Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Rebecca Chandler Leege of Worldreader Is Helping To Change Our World
Expand your view. It’s important to expand your thinking and look outside your sector for inspiration. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about motivation and what changes behavior. Like what can we learn from an exercise app that can help us encourage families to read? What can other sectors teach us about building healthy habits?
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Chandler Leege.
Rebecca Chandler Leege has over 20 years of leadership experience and currently serves as the Chief Impact Officer at Worldreader, a global technology nonprofit that brings reading to children in underserved communities. Prior to this role Rebecca has led a global education technology initiative, worked with groups like USAID, World Vision, the Australian government, and World Relief, and spent 15 years living and working throughout Africa and Asia. Chandler Leege also has six years of experience working in the private sector in international human resources consulting and holds a Master of Science in Multinational Commerce from Boston University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
During my career in international development, I spent a number of years working to prevent trafficking of women and girls. A lack of education left many women and girls vulnerable to coercion and trafficking. Because they were unable to read, they were often tricked. They weren’t sure what they were signing or how they would be engaged. Seeing this brought out my passion for literacy. I saw how important it is to offer reading opportunities at scale. I also recognized that digital reading would play an important role in developing a culture of reading and literacy skills within underserved communities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I often think about a father in one of our programs in Egypt who read to his three girls for the first time. There isn’t a strong culture of family reading, especially among fathers and their children, in Egypt. He read stories in Arabic to them from Worldreader’s BookSmart app on his phone. What a moment for that family, to have the chance to bond over stories. We talk a lot about the development of literacy skills, but as important are moments like this when a father and children came together and felt connected during storytime. In this example, we see the intersection of family engagement, changing gender norms, and the access to books that technology provides — all of which Worldreader seeks to address when we work with partners to bring reading to communities. And it’s just such a touching image. Anyone who has read to a child understands how rewarding it is. We’d like that experience to be universal.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure this is funny, but it was startling and I certainly learned from it. While working in Rwanda, I had a huge funding opportunity for the program and I needed to hire people. So I put out an ad as I would in the US, expecting to get 20 to 50 applications. I got 1,800 applications! And it wasn’t just 1,800 pieces of paper. People were actually rushing the door and security had to lock it so we could regroup. I thought, “why did I do that?” I hadn’t anticipated that response. I learned a lot about cultural sensitivity in that moment. Recruiting in Rwanda was far more complex than I had expected and I could not make assumptions and plans based on my experience in the US. I’ve taken that learning with me to Worldreader, where we consider the local context deeply when we work with partners in regions across the world. And even before I came to Worldreader, it was built into the DNA of the organization. We’ve always provided books in local languages that reflect the experiences of children in their own communities.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I’m proud to say that Worldreader recently reached the 20 million reader mark. We support readers in underserved communities in nearly 100 countries around the world. Together with our partners we’ve brought reading opportunities to 20 million people since 2010. Reading is hugely impactful in a child’s life. It is the foundation of all learning. We know that readers have better educational outcomes, better health, and more economic opportunities. When you give someone the opportunity and support needed to read, the benefit multiplies. That positive effect spreads to their family and their community. As we say, readers build a better world.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are so many children that have improved their reading skills and well-being as the result of Worldreader’s efforts. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who reads can point to at least one book that has helped shape their life. But here is one recent example: One of our partner organizations is supporting unaccompanied minors at a facility in Texas near the Mexico border. These children are on their own; they’ve been separated from their parents at some point on the dangerous journey to the US. Our partner provided these children with BookSmart, our digital reading app, on tablets. One boy (I can’t reveal his name) commented that he liked the books in English because they were helping him learn the language, but he loved the books in Spanish because they felt like home. These children’s days are highly regulated in this facility. The choice to read a book in his mother tongue was such a gift to him. Not only was it comforting, it was his choice at a time and place when he had very little autonomy. It’s a reminder that reading isn’t just about learning outcomes. Stories shore up our identities, connect us to our heritage, and provide comfort in trying times.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1. Politicians, we need you to support reading in and out of school — but not politicize it. Reading is essential for all children’s education and wellbeing, and ultimately for the health of our society.
2. For any and all adults — find a child in your life and read to that child at least 20 minutes a day. Building the habit of reading will set that child up for success. The question we should all ask is: Who have I read to today? Then, spread the word. If we all start thinking about reading the way we think about good nutrition, brushing our teeth, and daily exercise — as essential habits — we’ll build a groundswell.
3. To schools, other nonprofits, businesses and individuals — lets build strong, more meaningful partnerships.. We have ambitious goals to reach millions more young readers, but we can only do that by collaborating with other organizations, funders, and donors. Our digital reading app, BookSmart (which is always free for families), allows children to read stories in many languages in school and at home. It works across devices and can be easily integrated into education programs. So give us a call.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership starts with listening. Discover what’s going on in your organization or community by asking and listening. And once you’ve done that, engage people in the solution process. In 2020 just after the pandemic lockdowns began, we listened to the communities we work with. We heard that there was a need for families to read at home as schooling was disrupted, so we launched a crisis response. We came together as an organization and got BookSmart out into the communities that needed it most in record time, so families without access to books at home could keep their children reading.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Breaking down silos can be incredibly hard, but it is a game changer. Appreciate all the elements that drive your mission internally. For me, for example, I don’t come from a tech or product development background. So I’ve learned from the people I work with and signed up for courses in the evening. It’s been so important for me to be open and not become siloed in just the areas I know well. When we become siloed, the organization suffers.
- You’ll need to rework your messages a lot before you get them super crisp, but it’s worth it.This is hard, but I think it’s so important, especially for an organization like Worldreader, where we’re working across languages and cultures. If you can be clear about your vision and goals, people will support you both inside and outside the organization. We are currently engaged in a strategic planning process at Worldreader and I can already see how important the message is to that process and staff’s ability to move the mission forward.
- Expand your view. It’s important to expand your thinking and look outside your sector for inspiration. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about motivation and what changes behavior. Like what can we learn from an exercise app that can help us encourage families to read? What can other sectors teach us about building healthy habits?
- Express gratitude for the individuals and organizations that support your mission. Relationships are critical. Never forget that they are making a choice and a commitment to support the work. At Worldreader, we have found that storytelling is essential in donor and partner stewardship. If we can take our supporters on a journey with us that really shows them their impact, they will continue to support the mission.
- Celebrate the small victories — not just the big ones — to keep your team motivated and recognize that everyone contributes. Even the most junior staff members contribute to the success of an organization. Veronica, our HR director at Worldreader, has really helped us with this. We have a platform now that gives us points at the start of each month, which we can then send to colleagues with a shout-out for a job well done. It has engaged staff across the organization to recognize and celebrate each other, so it’s not just top-down. I’ve noticed that the culture of appreciation has improved our working relationships in these challenging times.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, I alluded to this earlier, but it bears repeating: Who have you read to today? If I could start a movement, I would want to inspire adults, or even older siblings, to read to children every day and really build that habit of reading. Reading would be seen as an essential daily habit, just like exercise. And with digital tools, you can have hundreds of books on your phone in your language — so you can read anytime anywhere.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love this quote by Colin Powell: “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters.” I remember reading that on the wall of the pool, where I used to swim with my kids. I was swimming with my infant son on my shoulder and I thought — wow, that applies to motherhood, being a great life partner, and leader in an organization. You need to pay attention to the details and continually set the bar higher. And, of course, it summarizes everything I believe about reading. It’s the daily habit that builds the skill, that supports education, and ultimately drives that success in life.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet Mr. Beast. He’s this young influencer and philanthropist. If I could sit down and share Worldreader’s story and the importance of reading for children, I think he could really amplify our message and inspire people to read. He has the power and the platform.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can reach me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/rebecca-chandler-leege-a403564/
or Worldreader at https://www.linkedin.com/company/worldreaders and on Twittter @worldreaders
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Rebecca Chandler Leege of Worldreader Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.