Library Leadership

6. Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read

As a former Chapter Leader for Room to Read, Adriane Herrick Juarez saw firsthand the important impact that Room to Read has had developing 20,000 libraries and literacy-partnerships around the world and positively affecting the lives of over 11.6 million children through primary school literacy programs  and secondary school girls’ education efforts. In this interview with Dr. Geetha Murali, new CEO of Room to Read as of January 2018, we take a global look at Room to Read’s model of deep, systemic transformation in low-income countries as they implement their vision that states, “World Change Starts with Educated Children.”

Through Geetha’s insights, we gain knowledge about what it takes to optimize organizational reach and impact with a laser-focus on an organization’s technical portfolio. This includes investing in proven solutions that address challenges for the long-term – while collaborating with communities, partners, and governments – something that all libraries must do. Come with us on an inspiring world-journey as we learn how to formulate and communicate strong, measurable results – moving beyond passion with hard work and best practices to create transformative change.

Full Transcript

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:00:03]

Does your library know how to formulate and communicate strong, measurable results, moving beyond passion with hard work and best practices? Today on Library Leadership Podcast we talk with Geetha Murali, new CEO of Room to Read, a global nonprofit organization that has built 20,000 libraries in 15 countries, over 17 years, affecting the lives of 11.6 million children. Listen to hear how Geetha uses laser-focus on Room to Read’s technical portfolio to create transformative change.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:00:46]

Welcome, Geetha, congratulations on your new position.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:00:48]

Thank you so much. It’s great to be here. I am absolutely thrilled to be in this role working for a mission that I care so much about. So, thank you for having me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:00:58]

Let’s start with the story of Room To Read. How did it begin?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:01:01]

Great question. Well, I guess first, just by starting with what Room to Read is – it’s a global organization which has transformed the lives of millions of children. We’re focused on low-income countries and specifically on literacy and gender equality in education. If we go back in our history we were started in 2000 by our founder, John Wood, and co-founders Aaron Donoghue, and Dinesh Shrestha.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:01:28]

They started the organization with the belief that world change starts with educated children, and across them, they had a mix of for-profit international experience. They wanted to create an organization that focused on measurable results for communities. They recognized that it wouldn’t be easy and they had to learn as they went. So, that same focus on strong results and ongoing learning has really evolved our thinking as an organization. If you look at us today, our innovative model focuses on very deep, systemic transformation within communities and particularly on two critical milestones in a child’s life. Early primary school, when they really need to focus on literacy acquisition, and secondary school girls’ education.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:02:17]

Room to Read has evolved considerably in the way we view our work. Working in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations, and governments to make sure that we’re developing literacy skills and also a habit of reading among primary school children. We also then work with girls as they’re completing secondary school, but it’s not just about the completion. It’s about ensuring that they have the skills necessary to make their next steps in life. So, by focusing now on quality of education and not just access, which is something that is incredibly important as we move ahead, we’ve been able to ensure that learning outcomes are measured.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:02:56]

We’ve created a model that can be replicated and localized, and most importantly sustained by governments. So, just in terms of numbers to give you a sense of size Room to Read benefited 11,600,000 children today across 20,000 communities. We still have a lot to do but we’re excited about where we’ve come so far, and really looking forward to the future.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:03:17]

It’s an incredible story. Can you share the scope of Room to Read with us?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:03:21]

We’ve worked with 20,000 communities across 15 countries to date, so quite a footprint. There’s still a lot to do, 250,000,000 children who don’t have basic skills, we’ve got 130,000,000 girls not in school. There’s a lot to do, but we’ve definitely come far in our first 17 years. We believe we have the solutions to solve many of these issues in the communities where we work. So, it’s just about getting everywhere where Room to Read is needed.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:03:51]

Staying true to your goals and mission while bringing stakeholders in takes a lot of turning passion into reality. What ways might librarians benefit from learning about Room to Read?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:04:03]

That’s a really good question, something I think about a lot. I think at the phase that I am in my life and my career, I more and more tend to shy away from the philosophy of just follow your passion. I think it’s much more nuanced than that. I think you absolutely have to put in the hard work to become excellent at something, and that something has to be important and it has to be valued – to yourself, to your company, or in Room to Read’s case, to the world.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:04:36]

The follow your passion mentality, without the work to back it, can lead you to jump from job to job, or task to task without really finding something that sticks. Alternatively, I think if you put the hours into gaining skills, knowledge, and just as importantly, really strong relationships, they make you much more successful in whatever you’re doing.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:05:03]

Room to Read has found that it really is about our network. We are a movement that has grown up from a family of individuals, and individuals within companies around the world that have supported our cause. The concept I’m speaking to – you can read books like the Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, or So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport, they talk about this idea of hard work and focus. I really do believe that hard work has been what has paved my trajectory.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:05:42]

Of course, there are things like serendipity and the goodwill of good people along the way that has helped incredibly. I wouldn’t be here without all of them. But, in the end, putting in the time to gain the skills and the knowledge and, like I was saying, just as importantly the relationship that Room to Read needs to move ahead is really what I’m focused on. I think that notion that the learning never ends is what continues to drive us forward.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:06:11]

You’ve put in a great deal of hard work in the organization over the years developing networks and relationships. What is your vision as you move forward?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:06:20]

Well, like I was saying earlier, the numbers are staggering in terms of the need across this world with 250,000,000 children not getting the basic skills – 130,000,000 girls not in school. If you asked about my vision, changing those statistics through our work at Room to Read is paramount, first and foremost in everything that we’re doing. The world, in my opinion, can’t afford for Room to Read to slow down.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:06:49]

I’m of the singular belief that we have a responsibility, while we work, to further our mission. So, everything that I do, in terms of the decision-making at the organization, the setting of our strategic direction, really is in answering this one question over and over again, what is best for the mission of Room to Read.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:07:12]

As a third generation CEO, I have an incredible opportunity to take the organization forward in a way that honors our founding legacy, but also contributes a new and fresh perspective. I see our evolution as an organization into a more established brand where more people, in more places, know what Room to Read is focused on, and they support us in our efforts.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:07:39]

We need to optimize our reach and our impact around the world through a laser-focus on our portfolio. What are we good at? From a technical standpoint, Room to Read is a technical organization at its core. We develop best practice in implementation of grade literacy and gender equality programming.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:08:02]

So, what are we best at? How do we optimize our ability to reach more children with better programs every day? Our research and our work will irrevocably establish Room to Read as a thought leader in the space while strengthening our ties to be able to do more good work. Internally, I should say it’s just as important to focus on our culture and our values. They provide the foundation for everything that we’re building. Were a 1,500-person organization so, we are all about our people, the talent that we attract, and the inspiration that we give them to do good work.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:08:41]

I do think that we can change the world but to do so, you put the hard work in for a long period of time. We need to do so in a way that strengthens our ability to embrace life and embrace joy, and having fun along the way as a team, is just as important as doing the good work we’re doing in communities. Because, this is a marathon and not a sprint, and our team needs to build to stay with us for the long haul.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:09:09]

I found great joy when working with Room to Read as a volunteer in Africa and Asian, as well as working with staff. Where did you get your models, and do you have any favorite leadership books that you draw upon?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:09:22]

This is definitely a hard one for me because I’ve enjoyed so many leadership books over the years, and largely because different ones speak to different phases of my life or career. But, I must say the book that just absolutely blew my mind when I read it was Freakonomics, largely because it made abundantly clear that things are not always what they seem, and what we think we may know we may not know. There’s always a different perspective. If I think about it more recently, I enjoyed Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat, because it just reminded me how much more control we have over being happy than we might think and emphasized a lot of other sort of leadership learning that I valued over the years, particularly. For example, there’s a book Emotional Intelligence that talks about the importance of being able to listen for understanding at work and managing your emotions.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:10:15]

I think all of these concepts tie together but ultimately it comes down to the notion that the world is made up of a lot of different people with a lot of different perspectives and at Room to Read we really do value diversity, diversity of opinion and thought. We have experts from international education. We have a business development expert, implementation, and operations experts. Each, in their own right, is bringing a certain perspective to the table, and it’s what makes the finished product what we’re delivering to the communities that we serve, so high quality and so unique in relationship to what other organizations are able to deliver, because we’ve definitely brought together a unique group of people. So, I think our perspective on how we do our work and how we deliver our work is all the better as a result.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:11:07]

Can you share some of your experience working on the ground with Room to Read?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:11:11]

There are just so many experiences that I think we as staff of Room to Read are able to be a part of simply because we are in the business of ensuring that children find the best possible future that they can. In that context, in any country that Room to Read delivers its programs, where we establish our libraries, you can see the before and after. You can see schools with no materials, little space, no furniture, or even if there is furniture, its hand-me-down furniture for adults, that’s not age-appropriate for children. It doesn’t bring to mind the childhood that we all want children to have. When you see that, as opposed to the colorful, child-friendly libraries full of hundreds and hundreds of books, with colorful covers, incredibly imaginative storylines and characters that children can relate to because they’re contextually relevant and they’ve come from their own communities, you see a child find humor and joy in a way that you would have never thought possible prior to those libraries being in place.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:12:45]

We talk about the children and how they feel, but as staff and that’s not just the staff who are designing programs and implementing but, we have very local field staff who are going to these schools, helping provide support to these teachers and who take every child in that school seriously. It’s their responsibility to see these children doing better.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:13:16]

So, Room to Read’s model is not about train some teachers and have them go off and hopefully they do a good job. But, we’re with these schools for the long-term and our literacy program – up to four years with girls’ education, to seven years in a school  – to make sure there are shifts in these communities and that there are shifts in the ways that adults view education. That having kids laughing and enjoying learning is important and having them experience the joy of learning is important.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:13:54]

That is critical to what we’re doing. It’s about, not just, the communities we serve, but the staff delivering the program to build this culture, and to build this notion that learning is fun, but is important, and that it will give these children the power and choice that they need to choose their futures.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:14:18]

One of the things that Room to Read works on is secondary girls’ education. Can you share the way Room to Read changes their lives and opportunities?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:14:28]

There’s so many girls in our program, but I’ll tell you a particularly inspirational trip for me that happened just a few years ago. I was actually able to travel to two countries on the same trip, one to Bangladesh and the other to India. The trip to Bangladesh, the program in Bangladesh was quite new at the time. The girls in the program had only been getting some of our trainings for a few months. I was able to go to one of their life skills training.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:15:02]

Interestingly, there were still boys in the classroom and the training was just about to start. The girls were very quiet. They weren’t speaking in a way that I felt like we wanted them to be speaking up in terms of any questions we were asking. They definitely didn’t feel comfortable. So, I asked our staff to have the boys leave the classroom. I had our male staff leave the classroom and I spent some time with the girls.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:15:30]

Immediately as the men left the classroom the girls gathered up around me and started asking me questions about why I was traveling without my husband, whether he was okay with me traveling, whether I would come back to see them if they continued to study well. It was clear to me that they only felt like they had a voice that was limited to certain spaces. So, I was very hopeful that our program would have a great impact on that community. I was 100% sure that we were in the right place doing the right thing.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:16:08]

I followed that trip with a visit to some schools in India and particularly to travel with a group of girls who had been in our program for six years and were invited to participate in the International Cricket World Cup.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:16:27]

We were invited as part of our partnership with the ICC to have our girls experience cricket practices, and meet some of the players, and be interviewed by the BBC. So, I approached that opportunity thinking I would need to prepare the girls to be in front of the camera, that these girls had never been on a plane before and we were taking them to an urban center from a place that was quite far away. They were traveling for a few hours by plane for the first time.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:17:01]

Before I could sit them down and start going through a proper training session they started seeing the players on the field. A few of their role models were coming off the field and they ran right up to them and started asking them about whether they were going to be focused on the next game. They were completely self-confident and assured of themselves, and knew that they had an important voice. One that could be heard even amongst six-foot tall cricket players they had only seen on television.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:17:44]

To me it was just an incredible juxtaposition of what our program is intended to do, to provide girls with a voice with choices, with a sense of self-worth. I think a lot of times in the international development community we talk about girls education as though its only value is to GDP. But, I always remind people there is really no price for self-confidence, self-worth and a sense of purpose. These girls definitely show that to us every day.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:18:20]

In closing, what does changing lives through libraries and literacy mean to you personally?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:18:25]

This is a mission that that is quite real to me because just one generation ago child marriage was not very uncommon in my own family. So, when I look back at our family and the role that education played in my mother’s fight for her own future, I can honestly say that I would not be here as a CEO of Room To Read if it weren’t for her, her story. My family history has proven to me that knowledge gives you the power of choice and dignity. So, providing literacy, providing libraries to children – it gives them the chance to learn about opportunity, but also to seek it.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:19:04]

I can’t say enough how important the transformational power of education is because both on a personal and a professional level, I’ve seen the power of education in my own family. My mother’s choice ensured that her entire generation had a changed trajectory and ensured that I am where I am today. I believe that education can ensure others have the same rights and that too, for the long term. So, it is the one proven equalizer and the only proven tool for long-term change in communities.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:19:40]

That’s excellent. Is there anything else you’d like to say or mention as we close?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:19:46]

Well, I would just end by saying that it’s incredibly important for all of us to recognize that we can be part of some pretty complex solutions. I’m known to quote Walt Disney quite a bit, and the idea that it’s kind of fun to do the impossible. The reason I say that is that a lot of time we throw out these big statistics and think about these big numbers, and it’s easy to think, well I can’t do anything about that. But, being a part of organizations like Room to Read and movements that help support our mission does ensure that millions of children can have a different life.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:20:35]

We may not be able to do all of that alone, but together we can definitely accomplish incredible things. So, I would just end by saying for all of you who believe that world change starts with educated children, join us and help us make the changes we want to see in the world.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:20:53]

Will you tell us how people find out more about Room to Read?

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:20:57]

We’d love for you to learn more about us at our website, www.roomtoread.org, and you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as well. We have instructions on how to start your own campaigns in support of literacy and girls’ education or to join a chapter. So, get involved in whatever way makes sense for you, and we’d love to have you on board.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:21:25]

Geetha, thank you so much for being on the show and taking the time to share with us your focus on organizational processes that will help librarians around the world.

Dr. Geetha Murali: [00:21:35]

Perfect. Thank you so much.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:21:41]

This is Adrian Herrick Juarez. To hear more episodes from inspiring leaders, check out our website at libraryleadershippodcast.com. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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