Dr. Geetha Murali, CEO of the literacy nonprofit Room to Read and member of Forbes Nonprofit Council, has one audacious and inspiring goal: eradicating illiteracy and gender inequality in education. In pursuit of this, she oversees Room to Read’s global operations, which include programmatic work in 16 countries, a global network of investors and volunteer chapters, and a worldwide staff of more than 1,600 employees.
Geetha has diverse academic and career experience, from statistics to pharmaceuticals to South Asian politics. She’s followed this roundabout path to end up in the nonprofit sector with Room to Read, a vantage point that allows her to impact the next generation, instilling the values of hard work and respect for education that her parents nurtured in her.
Below, we find out what motivates Geetha, how she lives and works, and what success means to her.
My trademark is joy. I recently read Joy, Inc and was struck by the positive consequences that happen when we make joy an explicit goal. I don’t mean joy as a synonym for fun, but joy as the deep sense of accomplishment that comes from working toward a goal bigger than yourself. At Room to Read, leading with authentic joy creates a shared belief system that gives us the space to support one another, address conflict, embrace mistakes, all while fostering dignity and trust. Finding joy in our work is a recipe for success, so I’m happy to champion joy every day — for my teams and, most importantly, for the children we serve!
On Her Work at Room to Read
We are a 1,600 person organization with important work to do around the world, and I need to stretch across various roles every day — strategist, implementer, relationship builder — effectively to do this mission justice and ensure our team has everything it needs to do its absolute best work. I have learned that the human capacity to learn and grow is remarkable, and I feel privileged to grow with Room to Read.
Every time I get the chance to visit our programs and see our work in action, I am inspired by the change I see taking place within a single generation. Children supported by our Literacy Program are the first in their families to become literate, girls on our Girls’ Education Program are largely the first in their communities to make it to and complete secondary school, perhaps first to go to university or pursue a career outside the home — successfully advocating for their independence.
I don’t doubt that Room to Read has impacted children that will grow up to change the fabric of our global community, building a better tomorrow for their children. To be able to sit at the helm of an organization, helping millions of children realize their potential, find their voices and achieve their personal goals, is an honor that I don’t take lightly and one that never gets old. There’s no expiration date for the changes we are facilitating all over the world and that impact will be felt for generations to come.
On Goals and Results
At Room to Read, we are known for setting what we call Big Hairy Audacious Goals — goals that wildly exceed expectations. Reaching and exceeding those goals automatically highlights the success of our mission, our team, and our program efficacy. One of our goals, for example, was to benefit 15 million children by 2020. Well, I’m pleased to say, mission accomplished and exceeded two years ahead of schedule, as we’ve reached 16.6 million children.
Room to Read is results driven and keenly focused on the measurement of our outcomes. We rigorously track our progress and are committed to putting data at the heart of an evidenced-based program design, holding ourselves accountable not just to our investors but to the children we serve.
I have always tended to shy away from the “follow your passion” philosophy and believe in the notion that you have to put in the hard work to become excellent at something that is important and valued. Learning and achievement can help you develop passions you never had on your radar. This is not to say, start on a career path and just work at it all your life — as I certainly did not, but rather ensure that what you’re doing is opening you up to new skills and experiences that can optimize your positive contribution to the world. That was the lesson I learned as I built my career and one that I repeatedly come back to as I think about my calling.
The life I’ve built and the lessons I’ve learned in forging my career path have been instrumental in getting [me] to this position. Every mistake, every challenge, every success, has been an opportunity to learn and evolve, and I’m grateful for the diverse experiences that have equipped me to lead Room to Read. Perhaps, looking way back, I would have taken more time to enjoy the learning process in school rather than just focus on grades, but that’s a lesson I share with my children and hope they will benefit from, and it is a lesson that now drives my obsession with ongoing learning and reflection.
Creating meaningful, lasting change is far from immediate. It takes persistence and determination, child after child, generation after generation. As an organization, the Room to Read team is locked in and committed to the mission.
What’s on your desk besides your computer?
The commemorative medallion from the New York Stock Exchange when Room to Read rang the bell in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday.
What is your spirit animal?
At times, the elephant, other times the butterfly — quite the contradiction!
App you can’t do without?
Historical figure you wish you could meet?
So hard — depends on my day and what topic my mind lands on — Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Emerson, Gautama Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Queen Victoria — the list goes on and on…