Inspirational Woman Interview: Erin Ganju

Erin Ganju is the Co-Founder and CEO of Room to Read, a non-profit focused expediting access to early primary school education for literacy acquisition and secondary school education for adolescent girls. Room to Read has benefited 10 million children across 17,000 communities in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia. For her work with Room to Read, Erin has been selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs, honored with the Social Engagement Network of the Young Presidents’ Organization‘s Philanthropy Award in Corporate Philanthropy and the Women’s Bond Club Isabel Benham Award. Before founding Room to Read, Erin worked at Unilever, Goldman Sachs and several technology start-ups. Erin holds a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University.

What is your background?

Erin Ganju: I was raised by parents who really instilled in me a love of travel and a global mindset to embrace the world and all its diversity with adventurous curiosity.

Prior to co-founding Room to Read, I worked at Unilever, Goldman, Sachs & Co. and a couple of technology start-ups after receiving my Bachelor’s and Master’s in International Relations & Economics at Johns Hopkins University.

During my career, I had the opportunity to spend extensive time living and working in Asia and saw firsthand the need to enhance educational systems in low-income countries. When I co-founded Room to Read, I led Room to Read’s expansion into Vietnam. From the early start-up days of Room to Read, I’ve been involved in the design and implementation of the organization’s scalable, replicable model for improving the quality of education. 

I’ve always been passionate about equality, justice, and opportunities for all people no matter their social, economic, religious, ethnic or gender backgrounds. That is core to the values of Room to Read and what we work hard towards every day.

You are the Co-Founder and CEO of Room to Read, a leading non-profit focused on girls’ education and children’s literacy in Asia and Africa. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to found Room to Read?

Erin Ganju: During my time living and working in Asia, I was able to witness firsthand many of the struggles and gaps in education that communities faced. I believed that there was something that could be done to improve the system and began to think about what someone with my background may be able to do.

My own career in male-dominated industries like banking, at Goldman Sachs, and manufacturing, at Unilever took an enormous amount of grit and resilience. However, I knew that my struggle paled in comparison to the societal barriers girls and young women face in many countries around the world.

My experience had taught me that education is an equalizer and I was inspired alongside Room to Read’s other founders to create a movement to change the global education landscape.

What were some of your biggest challenges in founding and leading Room to Read?

Erin Ganju: Room to Read focused its start-up years on achieving tremendous programmatic growth. Over the years, our hard work and commitment to our mission have resulted in the ability to systematize and institutionalize best practices, and for governments to start adopting our work to benefit more children. It was an initial struggle to get our feet off the ground, both financially and practically to launch operations in various countries. But at our core was the belief that a solution to the desperate lack of educational resources at many schools could be found in the philanthropic mobilization of global resources for education, supported by a passionate network of international donors and channeled through local governments to individual communities on the ground. I am so grateful for the deep teamwork and collaboration with my co-founders and staff during our start-up years.

We’ve now developed partnerships with local governments in 10 countries and beyond, and have incredible in-country staff who have helped us overcome enormous challenges. Because of this, we have been able to impact even more children worldwide. Room to Read has now supported more than 10 million children since 2000 to pursue their dreams through education – a goal we met five years earlier than planned. We are now aiming to reach 15 million children in total by 2020.

As we grew rapidly to other countries outside Nepal, our internal assessments and early cross-national evaluations demonstrated that children were still unable to read at grade level and were not reading for pleasure. Attributing this fact to the lack of culturally relevant reading materials, in 2003 we evolved from English-language book donations and began publishing quality, age-appropriate books written in local languages. Because many of the countries where we worked lacked such local-language reading materials, we began to identify and train local authors and illustrators to produce these types of materials. To date we have published more than 1,200 original, local language children’s titles.

Sixteen years after our founding, I take deep satisfaction in our accomplishments thus far – at the same time, I know that we have a challenge to reach even more children in the future. As part of Room to Read’s commitment to providing high-quality educational opportunities to children in the most effective way possible, every five years we reflect on our work and how we are going to tackle key challenges.

 Can you discuss some of Room to Read’s girls’ education initiatives? What are some hurdles to education that differ in Asian countries and African countries that you have worked in?

Erin Ganju: Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program ensures that girls complete secondary school and have the skills to negotiate key life decisions. Our program reinforces girls’ commitment to their own education, works with girls to develop essential life skills and increases support for girls’ education among their parents, school staff and communities. Key to our program are our social mobilizers, local women who are hired as mentors and work with girls and their families to ensure that girls stay in school, participate in activities, and navigate the challenges of adolescence with the ability to make their own life choices, both personally and professionally.

Among regions where we work, there is variation in the obstacles girls face which include early marriage and lack of material resources, but societal gender biases are consistent. Girls are often required to stay home and work for the household while male children are allowed to attend school. In certain countries, like Nepal, traditional (although outlawed) practices in rural villages often send girls away from their homes to work as indentured servants which prevents them from attending school. In communities in Africa, girls miss school during their menstrual cycle due to lack of bathroom facilities at their school or access to sanitary napkins.

Room to Read is rooted in the community and its needs. We have developed key trainings from our own best practices from our Girls’ Education Program, which are localized for each market where we operate.

What motivates you to continue advocating for girls’ education?

Erin Ganju: I remain motivated because our model works and is greatly needed. In 2015, 95% of girls who remained in our Girls’ Education Program advanced to the next grade, and of our 2014 graduates, 2/3 went on to enroll in some form of secondary education (university, college or vocational school) – a rate far higher than generally seen among girls in the countries where we work. We are also developing and testing new systems for targeting girls most at risk for dropping out to ensure they are supported to continue their education.

Room to Read is investing in girls’ ability to thrive, reach their potential, and be drivers of change in their communities. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to meet with young women who have the potential to change their futures and the futures of their families for the better through education. This is so powerful, and is more than enough motivation for me to devote all my effort to advocating on behalf of these girls.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Erin Ganju: I believe that women have been left out of the equation for much too long. Beyond the premise that all human beings deserve access to undeniable rights, which include education, the empowerment of women is key to a better future for everyone. Research has proven time and time again that investing in women leads to impacts far beyond the individual. Educated women are more likely to educate their own children, delay marriage, earn higher wages and invest in their own communities.

For me, a woman’s empowerment is not something that is given by an external party – but something that a woman or girls discovers within herself. Room to Read aims to teach girls in our program that they have a voice and can map their own futures. This power of choice has shaped my life in profound ways – it has allowed me to become a leader in the workforce and fight for my place as a woman, whether it was during my time in the business world or now with Room to Read.

My choices have been influenced by my supportive parents, my valuable education, and my surrounding environment, which recognized and nurtured my ability to choose my own destiny. This is not the case for so many girls who live in low-income countries. When young women have a strong sense of their own worth, can imagine alternative futures for themselves, and make their own choices, then that is success in my book.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Erin Ganju: The girls I have the opportunity to interact with through our Girls’ Education Program continue to impact me on a regular basis. Their grit and resilience are extremely admirable. One such girl is Phung, one of our Girls’ Education Program alumnae in Vietnam. She became the head of her household at 14 after her mother died from cancer and her father moved to Ho Chih Minh City where the pay was higher so that he could keep his children in school. Phung woke up at 3:00 each morning to review her homework, prepare breakfast for her younger brother and sister, and ride her bicycle for 90 minutes to arrive at school on time. She says that without Room to Read’s support she would have had to drop out of school to work in a factory. But she persevered and after graduating from secondary school and passing the university entrance exam, Phung is now studying Human Resources at the University of Labor and Social Affairs in Ho Chi Minh City.

Girls like Phung and many others are great role models to me, influencing my work and providing great sources of motivation.

What are some of the best ways people can get involved with improving global access to education?

Erin Ganju: Each and every one of us has the opportunity to make an impact and effect change by raising awareness and investing in global education. I encourage those reading this interview to find organizations that are transparent, data-driven and effective in bringing access to quality education to communities. At Room to Read, we have had the honor of working with thousands of dedicated volunteers and investors around the world, empowering passionate individuals in their quest to make transformative change. Learn more about how you can take action with Room to Read here.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to women’s empowerment, education, or social development?

Erin Ganju: It is exciting that there are a wealth of quality resources promoting the importance of girls’ education and literacy around the world. I believe the film Girl Rising— which features Suma, a participant in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program— does an incredible job of capturing the struggles of many girls around the globe, using the power of storytelling to share the simple truth that educating girls can transform societies. Similarly Half the Sky, the documentary inspired by the book of the same name by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, raises awareness, spurs action, and creates positive change in support of women’s empowerment. Room to Read is proud to be one of six organizations profiled through Nick Kristof’s visit to Vietnam where viewers are introduced to three inspiring students in our Girls’ Education Program—Phung, Nhi and Duyen.

Another resource I recommend is Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative which leverages public-private partnerships and challenges others to commit resources to improve the lives of adolescent girls worldwide. This initiative highlights community-led solutions to help adolescent girls complete their education.

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