularly lively.

Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone

This speech was originally commissioned by Microsoft to be delivered as the closing keynote at their annual sales conference. Company executives outlined the key issues they were facing, including:

  • a dynamic and constantly-evolving technology industry
  • ever-changing customer demand, ranging from teenage gamers to enterprise clients
  • competitive pressures as the company’s lines of business were being attacked by competitors ranging from Google to Sony, and from Amazon to IBM
  • a workforce of over 100,000, many of whom had entrenched habits formed in a different era

With the goal of challenging the company’s employees and business partners to “reboot your brains”, Wood wrote this presentation as a one-person case study of how he left his own comfort zone in 1999 by “leaping out of the Microsoft airplane and praying that my parachute would deploy”.

Part 1 of the presentation outlines many of the challenges he faced as an unknown social entrepreneur, including:

  • loss of status without his executive title, large team, or well-known employer
  • the need to begin calling on government officials, a previously-unknown skill set
  • the pressure to raise millions of dollars despite no prior fund-raising track record
  • having to enlist communities in a new challenge grant model that required their co-investment
  • taking on the challenge of becoming a book publisher, since the for-profit publishers “don’t publish children’s books in languages spoken by poor people”

Part 2 of the presentation outlined the steps Wood and his team took to overcome the challenges and obstacles on the way to building the organization into a global movement. These include:

  • a constant attitude of “No Excuses, Let’s GSD!”
  • making a daily list of the most difficult things that had to be done, with the highest odds of failure, and encouraging the team to boldly tackle those rather than going after the easy stuff
  • setting bold goals, then pursuing and closing on the talent who could achieve them
  • encouraging the team, especially by “living the example of what you want to see in others”
  • constantly pushing the organization to expand its reach beyond what others thought possible, culminating in Room to Read reaching its 10 millionth student in 2015.

Some business audiences have chosen to add on an optional group exercise, in Wood is joined by a respected leader of the host company on stage. They jointly challenge the audience to pull out pen and paper, and to write down “one thing that you vow to do this week to get outside your comfort zone. Then one thing you will do this quarter. Then one final thing you will do this year”. After ten minutes, employees share their vows with others at their table. Each table then (as in Reddit) “votes up” the best and most promising ideas. These are then shared aloud with the entire room to end the session on an inspiring high note.

Note: This speech was later modified and has been presented to numerous leading-edge companies, including Google, Starbucks and Wal-Mart. Wood works closely with company leadership to understand the key challenges and opportunities they face, and modifies the presentation accordingly.

Leadership, Reimagined

Leadership Reimagined was originally commissioned by the University of Sydney for an Executive MBA lecture series. It was later modified for the London Business School’s annual “London Talk”, a required evening lecture for 600 first-year MBAs. The goal of the talk is to lay out both the challenges and opportunities in a rapidly-changing world in which leaders are being forced to think and act differently from previous generations. Wood challenges the audience, regardless of their level or job title, to re-imagine what leadership could look like if we dare to dream and think differently. He outlines 10 ways that leadership in the modern world might be positively re-imagined, including:

  • Viewing your own leadership as being derived from something other than your elevation on the org chart, the size of your office, or your number of direct reports. What if instead if came from intangibles like passion for the company’s cause, the embracing of bold goals, or living the example of what you hope to see in others?
  • Embracing disruption, and use it to your advantage, rather than denying it or running away from it “You’d rather be Elon Musk or Steve Jobs than the Detroit auto Industry”.
  • Living an example of “radical transparency” that will inspire others once they know you have nothing to hide, and are proud of the example you wish to set and the goats you’ve embraced. This can be the ultimate recruiting tool for millenials.
  • Always communicating in an authentic voice, so that everyone with whom you interact can be clear on your goals, values and commitments to team objectives. “I make hundreds of speeches, and I have never read one written by another person. If it’s important enough to ask people to listen to me for 30 minutes, then the words should be my own”
  • Being committed not just to financial metrics, but also intangibles (such as social cause, a great workplace, and teamwork) that are the best ways to make a company truly great.
  • Putting the team before the individual, through tactics such as: (a) speaking in first person plural, not singular, (b) giving credit to the many, not to the few, and (c) mentoring and encouraging team members across all levels of the org chart (“the lower down, the better”).
  • Creating an environment in which every employee is an agent of change, and is empowered to help take the organization to the next level.

During the 10 “re-imaginings”, John will cite examples from his own 30 year career (“as both a low- level grunt, and a department leader”), along with examples of a dozen leaders who have inspired him along the way.

Some business audiences have chosen to add on an optional group exercise, in which audience members are encouraged to break into small groups and to brainstorm on ways they can “reimagine leadership”, within themselves, in their department, and across the company. After a lively brainstorm, the best or most inspiring ideas are “voted up” (as in Reddit) by the table. These are then shared with the entire room as a way to end the session on an inspiring high note.

Participants are also encouraged to add several goals to their 30/60/90 objectives as a way to be accountable for “action, not just words” and to keep the high energy and spirit of the session alive and vibrant.

John spoke at our 500-person Starbucks marketing conference and was an amazing inspiration to our global team. Here is someone who is literally changing the world, and he invites you to participate! He does so with humour, energy, and no guilt. If you want to hear a story that will end with a standing ovation, invite John to speak (and then donate to his organization)!
~ Starbucks Coffee Company
John is a breath of fresh air to executives and professionals who are typically caught up in their busy lives. He connects with people’s natural desire to do good for society. John was a big hit at our Software 2004 conference, where he received a standing ovation (the only one in the history of the conference) from over 1,000 CEO’s, VP’s, and venture capitalists. He is an engaging speaker who is guaranteed to make people passionate about life.
~ Sand Hill Group
I’m sure you are on to your next adventure by now, but I wanted to take a moment to thank you for joining us in Charleston at our Conference for Nonprofits. As was apparent by your long standing ovation, the response to your keynote speech was overwhelming. The audience of more than 1200 people was inspired by your story and challenged to act. Since returning to the office this week, I continue to receive glowing comments and emails from Blackbaud employees and conference attendees. It seems that for many, you were the “highlight of the event!
~ Blackbaud, Inc.
Chris Patten

Former Governor of Hong Kong, Chairman of BBC

Richard Branson

Chairman of the Virgin Group