Room to Read envisions a world in which all children can pursue a quality education through learning to read. Now 10 years old, and having helped over 7 million children in 10 countries, the 50 chapters of this remarkable organization are now on track to lift 10 million children out of poverty. Before images of studious, teacher-like types come to mind, consider that Room to Read has a leadership team comprised of corporate veterans from Goldman Sachs, Gap, Microsoft and Unilever.
The team has a shared commitment to hiring and retaining a talented and passionate global team and they are now lending their expertise to kids around the world. A staggering 14.5 million books have already been distributed and 16,549 libraries have been established. Erin Ganju (above), CEO and co-founder of Room to Read was influenced by her university professor father and social worker mother. You could say that she is the perfect result of their combined talents.
“I grew up with a deep understanding of the value of education,” says Ganju. “My father was the first person in his family to go to college and even in my own country, the United States, it has only been a few generations since we’ve seen the impact that education can have,” she says. The importance of giving back was instilled in Ganju from an early age and she is fond of quoting, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” a philosophy she subscribes to when looking around the world wondering how she can make a difference.
Her early career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs turned into a job at Unilever, which came with a posting to Vietnam. “This was a pivotal point for me,” recalls Ganju. “I was in my late twenties and working in a developing country where foreign direct investment had just been allowed and I could see how the work we were doing had already made a difference within one generation. I saw how education has the power to break the cycle of poverty,” she says.
“If you build a strong education system you can pull a country, community and every family out of the grips of poverty. I was also profoundly affected by how hard women were working – around the house, on child care and in the fields – and how much of the livelihood of a family depends on the work of women.” Ganjun realized that if you educate women in communities such as these, it creates a ripple effect. One of the most powerful ways to improve family nutrition and health and for a child to become literate is if there’s already a literate mother in the home.
“We began Room to Read to focus on child literacy and girls education in particular,” says Ganjun. “We try and keep girls in school for longer to ensure that they become empowered and take control of their own lives.” One of the greatest challenges of any global organization is to ensure that you are locally relevant. “The worst thing you can do is arrive with a cookie-cutter approach and develop solutions that aren’t relevant to the context of a country,” explains Ganju.
Partnerships with communities and government’s alike ensure proper support for Room to Read and employing local staff helps with language and cultural barriers. “People are driven by a passion for expertise. This is authentic leadership because it often comes from a deep sense of commitment for what you are doing,” says Ganju.
“The desire to create change speaks volumes about what committed leadership really means. I have developed cross-cultural skills and an ability to understand the global nature of the world around me. It’s no longer enough to just understand your own country’s perspective if you want to become a dynamic leader.
So much of the world today is interdependent and connected. “It’s critical to develop skills that understand and bridge cultural divides,” says Ganju.