Leading Room to Read
Under Erin’s leadership, Room to Read has become a global leader and the benchmark of organizations in helping children around the world. This is due to Erin becoming instrumental in not just the expansion of Room to Read, but also in its flexible program designs that meet the diverse requirements and needs of the organization’s partner communities. With over ten in-country teams and two regional teams worldwide, Room to Read has become a leading organization in the field of education.
Erin’s passion in what she does comes from understanding just how important education is in the lives of children. Working hands-on with children from various racial and cultural backgrounds, Erin has come to realize one thing: that education is a right of every child, no matter what nationality or social background he or she is from. Erin often says in interviews:
“Education brings hope, and I am committed to bringing this hope to children throughout the world. Although I have always been passionate about the right of every child to be educated and the importance of fighting gender disparity in education, becoming a mother has further strengthened my resolve to make a difference. Children are the same throughout the world. They share the same wonder, curiosity, desire to learn and excitement about their future. And they deserve to have the same opportunities.”
One of the things that has made Room to Read very successful in its advocacy is the fact that even though each of its programs are diverse to meet the needs of each of its partner communities, they are all united in one common goal—to ensure that the children they help not only graduate from school, but that they graduate with the moral and emotional resources they need in order to become productive and significant members of their societies. Erin sums up Room to Read’s work in two core targets:
“Our core focus is on ensuring that more children graduate from primary school with the ability to be independent readers, which is to have the skills of reading and a regular habit of reading. Our second core focus is gender equality in education, so to ensure more girls graduate from secondary school and have the ability to make key life decisions. One of the best investments you can make in the development world is educating girls. It’s one of the key ways to really breaking the cycle of poverty in developing countries is to ensure that more and more girls get educated.”
Another extraordinary factor that has helped Erin design successful programs for Room to Read is the fact that she acknowledges just how important the role of a parent is to the life of his or her child. Being a parent herself, Erin knows that the parents are the ones who will have the greatest influence in their child’s life, as they are the people who help develop the child’s formative years.
Through her dealings with parents all around the world, Erin has also come to realize that no matter what cultural or societal background a parent has, they would always want their children to get educated, even the girls. Erin says in a blog she wrote:
“Parental involvement plays a paramount role in shaping girls' expectations for themselves and deciding how long they will remain in school. As CEO of Room to Read, a global organization that has provided educational opportunities to over six million children in Asia and Africa, I have had the great fortune of meeting many parents during my travels. While of varying cultures, a common thread unites them all—a strong commitment to supporting their daughters' education.”
Erin Keown’s Bio
Little is known about Erin’s early life, apart from the fact that she was born to a well to do family. As a young girl, Erin was greatly inspired by the life of her mother, who actively participated in charitable and social work under the United States government.
In the fifties, Erin’s mother became involved in a charitable work that taught young Japanese the English language. The following decade, Erin’s mother was among the first one thousand people who joined the Peace Corps volunteers under the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Erin would later say of her mother:
“I always say that my best role model has been my mom. She definitely was a trailblazer in her own time. She really was very internationally minded at a young age and in a time when it was very unusual in the US. So I kind of gained a lot of my love for the world around me and being a global trail blazer from my mom.”
Due to the influence of her mother, Erin grew up with the desire to help others. And as she went on to mature in life, Erin also began to understand that if she was going to fulfill this desire, she needed to have a solid foundation by having good education. Backed up with this understanding, Erin did well in her studies.
As a student, Erin became particularly interested in the educational affairs of her community, but this interest would not fully manifest until many years later. When she was in high school, Erin loved to participate in extracurricular activities, more particularly the ones that enabled her to go out and do teaching to first grade or second grade children.
Erin took up international relations and economics at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the John Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. Erin was a very intelligent and independent individual, and her professors often praised her for her excellent marks. After earning her bachelor’s degree, Erin continued her studies and eventually completed it and earned her master’s degree in both courses.
After leaving her studies, Erin went on to work for several well-known companies in which her outstanding leadership qualities and extraordinary business skills caused her to quickly rise and serve in high ranking positions.
She has worked for companies, such as Goldman Sachs, Dejima Incorporated (where Erin became the vice president of business development), and Unilever N.V. Erin also had the opportunity to go abroad and work overseas, which helped her develop awareness in terms of cultural and societal differences, something that would significantly inspire her to design diverse programs that would fit each culture’s preferences during her philanthropic work later on.
Erin’s work with Unilever in North Vietnam in the nineties, which was her last job prior to entering the world of philanthropy, nourished her desire to work in the area of education. When she was in Vietnam, Erin witnessed how difficult life was for the people there, especially for the women and girls, who were, in a way, were ‘looked down’ by society as second class citizens. In fact, boys were more likely to get educated in a family that did not have enough resources to send all of the children to school, even if the girl was the older one.
Bearing witness to the discrimination of women in terms of education, and realizing that if women were allowed to go to school, the society would be at a much better pace, Erin committed herself to helping the young Vietnamese girls. She recounted her experiences that led her to do philanthropic work in an interview:
“Ensuring a quality education for all was made particularly evident when I worked as director of operations for Unilever in Vietnam in the mid-1990s and saw the need for a greater focus on educational programs. For every year that a girl is educated beyond the average, her wages increase by 15 percent. In addition to higher wages, the completion of secondary school leads to healthier families. Educated women are also more likely to educate their own children, ending the cycle of illiteracy in one generation.”
Erin Founds Room to Read After Visiting Vietnam
When Erin went back to the United States, she began to plan how to help the children in Vietnam to get quality education. Using the experiences that she got from working with her previous companies, Erin began to draft several programs that could be feasibly used to promote gender equality in education and literacy.
With her plans all set, the only thing that Erin now needed was a partner to help her accomplish the plans that she drafted. In 1999, Erin found this partner in John Wood, a senior executive from Microsoft who had the same desire and passion for helping children after visiting several schools in Nepal and realizing that while the children and the teachers were eager to be educated, they did not have the resources to fulfill it.
And so, with Erin and John’s combined efforts, they were able to organize a global team that would be an answer to the problems that the two encountered during their trips abroad. This team grew into an organization, which they then named Room to Read.
In 2001, Erin spearheaded the expansion campaign of Room to Read in Vietnam. The response from the local communities was overwhelming, as Erin and her team found out that there was indeed a powerful desire from the children to get educated. Since then, Room to Read steadily began to grow and expand overseas, establishing operations centers in countries, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and more recently, Zambia.
Due to the amazing success of Room to Read, Erin was appointed chief executive officer of Room to Read, and started managing the program designing team as well as the expansion planning. One of the factors that led to the organization’s growth was the establishment of programs that not only gave the locals the information, but also the empowerment to spread this information. Erin explained this in an interview done with her years later:
“We don’t provide a ‘hand out,’ but rather a ‘hand up,’ by ensuring local communities are empowered to do this work. We establish libraries and provide educators with a solid foundation in library management. We give our teachers training so that reading and writing can be taught in the most engaging and effective manner. As part of providing materials that will inspire children to read, we develop the talent of local authors and illustrators.”
Erin Keown Becomes Erin Ganju
Sometime in 2005, Erin met Jitendra Ganju, a doctor who shared the same passion as her in terms of educating children. After a few dates, the couple decided to get married. In 2006, Erin bore Jitendra a daughter which they named Julia.
Throughout her career with Room to Read, Erin met various parents as she loved doing hands-on work. In these meetings, Erin came to realize that in spite of the cultural and religious backgrounds of these parents (which placed women in a ‘level’ lower than that of men), each of them had this desire to see not just their sons, but also their daughters get a good education. Erin wrote in a blog later on:
“As a mother of a six–year–old daughter, I have been humbled to witness the extraordinary lengths taken by parents and women in the communities around the world to ensure a girl's education, despite the odds.”
Erin’s leadership brought Room to Read to success after success, eventually catching international attention. In 2010, Room to Read celebrated its tenth year anniversary titled “Year of Tens,” which was marked by an extraordinary showcasing of the accomplishments that the organization has achieved all throughout the years. In the anniversary, Room to Read featured the opening of its ten thousandth library in Nepal, the construction of its one thousandth school, and the ten thousandth girl to be supported through the organization’s Girls’ Education Program.
Confucius Prize for Literacy and Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship Recipient
The following year, Room to Read became a recipient of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Confucius Prize for Literacy and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, in recognition for the organization’s efforts in the area of education. This brought Erin into the international spotlight, and from that time on began to receive numerous invitations to speak in various events and conferences to tell the success story of her organization and inspire others to do the same.
Room to Read Becomes Big
Working currently as Room to Read’s CEO, Erin manages over 500 employees, ten local operations, and two regional operations worldwide. She also goes around the world and speaks in different events, empowering her listeners through the stories of success that she and her organization have been able to attain all these years.
Erin’s work is not simple and easy, but what keeps her passionate and dedicated in what she does is the inspiration and strength she gets from seeing just how the work she is doing makes a difference in someone else’s life. Erin said in an interview:
“What definitely inspires me is when you can see the impact on the communities that we’re in. When you visit a community before a Room to Read project and then you're able to go back a year later and see a vibrant library in a school where there is a trained teacher who knows how to engage children in reading and you see the recess bell ringing and dozens of children and pouring into the library and grabbing books. We’re working with primary schools so at that age you really want kids to be drawn to education and see going to school as something that they want to do not something they’re forced to do.”
With all the success that she has attained, Erin remains to be a giver. Her life is a great inspiration that reminds us just how beautiful and fulfilling it is when you become a reason for the positive change in someone else’s life.
“In my life, I’m always thankful for the opportunity to have made a difference in someone’s life. It’s about giving just as much as it is receiving, and there is nothing better than knowing that you changed the life of a child by giving them the gift of education and being able to support the dreams and realities of all children, no matter what circumstances they’re born into.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Room to Read
- Sabre Foundation
- Scholastic Inc.
- Brother’s Brother Foundation
- Pearson Foundation
- The Asia Foundation
- Goldman Sachs Foundation
- Jones Day Foundation
- Skoll Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 2011: Won the Confucius Prize for Literacy from UNESCO (Room to Read)
- 2011: Received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship (Room to Read)
- 2012: Included in the Top 100 Best NGOs in the World by The Global Journal
- 2012: Included in the League of Extraordinary Women by Fast Company