Adam Braun is the Founder of Pencils of Promise, a leading nonprofit organization that has broken ground on more than 250 schools across Africa, Asia and Latin America and delivered over 21 million educational hours. PoP was founded with just $25 using what Braun coined as a "For-Purpose" approach to blending nonprofit idealism with for-profit business principles.
How did you get into the non-profit industry?
Pencils of Promise does not believe in the term “nonprofit.” Instead, we consider ourselves a “for-purpose” organization, which is the blending on non-profit idealism with for-profit business acumen in our 501(c)3 organization. We are still whole-heartedly driven by our results, and this approach allows us focus on creating incredible impact just by a simple shift in terminology.
In terms of our story, years ago while traveling I asked a young boy begging on the streets of India what he wanted most in the world. His answer was simple: “a pencil.” I reached into my backpack and handed him mine, and immediately saw his eyes light up with possibility. This moment instantaneously unlocked my sense of purpose, and since that moment I have been completely invested in global education.
Tell us about Pencils of Promise. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
Pencils of Promise (“PoP”) is an organization founded in 2008 to increase access to quality education for children in the developing world. PoP works with communities across the globe to build schools and create programs that provide education opportunities for children, no matter where they were born or what resources they have available. PoP has built more than 250 schools throughout Laos, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Ghana, providing education opportunities to over 30,000 students.
Our vision at PoP is for a world where everyone has access to quality education. We’ve recently layered on teacher training, student scholarships and technology pilots onto our programs as well.
What strategic partnerships have you implemented that have attributed to PoP's success?
At Pencils of Promise we believe in the power of long term partnerships with forward thinking companies to help expand our base of support and enhance the reach of our work. Some of our partners include Warby Parker, General Assembly, VaynerMedia, CommonBond, 1-800-Flowers, Delta and Uber.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
I’m noticing a real shift in the industry to crowdsourcing of contributions rather than just focusing on major gifts. I started the organization with $25 and in our first two years about 98% of our unique donations were in amounts of $100 or less from young people. There’s now a pervasive sense that through crowdsourcing contributions you can not only engage the masses, but raise a lot of money as well. We built a Kickstarter-style platform on our website at www.pencilsofpromise.org that allows anyone to go on and launch a campaign to build the next PoP school.
I have several guiding principles that I find powerful in my life. I organized my book, The Promise of a Pencil, around 30 core mantras that should enable any reader to take their own extraordinary journey towards creating a life of success and significance.
First, true self discovery begins where your comfort zone ends, because going beyond the places that make you feel safe allow you to discover who you are and what makes you feel most alive. Second, speak the language of the person you seek to become. By changing your words from your current self to your aspirational self, you create an energy and conversational opportunities that will pull your towards that future self. And lastly, make your life a story worth telling.
(Click to purchase book)
Pencils of Promise's Motto?
Pencils of Promise believes where you start in life shouldn’t dictate where you finish. Therefore, our motto is Everyone has promise and we work to unlock this every day.
Your greatest success as founder of Pencils of Promise? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
• Greatest Success: Breaking ground on our first school in Laos, the school I dedicated to my grandmother.
• Difficult Moment: In my book, there is a chapter titled "Fess Up to Your Failures" that describes one of my most memorable failures. In the early stages of PoP, two of our team members were robbed in Guatemala, and sent me an email asking if they should file something with the organization. I had interpreted this as them asking for reimbursement, and sent an email back that stated it was not PoP's responsibility to reimburse the cost of their phones and wallets. The next email from them clarified that they were not asking for a reimbursement, but rather filing an incident report, and how hurt and disappointed they were by my email. I had wrongly responded as a CEO by addressing financial concerns without focusing on the well-being of my employees, so I apologized for my mistake and the organization immediately established contingency plans to help us prepare for, and, when necessary, deal with the unexpected. We created safety and policy guidelines and established emergency protocols for our staff so that any issue could be resolved immediately and with the full backing of the organization. The biggest opportunities for growth are not found in the midst of success, but in the methods through which we address failure.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
There is an outside perception that entrepreneurs have a big break, one achievement happens and suddenly everything else seems to fall into place as a result. In reality, there are thousands of small, medium, and large wins that add up to the point they have gotten to. There were times when I was launching Pencils of Promise where I felt that one thing was going to put us in a different sphere, but the reality is that we have had a lot of success and a fair amount of setbacks over the years, and the significance of the failures is just as important as the successes. There is not one thing that leads to where we are, which is why relentless conviction and an unshakable work ethic are necessary for young entrepreneurs because there is no one big break.
Favorite travel destination?
Our three countries of impact, which are Laos, Ghana and Guatemala. They’d be my three favorite even if we didn’t work there, I fell in love with each of them while traveling.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
Chicken parmesan and a Hoegaarden beer.
What literature is on your bed stand?
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is never far away from me. It’s one of the few books I’ve read multiple times over, and keep several copies in the office as well.
Role model - business and personal?
My parents, on both fronts.
My wife. And good music, that will never fade (highly recommend the new albums by alt-J and Bear’s Den).
Most interesting headline you've read this week?
Droga5 CEO Sarah Thompson: Believe your own bullshit. I couldn’t not click into that article!
What's next for Pencils of Promise?
We break ground on a new school every 90 hours, and will continue to do so in the years ahead. But we’re now really interested in not just creating infrastructure, but additionally in changing what a learning experience can be for a child anywhere in the world, including our own soil. We recently partnered with TED Prize Winner Sugata Mitra and Microsoft to launch a pilot around self-organized learning environments. I believe it’s one of the most exciting and disruptive concepts in education, which is a good thing. You can see one of the videos of the work in action here.
Braun began on the path towards a career in finance, but met a young boy begging on the streets and asked him what he wanted most in the world. The answer- "A pencil." Braun then backpacked through 50+ countries to deeply understand the state of global education and develop a best-practice model to help local communities organize and educate their children.
Braun now speaks often on global education, finding one's passion and purpose, youth empowerment, international development and the intersection of the nonprofit and for-profit spaces. He graduated magna cum laude from Brown University, previously worked at leading consulting firm Bain & Company, was selected as one of the first ten World Economic Forum Global Shapers and has been featured at the United Nations, Clinton Global Initiative, Google Zeitgeist, Wired Magazine’s 2012 Smart List of 50 People Changing the World, and 2012’s Forbes 30 Under 30.