It Began With Books

My defining moment happened 10 years ago. In April 1998, I'd spent seven go-go years at Microsoft. Tech was booming, I was working 24/7 and had 75 people reporting to me. I needed to get away. The Annapurna circuit in the Himalayas seemed the ideal escape.

That's where it happened. I know "epiphany" is an overused word, but on the second day of the trek, I was invited to visit a local school. When we got there, I was shocked. I'd thought I was going trekking through Shangri-La, but here was absolute poverty, and poverty of opportunity. What really struck me was when the headmaster showed me their "library." They had no desks, no chairs, no shelves—and no books. He then spoke a sentence that would forever change my adult life: "Perhaps, sir, you will come back with books." A very simple statement, but it hit me hard. I'd had the good fortune to grow up in a household that valued reading, and my own family had used education as a ticket out of poverty. I'd made a decent amount of money at a young age, and I thought, I can get 500 or 1,000 books and help give these kids an education.

Back in Katmandu, my first stop was a cybercafé, where I e-mailed friends around the world asking for help. I thought maybe we would get a couple of hundred books. But 3,000 arrived in the first month, and by early '99 the book drive was a wild success.

By then I was based in Beijing, running business development for Microsoft's Greater China Region. On the first anniversary of the trek, I went back with my 73-year-old father—my new unpaid volunteer—and 3,000 books on the backs of six rented donkeys (on future trips, I'd upgrade to yaks). We visited 10 schools, and the outpouring of emotion was overwhelming. When the kids saw the books, they started grabbing them wildly—it was like a mosh pit—and they would then sit calmly reading to each other with these huge smiles on their faces. Nothing had ever felt better to me.

I sat down that night with my father and asked, "Is this enough?" There are hundreds of thousands of villages across the world in this situation. It was great to do these 10 libraries, but this was a drop in the ocean.

I knew there was something ticking inside me, telling me that Microsoft probably wasn't my future.

I returned to Beijing and quit. I left one of the world's best-known companies to start an organization that had zero brand recognition and no capital. Just my passion and energy.

Room to Read's goal is to help 10 million children gain an education. That's the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Education is a hand up, not a handout. We've built an organization that applies business principles to philanthropy, including the principle of scale. If a business opens an outlet every time it sees an opportunity, why can't an education organization?

We build schools, we work with communities using volunteer (but required) parental labor. If you want a school in your village we'll help you, but you have to roll up your sleeves and dig the foundation and carry the cement yourself. We're also establishing bilingual libraries, because we want kids to be able to read and write in their mother tongues and in English. We're very data- and performance-driven. We're in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, South Africa and Zambia. So far we've opened 444 schools, and we'll be at 700 by the end of this year. We've opened 5,100 bilingual libraries, and will more than double that in the next three years. We have 4,000 girls in a long-term scholarship program, which will increase to 7,000 this year.

Why did I do it? When I started out, I was going through what a lot of people go through. I was prosperous, but what was the purpose? As a kid, I always wanted to have money, but once I had more than enough, I had to figure out what to do with my good fortune. I was searching for meaning. Room to Read has brought that.

We're happy with what we've accomplished, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. There are 100 million children worldwide not enrolled in primary school, and nearly 800 million illiterate people in the developing world. I'd like to catalyze the biggest build-out of educational infrastructure in the history of the developing world. The human spirit and this amazing device called the brain will allow people to break the cycle of poverty, within one generation, if kids grow up with books and schools. In the greatest era of wealth creation in human history, can't we reach deep, and give those kids that amazing opportunity?