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Room to Read: Spreading literacy around the globe

(MoneyWatch) In late 1999, John Wood quit his executive job at Microsoft and started a non-profit charity with an impressive goal: To bring books and libraries to children who might otherwise not have access to them.

Since then, the charity has managed to build over 15,000 libraries, despite the Great Recession and other challenges. Wood joined "The Startup" to talk about his project.

Rebecca Jarvis: How much money have you raised?

John Wood: We raised over $200 million to date

RJ: Tell me about how fundraising has gone and the financial crisis.

JW: When the financial crisis hit we realized it immediately because the phones were no longer ringing with inbound calls of people wanting to fund projects. We realized we had to have feet on the street mentality, get out and basically asking for the order as much as possible. I'm really proud during the first year of the financial crisis we grew at 23 percent year on year. In 2008/2009 we grew about 20 percent year-on-year and I think a lot of that is because we just said we need to get out and tell the world our story.

RJ: You left Microsoft to start Room to Read, did you ever second guess your choice?

JW: I did, because 2000 was a terrible time to launch a charity when the Internet bubble burst and of course September 11th happened. In our second year we raised all of $150,000 -- that was frustrating because I could've just stayed at work and make more than that. But then around 2002/2003 Fast Company wrote a glowing profile and that was the first big inflection point for us. All of a sudden my mailbox was full and I will never forget I got en email from Seth Godin saying he wanted to fund two schools. The Fast Company article was a big tipping point for us. Then the launch of "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World" in 2006 helped us get our story out there.

RJ: Another one of your heroes is Andrew Carnegie. Why?

JW: Carnegie made one of the most strategic foreign investments of all time by eliminating the idea of if you are poor you couldn't get access to books or to knowledge. Carnegie himself opened 2,500 libraries around the world. When I started Room to Read, I looked for the Andrew Carnegie of the developing world and I could not find someone who was emulating Carnegie. So I said we are going to have to be Carnegie. One of the things I am most proud of is that we are now six times Carnegie, having opened over 15,000 libraries, and we are just getting started. Room to Read hopes to be 60 times Carnegie someday.

RJ: You have lined up successfully a lot of partnerships and donations, what's the trick to getting a corporate interested in helping to your non-profit charity?

JW: I think the trick is to never think of them as corporates. I think of them as living, breathing, human beings who have hearts, who have children of their own and we try to talk to them as individuals and say this is what you can do individually and here are also some ideas on how your company can help.

RJ: How does the first paragraph of your life story begin?

JW: The keywords would involve very happy household full of books and parents who encouraged me to read. My motivation was driven by thinking of my own childhood and thinking I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't grow up as a reader.

RJ: What was the turning point for you in Nepal?

JW: In 1999 I went to a village with 3,000 books on the back of six rented donkeys and my 73-year-old father in tow as my right hand man and it was the biggest day in the history of the village. The kids were lined up with flowers to welcome us. To see those kids diving into the books and to experience the impact we had was such a happy day. I knew then that this had to be emulated thousands of times, and so Room to Read was born.

For more on Room to Read visit their website.

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