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 the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness; the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties; Northeastern’s Social Enter­prise Insti­tute, which pro­vided a $5,000 seed grant to help North­eastern start its own chapter of Room to Read;  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.

Panelists fielded questions from the audience during a Q-and-A. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

Pan­elists fielded ques­tions from the audi­ence during a Q-​​and-​​A. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

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.”

In her con­ver­sa­tion with Wood, Marcelo focused on how the social entre­pre­neur 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,” Wood 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 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.”