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Experience Management

CEO of Room to Read Geetha Murali: ‘Reading is a ticket to freedom and choice’

As part of our Breakthrough Builders podcast series, our VP of Tech Jesse Purewal chats with Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read, about the importance of developing skills, the story of one girl who went from indentured servitude to sharing a stage with Hillary Clinton, and what she means when she talks about “treasure hunting.”

Listen to the complete podcast episode of Breakthrough Builders with Geetha Murali

Early reflections

There is no question as to the value of literacy for any person, living in any part of our planet. However, the group that has most often been denied the privilege of literacy and its attendant benefits has been young girls, especially those in low-income countries.

Geetha Murali, the daughter of immigrants from India, recounts the early influence of reading on her education early in life:

“Reading was a central part of my life as a child. From comic books to detective novels to spiritual texts, I was exposed to so much. And I was fortunate I had the space to learn, to debate, to question. [...] From [my parents’] perspectives, as long as I kept learning and ultimately became self-sufficient, they were happy. So they let me read as many books as I wanted and imagine my life on the pages of those books.”

Parents, and others in our communities, set the tone for a child’s education through their own posture toward learning. Geetha’s mention of the “space” provided for her to debate and question is especially noteworthy, given that she was just one generation removed from a community where arranged marriages for girls at almost prepubescent ages was commonplace:

“Mom came from a family where child marriage was pretty common. She was pressured to get married at 13 and refused, left home, joined the Indian army to train as a nurse and came to the United States, and she viewed that transition, that move to the US, as her ticket to freedom and choice.”

Now as the CEO of global education non-profit, Room to Read, Geetha is dedicated to providing millions of children with that same ticket to freedom and choice. Though she never saw herself becoming a CEO earlier in her career, she feels blessed to be able to bring her skills, passions, and personal experiences together to help end illiteracy and gender inequality.

Behind the Breakthroughs

Following in the footsteps of her mother, Geetha began a career in data and statistics. She says that after only a short while, she realized that she was still searching for direction in her career.

It was through access to education that she found that direction.

“I pursued classes in South Asian studies. It was exciting to see how my skill sets in data and statistics could be used in the social sector, and I started working with election data in India and voter surveys to observe what communities seek around the world.

“I realized that the organizations I had the most respect for were community organizations that were trying to help uplift society. That started my exploration into the nonprofit world.”

After over a decade as a leader in the non-profit space, Geetha has become an icon of impact, leading an organization that is on course to help over 40 million children across 25 countries through literacy programs, access to books, on-the-ground implementation of training programs, and taking the lead on driving systemic change in education systems worldwide.

Educating the World

Geetha talks about a pivotal moment in her role as CEO of Room to Read.

“We had to ask ourselves, can we grow this way indefinitely? Is it just about adding additional schools or additional girls every year? Or can we be bold and say that we have solutions to this problem? We made the decision to be bold.”

For Geetha and Room to Read, this meant committing to working with local governments, community leaders, and trusted experts to create systemic change.

Of her mother’s example, Geetha says,“One woman, my mother makes a decision not to get married at the age of 13 and instead sets off to change not just her own life, but invest back in the lives of her sisters and their education, such that our entire family is in a completely different situation right now with the majority of my generation being girls, having chosen their own destinies, everything from doctors to engineers to me in this role. So I've lived that experience. So I don't take it lightly when I see similar transformations in the lives of many of the children that we serve.”

That ticket to freedom and choice for one child becomes a ticket for a family, a generation, or an entire community.

Listen to Geetha chat with our Chief Industry Advisor, Tech, Media & Telecom, Jesse Purewal in a recent episode of our Breakthrough Builders podcast.

Breakthrough Builders is about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine – and the persistence to build – breakthroughs.

Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Greetha Murali