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Dr. Geetha Murali wants everyone to be able to read and make informed decisions. Geetha leads Room to Read, an international nonprofit organization, because she knows that when you can read and unlock your imagination, all kinds of opportunities open up for you!
Get to know Jes Wolfe, who read us the story of Geetha Murali! Jes is an adventurer, dog mom, and CEO of Rebel Girls. Hear about her favorite historical women, her advice to young entrepreneurs, and get a sneak peek for what’s in store in 2024!
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Joy Smith with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Jes Wolfe. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers were Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
Standing in a small classroom in rural Bangladesh, Dr. Geetha Murali smiles as she gazes out at a set of overflowing bookshelves, filled with new stories to treasure and share. The walls around her are decorated with colorful posters, and rows of children sit quietly at new desks.
It’s taken a lot to get here. Only a few months ago, this classroom had little color, few books, and even fewer students. Now, the turning of pages and scratching of pencils is like music to Geetha’s ears.
Geetha quietly gives thanks to her courageous mom, who taught her the importance of education and inspired her to keep reaching for this day. At the same time, Geetha knows her work is far from over. As the leader of Room to Read, she’s on a mission to improve global literacy and gender equality. Which is a mighty ambition. But if anyone can do it, it’s Geetha.
So let’s open to page one and start her story…
I’m Jes Wolfe. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebels who inspire us.
On this episode, Dr. Geetha Murali, Chief Executive Officer of Room to Read, who is making sure that millions get access to education and opportunities.
Geetha’s story actually begins long before she was born. It begins with her mother.
Geetha’s mother, Rukmini, grew up in Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India known for its beautiful mountains, temples, and rich traditions tracing back thousands of years. When she was little, Rukmini loved reading and writing. But most of all, she loved math. To her, numbers were clear and concise — they measured things exactly. Rukmini loved the calm of lining her numbers up on a page and the confidence she felt when she solved a tricky bit of arithmetic.
Rukmini was so hard-working and intelligent, that she graduated from high school at age 12. She was thrilled to be gaining independence and had big dreams. Maybe, when she grew up, she could help people as a nurse or a doctor or teach kids at school.
But, unfortunately, Rukmini’s parents had other plans. Soon after she turned 13, they took her aside.
We have arranged for you to be married, they told her.
Her heart pounded in her chest. It was hard to catch her breath.
At that time, it was a common practice in Rukmini’s family to arrange marriages for young girls. (In fact, Geetha’s two grandmothers were both married before they were even 14 years old.)
But Rukmini didn’t want to be married so young. There was so much more for her to learn, and do, and see!
So Rukmini did something unthinkable at that time: she refused. She left her family and eventually joined a training program in the Indian Army so she could become a nurse. She soaked up every lesson, feeling her mind come alive. Then, a few years later, Rukmini moved to New York City because they needed more nurses there. She realized she could work as a nurse and also go to college to study her favorite subject: mathematics.
During the day, Rukmini sat in giant lecture halls, copying down equations and tabulating complicated calculations.
At night, she rode the trundling subway to her nursing job. All night long, she criss-crossed hospital hallways, taking care of patients. When her shift finished, she often emerged just as the sun was rising. And even though she was exhausted, she smiled at the morning sky, knowing that her hard work made it possible for her to go to school and pursue her dreams.
Eventually, Rukmini earned a doctorate degree in statistics. She sent money back to her family, so her younger siblings could finish school. And when she was ready, she chose whom she wanted to marry and gave birth to an incredible daughter, named Geetha.
Geetha was born in New York City, surrounded by people from all over the world. She loved the hustle and bustle and big, shiny buildings. And she loved her mom’s stories of striking out on her own and forging her own path.
Geetha was in awe of her mother’s bravery and of all the doors that she opened with her education. So, Geetha decided she was going to be a student of everything.
First, at four years old, Geetha memorized her multiplication tables.
“Four times four,” her mom would say from the front seat of their car.
“Sixteen!” Geetha would answer triumphantly.
Next, Geetha dove into reading. She got lost in all the imaginary worlds inside each page, and tried to guess the endings like a detective.
Geetha was curious about the world around her, too. Her parents moved a lot for their jobs, so Geetha saw many different places—from New England to India to Texas! At first, it was hard making new friends and getting used to new schools. But after a while, Geetha got pretty good at adapting, and she liked that she knew people from all over the world! For a few years, her family lived in Coonoor [koo-NOOR], Tamil Nadu, to be close to her grandmother when she got ill. There, Geetha learned to read and write Tamil, her parents’ first language, and discovered her love of dance through an Indian classical dance form called Bharatanatyam.
Geetha finished high school in North Carolina and went on to study statistics at a university. She got a job at a pharmaceutical company—a place that develops and sells medicines—and analyzed data to help its leaders make educated decisions.
A statistician by her early 20s? She had made it! This was what she’d worked so hard for — a great education and the confidence to use her intelligence on her own.
Geetha felt proud and fulfilled.
Or so she thought.
She wondered what her life would look like in 20 or 30 years. Did she really want to be at a computer, running numbers for a big business, when she was 40 or 50 years old?
Geetha felt the answer deep in her bones: No.
She loved her mother so much, and had always dreamed of being just like her. But now, Geetha wondered, was there something else she felt driven to do besides statistics?
Geetha tapped into her inner curiosity and decided to go back to school. She took classes at the University of California-Berkeley, studying things that seemed new and fascinating to her, like politics, language, history, and culture.
In one class about South Asian politics, a professor talked about using statistics to understand voting patterns. Geetha’s mind lit up. What if she could combine her love of numbers with her new interests?
Soon, Geetha found a way! She traveled back to Tamil Nadu to talk to people there about how to make their lives better. They wanted enough food to feed their families. They wanted schools closer to their villages, and lights on their streets so their kids could do their homework at night.
The more Geetha learned about these urgent needs, the more determined she was to be part of the solution. She compiled all these ideas as quantitative data and realized she could use her skills to help affect change. She saw first-hand how her research and analysis made a powerful difference!
Geetha went back to the U.S., finished her degree at UC Berkeley and graduated with a doctorate in South Asian Politics. And in 2009, she joined the staff of an international nonprofit organization called Room to Read.
Room to Read helps children in historically low-income communities learn to read and write. By establishing new libraries filled with wonderful books, and employing compassionate librarians and teachers, Room to Read provides children with life-skills, mentoring, and so much more.
Geetha started out at Room to Read helping them raise money for their important work. She visited classrooms all over the world. Every time she went somewhere new, she was amazed by the children’s excitement and curiosity.
She met children in Cambodia who dreamed of becoming doctors, scientists and teachers. She met parents in South Africa who marveled at their kids’ new books. And she met young women in Sri Lanka who were driven to get the same education as their male peers.
Geetha was energized meeting all of these young people, their teachers and families and witnessing the change Room to Read was making possible. She knew that by helping children learn, they were making a real difference. And yet, she wanted to do even more.
In 2017, Room to Read was looking for a new leader. Geetha had already proven herself to be an impassioned changemaker who transformed her vision into action. So, she was asked to become Room to Read’s Chief Executive Officer. Geetha knew it would be a lot of responsibility, and a lot of work. But it was something she was born to do.
Which leads us back to that brightly-decorated classroom in Bangladesh, where Geetha is standing, surrounded by eager students. She watches as one of the girls raises her hand and confidently answers the teacher’s question. A huge smile lights up the girl’s face, and Geetha feels the whole room radiate with hope.
This is why she does it. This is how she believes in world change. Because just like her mom, Geetha knows this is how it starts — with a single voice; a single person finding the strength within herself to choose her own future.
Today, Room to Read has worked in more than 23 countries and has benefited more than 39 million children. Soon, Geetha and Room to Read will reach their goal of benefiting 40 million kids. And after that? Through education, they want to end illiteracy and gender inequality altogether.
It’s a huge goal, but Geetha is ready for the challenge. She knows that many kids in historically low-income countries, especially girls, are forced to quit school — or not allowed to go at all. She also knows that education can make so many things possible.
And like a ripple in a pond, it begins with just one pebble — one person speaking out and following a dream.
It starts with rebels — like Geetha, her mom, Rukmini, and you — making a brave choice to value education and change the world.