Image: John Wood
Forbes
John Wood turned his back on a job as a well-heeled executive for Microsoft in Asia to develop a foundation that focuses on increasing literacy there.
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updated 10/5/2006 5:09:39 PM ET 2006-10-05T21:09:39

Back in the mid-1990s, John Wood was living large. As Microsoft's director of business development in China and director of marketing for the Asia-Pacific region, he was Bill Gates' point man in Asia. He traveled the world, was shuttled to meetings in chauffeured cars and wheeled, dealed and dined at four-star restaurants

These days, Wood's meetings are held in developing countries over cups of tea with heads of villages. He left his jet-set lifestyle in 1999 to found Room to Read, a nonprofit that builds schools and libraries in developing nations. Wood details his personal and professional transformation in his new memoir "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World."

(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal News.)

Abandoning corporate America to solve the world's problems is not for everyone. But in the last decade, more execs seem willing to give up the fight to get ahead in their own careers so they can battle on behalf of others. Forsaking pricey creature comforts is a little easier than it used to be. Top executives have amassed massive amounts of wealth in recent years. Just look at the Forbes list of the 400 Richest Americans , where the price of admission is now $1 billion.

Evidently, there are only so many new jets or Bentleys one can buy. Newly anointed millionaires and billionaires are looking to do something altruistic with their wealth. Case in point: President Bill Clinton's recent Clinton Global Initiative, which partners business people — and their money — with projects aimed at improving the quality of life for the world's poorest citizens. Clinton raised a record $7 billion during the three-day conference. Like Clinton and CGI's attendees, many former corporate executives are trying to replicate their business success in the nonprofit world.

"Making a lot of money doesn't make you a good person — it makes you a lucky person," Wood says during a phone interview from his San Francisco office. "The question is, What do you do with that good fortune?" For Wood, that meant quitting his lucrative job, leaving Asia and moving to San Francisco to start Room to Read.

It all happened rather quickly while on a rare vacation to Nepal. While there, Wood visited a bare-bones schoolhouse in the Nepalese mountains. The school's library was a joke. There were some old travel guides left by visitors; other than those, books were scarce. When Wood got home, he e-mailed friends, encouraging them to send him children's books.

That mass e-mail procured hundreds of books. Months later he returned to Nepal with his father to donate them. The villagers' joy changed his life. When Wood quit his job to start the nonprofit, "a lot of people though it was absolutely crazy," Wood says. "I didn't want to tell people, because they were talking me out of it."

Wood was well-equipped to start Room to Read from his days as a corporate executive. He was used to breaking through bureaucratic tape, pulling all-nighters and organizing. But it wasn't easy. He didn't take a salary for the first four years and went through much of his life savings. He won funding from several places, including the Skoll Foundation, and with it, designed an infrastructure.

Room to Read is expanding into Africa and India and is setting up educational infrastructures and offering scholarships. There is a particular focus on young women, who are often kept out of school to help work. The eldest son is typically the only child sent to school, since it's too expensive to send all the children. Wood says that in developing countries, it costs about $250 to send a girl to school, but it can "forever change a girl's life." "If you educate a man, you typically educate the man," he says. "If you educate women, you're educating the next generation. We're trying to undo that balance. That's the way to break the cycle of poverty."

While Woods' friends tried talking him out of leaving the corporate world, Ramji Raghavan's friend talked him into it. As head of product management at Citigroup's Citibank, he traveled all over the world for work. "I was like any other young M.B.A. yuppie trying to make it," says Raghavan in a phone interview from India. In the late 1990s, he was working in London as a consultant and was married with a daughter. "We were living well and not worried about money and expenses," he says. "But I was restless. I felt an inner urge to do something more meaningful."

That came in the form of returning to India to bring education to the poor. A social-minded schoolmate told him not to worry about the financial consequences and do what would be fulfilling. Raghavan took his friend's advice, but talking his wife into leaving London's posh Kensington neighborhood to move back to their native India wasn't easy. Indian cities are "a mess," and they'd be living off his savings.

They decided the sacrifice was worth it. Raghavan's family connections helped get him meetings with the country's top scientists. Together, they devised a model to bring creative, hands-on methods of teaching science to remote Indian villages. The organization, Agastya International Foundation, trains instructors who travel throughout the region in repurposed vans and teach one-day creative science lessons to poor children. The hands-on method gets the students excited about learning. Agastya has about 20 mobile labs. Each one can reaches about 50,000 children per year, Raghavan says.

Like Raghavan and Wood, Jane Newman was inspired to educate the world's poor after working in corporate America for 30 years. Newman was a founding partner at the Madison Avenue advertising firm Merkley Newman and Harty. It was a job that enabled her to buy a downtown duplex and a farm upstate. When she retired, she intended to do "nothing" after she returned from a six-month trip around the world. Her criteria: She would only visit places that didn't have electricity.

Those communities profoundly affected her. She decided to stay, but she wasn't quite sure what to do. "No one is in need of a Madison Avenue executive in a small village," Newman says. Toward the end of her travels, she met David Campbell, the head of an African organization that uses the media to educate and enhance people's lives. She showed up at Cambpell's office, and since then, she has taken on a number of projects. She works in northern Kenya to set up pre-schools in outlying nomadic villages. She also devised a project that educates parents about important health issues by reaching out to children who are learning English in addition to their tribal language. Through the program, 12-year-olds in Kenya can receive a booklet to take home to their parents that explains things such as the importance of using a mosquito net to prevent malaria.

Her advertising skills and experience come in quite handy. "They were all relevant," Newman says. "Organizational skills are key. You also have to know how to develop strategies to achieve your goals and change them if necessary. I always have Plan B in my pocket. That was essential for advertising."

Newman returns to the U.S. for four months a year to teach an advertising class, for which she receives "a nice salary," and to fundraise. She spends the rest of the year in Kenya. "It's not easy, but I love everything about it," she says.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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