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The power of ‘action figures’

Social entre­pre­neur John Wood issued a bold chal­lenge to the North­eastern stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff who packed Blackman Audi­to­rium on Wednesday evening for a panel dis­cus­sion on gender equality and lit­eracy education in the devel­oping world: “If you are edu­cated, you have a moral oblig­a­tion to give the same oppor­tu­nity to one child in a less devel­oped country,” he told them. “We need more action fig­ures in this world.”

Wood, who returned to North­eastern on Wednesday fol­lowing his lecture on campus in the fall, is a prime example of an “action figure.” In 1999, he quit his job as Microsoft’s director of busi­ness devel­op­ment for the greater China region to found Room to Read, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to improving lit­eracy in poverty-​​stricken areas around the world. Since its incep­tion in 2000, the orga­ni­za­tion has built more than 15,000 libraries and 1,600 schools in poor commu­ni­ties throughout 10 coun­tries in Asia and Africa, including Laos, Nepal, and Vietnam.

In 2011, Forbes mag­a­zine named Wood to its “Impact 30” list of the world’s leading social entre­pre­neurs. On Wednesday, the self­less human­i­tarian was in good com­pany, seated beside fellow panelists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer-​​Prize win­ning jour­nal­ists and co-​​authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppres­sion into Opportunity for Women World­wide. Pub­lished in 2009, the best­selling book argues that the oppression of women is the present era’s “para­mount moral challenge.”

“These speakers are per­sonal heroes of mine,” said Diane MacGillivray, senior vice pres­i­dent for uni­ver­sity advancement, in her opening remarks. “Their pas­sion, com­mit­ment, and gen­erosity are an inspi­ra­tion to all of us.”

The event was titled “Edu­ca­tion: Empowering Girls One Book at a Time” and co-​​sponsored in part by Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute, which provided a $5,000 seed grant to help Northeastern start its own chapter of Room to Read; the D’Amore-McKim School of Business; the College of Social Sciences and Humanities; and Women Who Inspire, a uni­ver­sity ini­tia­tive designed to promote the advancement of women in science, sus­tain­ability, engineering, and technology. The 90-​​minute dis­cus­sion was mod­er­ated by Sheila Marcelo, founder and CEO of Care​.com, an online platform that connects fam­i­lies with caregivers.

Halfway through the dis­cus­sion, she asked Kristof and WuDunn whether progress has been made in the battle against sex traf­ficking, maternal mor­tality, and girls’ education—the foci of Half the Sky. Kristof answered in the affir­ma­tive, saying, “The mis­take jour­nal­ists make is that they focus so much on the problems and don’t adequately acknowledge the progress.”

For example, he pointed to the global illiteracy rate, which has plummeted from 44 percent in 1950 to 16 percent in 2014. “Illiteracy has gone from a con­di­tion of the vast majority to the province of the elderly in very poor countries,” he said.

Marcelo then asked Kristof why he chose to write Half the Sky, which she said brought tears to her eyes. “There is a deep human yearning to try to make a dif­fer­ence,” he explained, noting that the brain’s plea­sure cen­ters are aroused when giving back. “We really all have that yearning to find a pur­pose and have an impact.”

Of Wood, Marcelo asked how he has used his busi­ness acumen to pro­mote Room to Read’s mis­sion to improve lit­eracy education.

“You can’t be afraid to ask cus­tomers to buy your product or ser­vice,” he explained, noting the cost of building a new library for chil­dren in the Room to Read pro­gram. “My job is to make sure the world knows that we need its sup­port,” he added. “Shame on us if we don’t take the oppor­tu­nity to reach out to every single kid.”

Marcelo later asked Wood what role gathering data plays in driving pos­i­tive change. “What gets mea­sured gets done,” Wood said, quoting a nugget of wisdom from his days at Microsoft. “We’re metric-​​driven,” he added, noting that Room to Read tracks every project in an extensive Sales​force​.com database and conducts inde­pen­dent evaluations of its completed projects.

In the Q-​​and-​​A ses­sion fol­lowing the panel dis­cus­sion, one stu­dent asked what could be done to increase the number of female exec­u­tives. “Research shows that there is an argu­ment to be made for affir­ma­tive action for women,” WuDunn replied, “and I think we should have some­thing like that.”

“Every guy has to care a lot more about that issue than we do,” Wood added, elic­iting audi­ence approval. “It’s good to chal­lenge our­selves to do better.”

Another stu­dent asked how U.S. under­grad­u­ates could make a dif­fer­ence in the lives of people living thou­sands of miles away. “All it takes to create change is a little bit of your time,” WuDunn replied. “Don’t be ashamed if you don’t want a career as a social entre­pre­neur,” she added. “Give a little bit of your talent and that’s fine.”

In closing, Marcelo asked each panelist to give a piece of advice to the aspiring social entre­pre­neurs in the audience. “Start tonight,” WuDunn said. “Form a group of friends and figure out how to contribute to the issues you care about.” Kristof, who noted that Northeastern has more social entre­pre­neur­ship students than any other university, encouraged under­grads to explore the world, saying that “Now is the time to get out of your comfort zone and see things you haven’t seen before.”

– By Jason Kornwitz

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