News

Section G Funds Construction of School in Nepal

Between the cases, classes, and caffeine infusions of the first semester, new Section G pulled together $11,770 for the construction of a new primary school in Nepal through the American non-profit organization Room to Read (RtR).

The school, completion of which will coincide with NG’s graduation from HBS, will consist of three to eight classrooms designed to serve several thousand students over its useful life.

Raising so much money originally seemed to be an insurmountable task, but the section really rose to the occasion. With contributions averaging less than the cost of Holidazzle plus tux rental, NG was able to get most of the way there. It was the section’s professors who then helped fund the gap to reach the fundraising goal.

Roughly one in seven people in the world is illiterate, many of whom are unable to enroll in primary school. In Nepal, lack of education can seal your fate as a porter, hauling 150-pound bags up and down mountains rather than far more lucrative (and comfortable!) jobs in government, tourism, etc. Room to Read attempts to break the cycle of poverty by providing universally affordable, accessible education.

Section G first learned of Room to Read through a visit from its founder John Wood. Formerly an executive at Microsoft, Wood resolved to leave his job after a trek on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal led him to a rural Nepali primary school. The only books available were leftovers from backpackers and were kept under lock and key for fear that these most precious possessions might be damaged through overuse. “Annual sales of Windows XP meant relatively little in this context,” Wood explained. “Microsoft didn’t need me the way that the children of Nepal did.”

Leaving Microsoft, however, was not an easy choice for Wood. His unvested stock option package was in the seven-figure range. He never calculated the exact amount of money he left behind, partly because it didn’t really matter. He loved working at Microsoft, but knew he could do more elsewhere. When he quit, his colleagues were shocked. “When they found out I was leaving to do things like deliver books on the backs of donkeys, they thought I was crazy,” Wood explained.

But the donkey days of Room to Read are long gone. Part of what attracted Section G to RtR was the broad scale and business-like approach to its work. RtR tracks its investment portfolio in a way that would make any for-profit proud. Schools and libraries are constantly monitored through interviews with the parents of the students, not their teachers. Floundering projects are killed; successful ones rewarded. New investments build off the lessons of old ones.

One learning, in particular, has been the value of educating women. While the local bias in Nepal is frequently to educate young men, female literacy can often yield higher returns. An educated woman is likely to have higher earning potential, but her education is also more likely to more directly improve family health and nutrition as well as lower birth rates. An educated woman is also more likely to educate her children, so the cycle of illiteracy and the associated poverty is broken. In this way, investments in female literacy can pay dividends for generations to come.

To date, RtR has established 3,000 libraries, donated nearly 2 million books, built 200 schools and funded nearly 2,000 long term girls scholarships. The organization now has operations in Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, India, South Africa and Vietnam.

Part of what makes the RtR model so successful is co-investment from the recipient community. Section G’s $11,770 will cover roughly 50-75% of the total cost of the Section G school. The remainder will be paid by the recipient community itself, in cash, materials or labor. Often, this means that the parents of future students roll up their sleeves to dig the foundation, pour cement, and frame doors. RtR’s experience shows that local communities place far greater value on assets that they helped to create themselves than on plain gifts.

Through RtR, Section G is taking a small step towards spreading the mission of HBS: educating leaders who make a difference in the world. Helping a few thousand kids through primary school, however, is only a drop in the ocean of opportunities for HBS students to work for positive change. So let’s get to work!

For more information about Room to Read, visit www.roomtoread.org

January 29, 2007
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