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 200 schools around the world. In recent years he has been named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 List, Wired Magazine's "50 People Who Are Changing the World," 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.
Braun began working summers at hedge funds when he was just sixteen years old, sprinting down the path to a successful Wall Street career. He started his college career as a Division 1 basketball player, but while traveling abroad he met a young boy begging on the streets of India. When Braun asked him what he wanted most in the world, he simply answered, "a pencil."
This small request became the inspiration for Pencils of Promise, the organization Braun would leave Bain & Company several years later to start with just $25 on his twenty-fifth birthday. Using his unique "for-purpose" approach, he meshed for-profit business acumen with non-profit idealism and in doing so created a leading organization in the global education space, proving that anyone can start a movement that matters.
Braun graduated from Brown University and is now a frequent speaker at conferences, colleges and Fortune 1000 companies. He avidly engages with his social media following of over 500,000 people and currently resides in New York City. 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 is available in bookstores nationwide.
Ann Paisley Chandler: What inspired you to start Pencils of Promise?
Adam Braun: While traveling through the developing world as a college student, I asked a young boy begging on the streets what he wanted most in the world. I expected to hear the things that I wanted - new shoes, a big screen TV, but he told me "a pencil." I handed him a pencil from my backpack, and as I watched his eyes light up with excitement, it made me realize how many children around the world lack access to even the most basic elements of a life-changing education.
I set out to build one school in Laos to dedicate to my grandmother, and raised money by throwing parties and asking family and friends for small donations. Pencils of Promise started with one child requesting a pencil, and that pencil still serves as a motivating tool for us every day.
Chandler: Tell us about Pencils of Promise - its goals and mission.
Braun: Pencils of Promise is an international education for-purpose organization that believes every child should have access to quality education. We create schools, programs, and global communities around the common goal of education for all.
By the end of 2015, our goal is support 50,000 primary school age children living in communities with a high need for investment in education in Ghana, Guatemala, and Laos. We will work toward closing the gap in progression, literacy and numeracy between low-achieving and high-achieving primary schools through our four main programs: school builds, teacher training, student scholarships, and health and hygiene curriculum. We will also continue to work to identify key levers in increasing educational outcomes through demonstrated and scalable impact.
Chandler: What are the fundraising goals, and how are they set?
Braun: We set our fundraising goals to be in line with our impact goals. It's important to us that we raise a diverse portfolio of funds from corporations, foundations, and individuals utilizing our various fundraising platforms. For example, we have three fundraising campaigns throughout the year that raise money for three of our programs (school builds, teacher training, and student scholarships), and have a robust online platform for individuals to be ambassadors for PoP throughout the year.
We ensure that 100% of online donations go directly to our impact work, and are transparent about where our funds are going. The core of the organization though is family, as we're one of the few organizations that appeal to children through our brand and to parents through the effectiveness of our programs.
Chandler: What has been your greatest challenge and have you turned it into an opportunity?
Braun: More than 90% of our staff in-country comes from the country of impact itself. So it's Lao people educating Lao children, Guatemalans supporting Guatemalans, and Ghanaian staff supporting the children of Ghana. Finding and training local talent can be challenging at first, but once you invest in the right people and build the right culture the rewards are immense, especially because it builds long-term sustainability into the programs themselves.
Chandler: What excites you most about your organization and the impact of your goals?
Braun: I am incredibly excited about our innovation pilots, which seek to identify what the future of education can look like inside the classroom. You'll have to go to our website to learn more about them, but they range from using e-readers in Ghana to long-distance radio in Guatemala to 3D printers to produce literacy toolkits in Laos.
Chandler: What do you find the most rewarding aspect of working in philanthropy on a global level?
Braun: The most rewarding aspect of our work is seeing our work positively impact the lives of those we serve. In February, I was in Ghana for the groundbreaking of PoP's 200th school, and the energy was so incredibly vibrant and infectious. It was just so exciting to see the community come together and celebrate the future of education.
Chandler: What do you want your mark to be?
Braun: Through several life-changing experiences, I've come to understand that at any time an individual's physical possessions will fade away and the only thing that will remain is the legacy of the impact of their life on others. When I think about living a rich life, the things I value the most are the footprints for good that I'm able to facilitate for others, and that is what I want my mark to be. I'm hoping my new book can help facilitate that for others through providing a roadmap to achieving the life you crave on your own terms.
Chandler: What can people expect from your recently released book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change?
Braun: This book is the story of how I founded Pencils of Promise with $25, and how the organization has since built 200 schools around the world. It's written in a style that is more than just storytelling, but also very much a how-to that provides the guiding steps that anyone can take on their path to building a life of both success and significance. It's a fast, easy read that's framed around 30 key mantras, and I hope they provide immense value to every single reader, especially those seeking to create positive change in the world.
Philanthropy NYU, where this post first appeared.