Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Guest Post: Andrew Carnegie, version 2.0

April 9, 2009: 11:57 AM ET
Photo courtesy of Marcena Peterson

Photo courtesy of Marcena Peterson

By John Wood, Founder & Executive Chairman of Room to Read

Here's a quick history quiz. If someone mentions Andrew Carnegie, what image immediately comes to mind? Greedy capitalist union-busting robber baron? Benefactor of thousands of community libraries? Or both? No matter what people think of old Andy's business ethics, historians agree that Carnegie's focus on creating community libraries is one of the greatest philanthropic legacies of all time.

When Carnegie grew up in 19th Century Scotland, books were considered to be a luxury item, accessible only to the rich. The poor, who made up the majority of the population, could not hope to better themselves through reading. Carnegie thought this was blatantly unfair, and late in his life he decided to do something about it. The result: more than 2,500 libraries across North America that have paid dividends for tens of millions of people, for several generations.

Fast forward by a century, to 1999. I am a burned out Microsoft (MSFT) executive who plans the ultimate escape: an 18-day, 200-mile trek in the Himalayas. No cell phone, no email, nothing to stand in the way of breathing the mountain air and trekking for hours a day to an awe-inspiring 18,000-foot pass along the Nepal/Tibet border.

On the first day of the trek, fate had me cross paths with an "education resource officer" who invited me to join on his inspection route of the local schools. He introduced me to some children--more than 400--sitting on the dirt floor of the school's library. In addition to no desks, the library also had no chairs, no shelves, and most importantly, no books.

Not wanting to be obnoxious, I said to the headmaster: "This is a beautiful library. Thank you for showing it to me. Just one question: Where exactly do you keep the books hidden?" He pointed to a cabinet in the back of the room with a prominent padlock. The school had so few books, he said, that they were treated as precious treasures. Unlocking the door, he showed me the meager supply: 20 books.

Even more depressing than the quantity was the quality. The few books the school owned had been left behind by well-meaning backpackers who wanted to help. But when you trek the Himalayas, you generally don't have extra room in your backpack for a copy of Cat in the Hat or Clifford the Big Red Dog. Consequently, the piece-meal library consisted of a Danielle Steel romance novel (complete with the bodice-ripping cover), James Joyce and Umberto Eco.

The headmaster noticed my concern, and explained: "We are too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we will always be poor."

That's when it hit me. This was just like Andrew Carnegie's youth. Over 100 years later, nobody had acted to solve the exact same problem. My mind traveled to all the places I'd visited where kids had asked me for something as simple as a book or a pencil. Post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Post-apartheid South Africa. I already knew the statistics: over 800 million people across the developing world lacked basic literacy.  That is one out of every seven human beings, and 98% of them are in the poorest countries. But it took this little school in the mountain town of Bahundanda, Nepal to take these dry statistics and make them into a reality I could visualize.

A spark was lit, and the spark soon became a bonfire.

After acting on the headmaster's request and traveling back to the school a year later with 3,000 books on the back of six rented donkeys, I was overwhelmed by the wide eyes and bright smiles of the students. They were so excited to see, for the first time in their lives, brightly-colored children's books. Within two months, I had quit Microsoft to devote my life to what people told me was a crazy idea: I would try to become the Andrew Carnegie of the developing world by equalizing access to books and educational resources.

Less than a decade later, the organization I founded, Room to Read, has opened more than 7,000 libraries and 765 schools. We have placed more than five million books into the hands of eager young readers in Cambodia, Laos, India, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zambia. Over three million children have access to this network.

Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Today, over a billion kids lack access to a proper library. This seems a moral failure of our world. Books are the ultimate way to help people to help themselves, to offer them a hand up rather than a hand out. All of us who are well off almost inevitably have our education to thank, and it seems logical to pay this gift forward by reaching out to kids who can take control of their own lives if they gain an education via the gift of literacy.

At Microsoft, we used to say "Go Big, or Go Home!" With so many kids in the developing world craving education as the ultimate ticket out of poverty, it seems an opportune time to think big about helping them. If a generation of business and philanthropic leaders were to do for the developing world what Carnegie did for the U.S., it would be one hell of a legacy to leave. For over a century, the world has avoided emulating one of the most successful charitable investments of all time. Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, why not instead aim for a successful version 2.0?

So I am going to propose a challenge to another billionaire entrepreneur – do you want to join forces, and become the Andrew Carnegie of the developing world? Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com (AMZN), Larry Ellison at Oracle (ORCL), George Soros , Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google (GOOG)-- can we talk?

John Wood is Founder & Executive Chairman of Room to Read, a San Francisco-based NGO dedicated to changing the world through education. With the help of corporate donors like Credit Suisse Group, Goldman Sachs (GS), Qualcomm (QCOM), Scholastic (SCHL) and Microsoft, his team has spearheaded the construction of over 750 schools and 7,000 libraries with five million books serving three million children across the developing world. He is the author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, which was chosen by Amazon.com as one of the Top Ten Business Narratives of 2006.

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