Geetha Murali Paves the Way for Gender Equality Through Education
“In my personal life, I’m keenly aware that a family’s circumstances can change drastically over the course of a single generation, through the power of education,” says Geetha Murali, Ph.D., a YPO member based in California and the CEO of Room to Read, a nonprofit organization focused on improving literacy and gender equality. “Decisions that my mother made in terms of when she wanted to get married and how educated she wanted to be directly resulted in all of the choices and opportunities I have had.”
Child marriage, a barrier to education, was common in Murali’s family just a generation ago. Her mother, the eldest of seven, broke the cycle for herself, her siblings and Murali’s generation. All are educated and pursuing their own destinies.
“The ripple effect has given me the ability to lead an organization that has reached almost 17 million children and that wouldn’t be possible without some of the challenges that my mother dealt with head on,” says Murali.
The ripple effect
Every child deserves access to a quality education, and every girl deserves gender equality and to have control over her life and decisions. The effects of illiteracy, including limited employment and income opportunities, poor health, crime, dependence and more, impact everyone. The World Literacy Foundation estimates illiteracy costs the global economy over USD1 trillion each year and creates cycles of poverty for families around the world, and The World Bank lists girls’ education as a strategic development priority.
“Not having an equally educated population means it’s difficult to have a gender equal world and a world in which poverty is eliminated,” says Murali. “The global challenges we face — climate change, political chaos, warfare — are a function of individuals not being able to function at their highest capacity to make informed choices.”
Room to Read has evolved its programs based on experience working in schools and communities. Their programs have been “calibrated to equip students with the skills they need to claim their agency and reach their full potential.”
The model focuses on systemic transformation within schools during two critical periods: early primary school for literacy acquisition and secondary school education for girls, along with the development of necessary life skills like confidence, negotiation and decision-making that help girls meet day-to-day challenges.
The results are life changing. To date, Room to Read has reached 16.8 million children in 16 countries and published more than 1,500 books across 35 languages through its Literacy Program. In addition, the organization has supported 95,000 girls through the Girls’ Education Program, resulting in a 95 percent advancement rate, with nearly 80 percent going on to tertiary education or employment.
Finding the right path
Murali’s path to Room to Read was not a direct one. As a 22-year-old with a master’s degree in biostatistics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she first worked for pharmaceutical companies. After realizing this was not her calling, she enrolled in classes at the University of California, Berkeley, and eventually received her master’s and doctorate degrees focused on South Asian politics.
“I came to a critical point where I was trying to make a choice between academia and another path,” says Murali. “As I worked on my dissertation, the organizations I had the most respect for were those that were working at a grassroots level to uplift society.”
A serendipitous meeting with Erin Ganju, a former YPO member from California and the Co-Founder and then CEO of Room to Read, led to her first job in the nonprofit world with the American India Foundation (AIF). At AIF, she gained a “sense of the nuts and bolts of a nonprofit” while overseeing major corporate partnerships that supported the growth of the Digital Equalizer Program, equipping schools with basic computing technology in 13 states across India. Still uncertain that she could fully utilize her skill set or find job satisfaction in the nonprofit space, she simultaneously explored other avenues, including teaching at Mills College and joining the founding team of a Silicon Valley startup.
The next phase of growth
Through a combination of timing, hard work and opportunity, Murali was able to pair her learnings from AIF with her background in statistics and brought it to Room to Read during a critical time of growth.
“It’s important in any sector to develop the functional competencies necessary to take your organization ahead and understand how the business works,” says Murali.
Having the ability to project revenue, take risks and build revenue models was a huge asset to Murali as she helped build corporate partnerships and eventually oversaw fundraising, marketing and communications as Chief Development Officer. On 1 January 2018, she stepped in as the third CEO of Room to Read.
“What I found at Room to Read was a leadership team and a DNA that always looked for what was best for the mission no matter what,” says Murali. “And if that took us in new directions, if that tested our resolve, if that required us to stop doing certain things and start doing new things, there was an openness in the leadership and the board to allow us to do that. I think that’s what has ultimately allowed Room to Read to grow to the level that it has and has given me the space to now take it into its next phase of growth.”
Scaling gender equality
Room to Read remains committed to solving the issues of illiteracy and promoting gender equality in education during our lifetimes. Now that data proves their Literacy and Girls’ Education Programs work, Room to Read is taking its success to scale to create long-term systemic change.
“A lot of our work has been geared toward the system itself and ensuring that it’s not just about the subsets of schools or girls that Room to Read can reach directly with our own staff but opening up our learning so governments can quickly adopt operational best practices and reach many more children much more quickly than we could alone,” says Murali.
The future direction is twofold: continuing to demonstrate and refine the quality program models to get better results for children through literacy interventions, life-skills training and community support; and to make Room to Read’s learnings broadly available, so more children can benefit in more parts of the world. For example, Room to Read is developing literacy materials to support 1.4 million students across Tanzania and learning materials for international early grade reading programs in Nepal and Rwanda. The organization has also distributed 660,000 books in Arabic to help with the refugee crisis in camps and overcrowded schools in Jordan.
For Murali, whose commitment to helping children reach their potential also led her to adopt her daughter from South India, there is still so much more she and other business leaders can do to make an impact.
“When you think you’ve reached your limit, you probably have further to go,” she says. “Challenging yourself to be better than you were the day before can sometimes bring you incredible surprises in terms of what you can accomplish.”