Room to Read’s motto is “World change starts with educated children.” Why is world literacy and education so important?
There are 759 million illiterate people in the world today, and that number continues to grow daily as women without education have children who are also unlikely to be educated. Without education, a huge percentage of the world’s population will continue to be locked in a perpetual cycle of poverty. Education is the best way to break that cycle. It’s a hand up, not a hand out, and the team at Room to Read is determined to help tens of millions of children in this way.
Many people become involved with Room to Read after reading your book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. How would you describe the book and the nature of the journey you set out on when you founded Room to Read?
My book is part memoir, part inspiration and part business. It’s the story of how an individual can take a spark of an idea, build it to a fire with the help of talented colleagues, and then watch it grow into a conflagration far beyond what he could have imagined. I think a lot of people resonate with the book because it’s about an ordinary guy becoming involved in an extraordinary effort – all because he followed his passion and his dream. It also appeals to people because those who are successful almost always have education to thank, and this book is all about finding a way to “pay it forward” to kids in really resource-starved places like Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Zambia, etc.
You started Room to Read after visiting schools in Nepal and seeing the impact that lack of resources was having despite the enthusiasm of students and teachers. What has been like to visit places like Nepal years on, having played (and continuing to play) a key role in bringing much-needed resources to people in countries like Nepal?
I was in Nepal last year for the opening of 10,000th library, and I can’t tell you what an amazing feeling that was. My parents joined me on that trip, which made it even more special. In many ways, going back to Nepal is like going home, for that is where Room to Read got its start.
I also had an opportunity last year to visit all nine countries in which we work, and each time I went to a school or a library and had a chance to sit with some of the children learning to read, it was magic all over again. I will never tire of that awe-inspiring feeling of knowing that our work is making a huge difference in the lives of each child. It’s what keeps me motivated to jump on and off planes 300 days each year and to work 12-15 hours every day. We owe it to these children to give our best so that they can have the opportunity to discover theirs.
What advice would you give to Australians wanting to become involved in helping world literacy and education through Room to Read?
Room to Read’s fundraising chapters in Australia have hit the ground running and have set a new results-driven standard for philanthropy. Clearly the message of educating children is one that rings true to the people of Australia. I know from my 3 ½ years living there that Aussies are great travelers. They’ve seen the exotic parts of the world and have had fun, but have also been saddened to realize that not every child has the things that an Aussie or American kid might take for granted. So Room to Read Australia is all about reaching out in a great spirit of mateship. And for those who would like to get involved, we now have 5 dynamic volunteer chapters around the country – in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth. If anyone wants to know more, email Australia@roomtoread.org.
You have written a children’s book called Zak the Yak With Books on His Back, about a Yak which delivers books to a Nepalese mountain village with the help of two sidekicks. What were the main joys and challenges of writing Zak the Yak?
Zak was a character I’ve been developing for some time now, and so when I finally took the time to write his adventures, it was so much fun. Because the book is set in Nepal, I wanted to have a local artist bring the character of Zak to life. Abin Shrestha is *such* a talented illustrator. He created this big, hairy, smiling, iconic yak. I hope that Abin will someday be famous for his work.
The response to Zak has been great and has opened up an entire new audience of budding social entrepreneurs. Due to corporate underwriting from The Republic of Tea, this means that every copy of Zak sold for $15 generates enough money for Room to Read to print fifteen local language children’s books. It’s not “all profit to charity”, it’s actually “all revenue to charity”. Next year, Zak will travel to Vietnam in a sequel. Watch this space!
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I went through a phase of reading everything ever written by George Orwell, Milan Kundera, Sinclair Lewis and a few other classic authors. Some of my favorites from the last few years include Mendelssohn is on the Roof, Look Homeward Angel, The Help, and Room.
Room to Read has received the top rating from Charity Navigator (a world-leading independent evaluator of charities, profiled in magazines such as Forbes and Business Week) for efficient management of resources. How does Room to Read ensure contributions are used efficiently?
Room to Read was set up with a clear business model based on sustainability and efficiency. We keep our overhead incredibly low by employing our “cheap and cheerful” motto – watching our expenses and using in-kind donations of airline miles, office space, services and materials whenever possible. Because we believe the best way for projects and programs to succeed is to have them run locally, we maintain offices in each of our countries to do the work in the field. We also ask that the communities themselves invest in the projects, whether through labor, supplies or services – that approach keeps our expenses lower, but also ensures a local buy-in which makes the libraries and schools a real part of the community.
What role does Room to Read’s local language publishing in developing countries play in helping readers and writers in those countries?
Early on, we discovered that there was a need for children’s books in their local languages. How could we expect children to learn, if they didn’t have materials in their own language or stories about their own culture. Our Local Language Publishing program has been outstanding, not only in providing these materials to the children, but also by providing an outlet and training for new and local authors and illustrators. The books are gorgeous – colorful, whimsical, and with good messages about self-respect, the environment, tradition and family. The talent of the artists and authors continues to amaze me – we’ve even gotten several awards for the quality of our books.
What does the future hold for Room to Read?
We’re just starting our second decade, and I can say that I’ve never been more excited about Room to Read than I am now. We’ve got an incredible team of leaders and staff that will take the organization to a new level of success. I’m confident that we will reach millions more children with our projects and raise awareness of the issue of literacy to people around the globe. We’re leading a movement – a movement that is certain to make a dramatic change in the world. and I am both honored and humbled that so many people across so many parts of Australia have made the decision to get involved!
The Australian Literature Review