Profile Interview: Adam Braun
Areas of Expertise: Global Education
Career Focus: Founder, Author, Speaker
Bio: Adam Braun is a New York Times bestselling author and the Founder of Pencils of Promise, an award-winning organization that has broken ground on more than 250 schools around the world. He has been named to Business Insider’s “40 Under 40,” Wired Magazine’s “50 People Who Are Changing the World,” Forbes “30 Under 30,” and was selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s first ten Global Shapers. He has also been a featured speaker at The White House, United Nations and Clinton Global Initiative. His book The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change debuted at #2 on the New York Times Bestseller list and went on to become a #1 national bestseller. In 2015 Braun became the Director of the Global Education Platform, an initiative conceived by the UN Special Envoy for Global Education to use technology to accelerate internet-based learning around the world.
What do you do to focus on your dreams & goals?
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 you towards that future self. And lastly, make your life a story worth telling.
What life event inspired you to discover your life purpose?
While backpacking as a college student, I had a habit of asking a child in every country what they wanted most in the world. I met a young boy begging on the streets of India who simply answered, “A pencil.” I handed him one from my backpack, and watched as a wave of possibility washed over him. I then saw the profound power and promise brought through something as small as a giving a pencil to just one child.
Over the next five years, I backpacked through more than 50 countries, handing out thousands of pens and pencils across six continents. These pencils led to powerful conversations with local parents and children across countless cultures and languages. From years of listening to their words, it became clear that there was a need for an international nonprofit that was led on-the-ground by a staff of locals from within each country, required village participation in each school, and deeply supported, trained and tracked each student to ensure their success. These travels and conversations were the inspiration for founding PoP.
Inspired by the boy I met in India, I deposited $25 in a bank account on my 25th birthday and threw a party. Instead of gifts, I asked friends to donate to building a school in Laos. That party funded PoP’s first school, which I dedicated in honor of my grandmother. She is a Holocaust survivor and her experience was a very important part of my upbringing. My grandmother went through so much, and I wanted to do the most meaningful thing I could for her to ensure that her legacy would last and that her survival would make the lives of others better.
What’s the best advice you have ever received?
A few years ago, I met with one of our initial investors to ask him to become the first member of our advisory board, which would entail making a large financial commitment to PoP for three years. We met up at a prestigious private club in midtown Manhattan, and even though he told me I should wear a jacket and tie, I hated dressing in business attire so I wore black jeans. I was also in the midst of a juice fast that week, so when he recommended several of the entrees at lunch I had to defer. The conversation went well and eventually I asked him for a six-figure commitment. He said he would talk to his wife and get back to me, and that I should let him know how the juice fast went.
I sent him a nice thank you email and some materials about PoP, but two weeks later still hadn’t heard back. I finally got an email from him asking me to give him a call. He told me that he had spoken to his wife and that they had decided to join the Advisory Board. But he also had some feedback for me. First, that if I was asking people for large sums of money, I needed to dress the part – I couldn’t wear jeans to a meeting at a private members club. Second, he reiterated the importance of follow up. I had said at the end of our meeting that I would let him know about how the juice fast went, but I didn’t. He told me I had to be relentless with follow up – nothing should slip through the cracks. Both of these pieces of advice have been integral to my, and PoP’s, success.
What advice would you give anyone wanting to pursue their dreams?
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.
What have you learned about your career/business that you would pass on to the next generation?
Pencils of Promise does not believe in the term “nonprofit.” Instead, we consider ourselves a “for-purpose” organization, which I coined as the blending of non-profit idealism with for-profit business acumen. Our adaptation of the term “for-purpose” epitomizes PoP’s outlook on helping others. We are driven by our results on the ground, which I think is the key to any successful organization looking to make a sustainable, lasting impact. Today’s landscape of business produces a space where a business’ success hinges more on whether they are “for-purpose” or “non-purpose.” “For-profit” and “non-profit” designations refer more to the business model an entity follows than its mission. Many of today’s top businesses have a mission-driven commitment to solving a societal problem, which ensure that they are giving back on a global scale.
What’s your favorite quote or mantra?
I have many favorite mantras. However, I’d say that my current favorite is “Everyone Has Promise.” 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 broken ground on more than 300 schools throughout Laos, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Ghana, providing education opportunities to over 31,000 students. Our vision at PoP is for a world where everyone has access to quality education. We’ve layered on teacher support, student scholarships and technology pilots onto our programs as well. 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.