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In Conversation With: Erin Ganju, Room to Read co-founder and CEO

In Conversation With: Erin Ganju, Room to Read co-founder and CEO

As a mother and CEO, I often think about leadership—how I can be a better role model to my daughter, and a role model to my company.

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Cambodia to visit the programs run by Room to Read, was seeing Erin Ganju in action. The Room to Read co-founder and CEO is one of the main reasons we decided to partner with the organization; her leadership makes it as efficient and effective as it is sincere in its mission. 

We visited six schools together, greeted each time by lines of students and families. They presented paper cranes, string bracelets and other tokens of affection, which my daughter treasures.

Erin was quick to move beyond the pleasantries, asking everyone she met what she and the program could do better. Thanks to Erin’s leadership and her incredible team, each dollar donated by TATCHA has as much of an impact as possible, changing the lives of generations of girls.

V: So far, Room to Read has helped 8.8 million children and you’re closing in quickly on your goal of helping 10 million by 2015. That is amazing.

E: Next year, I hope we blow this goal out of the water by setting the bar higher. It’s only the beginning. Ten million children is a drop in the ocean compared to the 250 million children who need our help. But there is a ripple effect when you educate girls. Hopefully in the future, we’re not just talking about 10 million children at a time, but hundreds of millions of children eventually through all the great partners, like TATCHA,  that we can inspire to get involved.

V: When you talk about the ripple effect of the change that Room to Read is helping to create, I can’t help but think of not only the incredible students we’ve met on this trip, but also their remarkable mothers.

E: Most of the time women think about what can we, the community or collective team, can do to get ahead. With that mindset, these mothers and their educated daughters will help pull these entire communities out of poverty. Often, about 90% of what the a woman makes gets reinvested in her family. These women are constantly thinking about what they can do to provide their families with a safe home, proper nutrition, and an education for their children.  It’s amazing what happens when women are educated. 

V: I’ve loved watching your daughter, Julia travel with you. It inspired me to start traveling with my daughter, Alea. If I were Julia and I visited these Room to Read’s programs year after year and watched how people’s lives are being transformed from the organization’s work, it would teach me as a young person that we all have the opportunity to make a difference – that you have the power within you to change anything you see in the world for the better.

E: When one of us makes the biggest difference we can in our lives it will effect world change, regardless of our age. We’re starting to see now students in the universities who are studying entrepreneurship and are thinking about the social impact of business. It’s really heartening because they are all thinking of values: what can I do to blend both my work and values.

Something that we need to instill in our kids is that everything that we do does make an impact. You can choose to take action for good, or you can choose to do something for yourself, but in my opinion, it is more fun and impactful when you do it for good because the benefits come back to you, so many more times over.

Making a positive impact on other people’s lives is the best way to spend your time and effort. I think our kids’ generation will pick up on that if they are exposed to these experiences and hopefully exemplify that in their own lives.

V: To your point about impact, there are so many of us out there that read the newspaper headlines every day and want to make a difference but sometimes it feels like the issues are so big that you wonder - if you’re not a billionaire, can you make a difference? You want to desperately help, but you don’t know how. I’ve found it to be very freeing and comforting when I learned about Room to Read because each dollar goes so far thanks to the organization’s efficiency. So my contributions are scalable and can have a meaningful, measurable impact on incredible children who could just as easily be my own.

E: We focus on results-oriented programs and strong local teams in each of our 10 countries of operation to make this possible. If we hire the right people, give them resources, and help them partner with the government, our work is easily scalable.

The sustainable aspect of Room to Read is that we have figured out how to run the organization so that we are drawing upon the best practices internationally, bringing in great new ideas and resources from our teams and strongly partnering within the communities to create that leverage and scale our work. From that perspective, you can have a large, sustainable impact stem from a small price point.

V: I was impressed that everywhere we went, the first and last question you asked was, “What can we do better?” The outcome of that efficiency and professionalism is literally life changing for these girls.

E: I think everyone wants the positive story, but at the end of the day, this work is really hard and there are lots of challenges, and I want the country teams to be able to talk about those obstacles. Through open dialogue and transparency, we can figure out what is working and what can be improved upon. If we can make just one little tweak every year to our model, we will constantly be an organization that is improving and learning from our flaws. We can’t ever rest on our laurels because there’s so much more to do and it’s going to take everybody in every level of the organization to be able to do it.

V: Is there anything that I didn’t ask that people never ask you that you wish they did?

E: I think the biggest secret about Room to Read is the dedication and passion of our in-country staff.  I think we often talk about the schools we build, the libraries we establish, and the children and teachers we support. But the people who make it happen every day are the country staff on the ground like Kall Kann, Room to Read’s Country Director in Cambodia. Staff like Kall are out in the field taking motorbikes many hours to get to schools and libraries in rural areas in order to provide trainings, deliver resources, and monitor our work. Their dedication is truly inspirational.

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Victoria Tsai
Chief Treasure Hunter

Published August 22, 2014
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