Adam Braun is an American businessman, author, and philanthropist. He is the Founder & CEO of Pencils of Promise, a non-profit organization that builds schools and increases access to education for children in the developing world. He is also the creator of the “for-purpose” and “profitable purpose” approaches to effective philanthropy. He also wrote a book entitled The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change published in March 2014.
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I was born in New York City, but have been a traveler nearly all my life. I grew up dreaming of riches on Wall Street, eventually playing college basketball at Brown University while studying economics, but when I was 21 I went into the developing world for the first time and had a series of experiences that changed everything in my life.
First off, I was on a ship that was struck by a 60 ft rogue wave about 800 miles from land (more crazy details about the certain-death experience in my book if you want the full story here). Then, while in India I met a young boy begging on the streets who told me if he could have anything in the world, he would want "a pencil."
This led eventually to the founding at Pencils of Promise with just $25 on my 25th birthday, and an amazing journey through more than 50 countries across six continents. It's all chronicled in my book which comes out in paperback today, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change. The book is built around 30 simple mantras that provide the guiding steps to a life of success and significance, enjoy the read and ASK ME ANYTHING!
THANKS SO MUCH FOR ALL THE GREAT QUESTIONS, SIGNING OFF NOW AT 4:15PM EST ON FEB 3RD BUT PLEASE GO TO ADAMBRAUN.COM FOR MORE!
Being completely honest, would Pencils of Promise be as big as it is today if it weren't for Scooter and Justin getting involved with it?
I've always answered this question the same way. We were always going to get to the place we're now at, that was just the momentum and destiny of the org, but Scott and Justin were able to shine a huge flashlight on our work that hugely accelerated our early growth. They're two of the greatest supporters PoP has ever had, and continue to be amazing supporters. I couldn't be more appreciative of them, and I know they both love PoP as much as all of us at the org love them. So the simple answer is we prob wouldn't be as big TODAY without them, but one day we would have hit this size. They're phenomenal support definitely helped us get here earlier and allowed us to touch more lives along the way.
Who is your greatest supporter/backer for your Pencils of Promise org?
We have tens of thousands of supporters and truthfully we believe each of them should be valued, whether you give $1 or $1M. That said, our Board of Directors and Advisory Board work their butts off on the org so I'm hugely appreciative of them as well as our ambassadors.
what inspires you?
I'm inspired by people that take risks and live their life with an understanding that we only get one shot at this particular existence so make the most of every day. My hope in writing The Promise of a Pencil would be that it would give the tools to others to feel confident in living that same way.
Adam, if YOU could have anything in the world (don't say pencil, no copying!) what would it be?
Years ago I would have said a great woman to share my life with, but fortunately I found that in my wife Tehillah. For now, I'd say a great family.
Is there a map where I can see the locations of all the schools that have been built so far?
We used to have one on our website, but we were building so many schools it became difficult to maintain without the tech continuing to get buggy! You can see more info here: http://pencilsofpromise.org/programs/
Do you think Pop could have worked if everyone on the team was remote? What do you think it takes to make a distributed team work?
For nearly two years, we didn't have an office so we definitely all worked remotely. I think the key is consistent communication, and ideally getting together in a room every so often (at least once a month, can be done over teleconference like Google Hangout nowadays though). At the end of the day it's about accountability, and ensuring measures to hold one another accountable to the goals you set out to achieve.
Hey Adam! I am a young non profit professional in Chicago!
Love your book and your work.
I have three main questions (sorry about the amount of them!):
what suggestions/insight would you offer to a non profit professional that wants to pursue their dream of having their own for purpose organization in the world?
What types of educational and social programs will PoP be working on in the future?
What types of organizations will Pop be partnering with in the future? How can others get involved in your work ? (either as a partner or volunteer).
Three great questions.
1- I'd find a great org to work at or volunteer within first. Learn from the best before you try to launch your own (I did with Cambodian Children's Fund)
2- We're going to be really focused on student outcomes, which are derived from teacher training and innovations in the classroom. You can watch a Fast Company video that just came out about it at http://www.fastcompany.com/3041606/how-pencils-of-promise-replaced-nonprofit-with-for-purpose
3- We'll keep partnering with great orgs in the countries where we work but we're always looking for for-profit partners that want to work with us to engage their employees and fundraiser for a great cause. Lots of info on this at our website or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
So, 30 simple mantras - what, in your opinion, is the most life-changing if you stick to it?
I personally love all 30, they're each equally applicable based on what stage of life or your personal journey you're at... but the one that endures through them all is probably "Know that you have a purpose." It's one of the hardest to hold onto in tough times, but if you constantly remind yourself of it and seek out that sense of purpose you'll end up in the right place.
What's the most important thing in the world? Why?
Thank you for everything you do, appreciate the work and even though I'm young I'm trying to help PoP everytime I'm able to (and I'm now a fouding member of Passport yay).
Greetings from Spain, hope you can come here someday.
The most important thing in the world is to live at the intersection of integrity and ambition. Be good to others around you, and leave a positive mark on the world.
Hi Adam! What's your best piece of advice for getting yourself to follow through with plans/dreams/etc (big or small)?
The best piece of advice to make sure you follow through is one of the mantras (chapter titles) of the book... "Speak the language of the person you seek to become." You can't hold your dreams within you, express them to others and they'll not only help you move in that direction but you'll feel accountable to them and yourself in getting there.
What has been your most satisfying experience when working on Pencils of Promise?
Opening the very first school was as good as it gets. It felt like an impossible dream came true, and that's what motivated me to really push forward and grow an org that would enable that feeling for any other person, family, foundation or business. If you want that same feeling, I'd suggested going to http://pencilsofpromise.org/get-started and launching your own campaign.
What did you find to be the biggest obstacle when starting Pencils of Promise?
The biggest obstacle is always the naysayers. You have to maintain tremendous emotional momentum to push through all the doubters, and find a place of internal confidence that allows you to know the answer will one day be "yes" even if others keep telling you "no this won't work."
You also need to find sources of motivation and "how-to's" from others who have done something similar before, which is why I wrote The Promise of a Pencil.
What did it feel like for you after the first school built opened its doors?
Lots of tears... Read chapter 11 in the book, plenty of detail on the feeling in there :)
Which is your favorite basketball team and who is your favorite player?
I'm a die-hard Knicks fan, always have been and always will be. Truthfully I don't love the current Knicks squad, my favorite player to watch in the NBA right now is probably Steph Curry on the Golden State Warriors.
Why are you such an awesome person?
haha I guess I should ask you the same thing Kyle!
Are there countries in the world that you'd like to build schools in, but cannot because they are too dangerous?
Most of the world's out of school children are in war torn, post-war or conflicted states. There are many, many places I'd love to work within because the need is there but part of our mandate on country selection is political stability so we try to focus on the areas where a for-purpose org like PoP can have the greatest impact.
First of all, let me say that I loved your book and how it pushes for folks to step outside of their comfort zone and to push themselves to their fullest potential. You began Pencils of Promise and heavily used Social Media.
Seeing this and reading it in your book and interviews inspired me to start #HireStefWithAnF on Twitter. I tweet once a day ably why someone in the music industry should hire me.
What are two major things that someone should do on social media to reach their core audience?
1- Define who is your core audience
2- Don't just broadcast your interests, reply @ or try to DM those who you are interested in learning from. Try to build a one-on-one rapport with your fans or those you are a fan of...
Hi Adam! How do you personally cultivate a network of people that can help you?
Second, what value can someone bring to you today to bring you into her network?
You build authentic relationships, and they should always start from a place of sharing about yourself by leading with vulnerability and adding value to the other person. Also, it's important to include your flaws just as much as your strengths... see what I mean here- http://adambraun.com/publishing-a-bestseller.
Once someone REALLY knows you for you, that's when a relationship forms that will be valuable down the line.
Hello Adam! I'm 24. I've done research for Susan Cain's educational movement Quiet Revolution. Your story is really awesome and I have similar aspirations to what you've done/are doing.
If I already have a clear and specific idea, what are some of the first real actionable steps I should take to launching a non profit? Do you recommend turning a book into an organization? Thanks!
Truthfully my book is entirely about how to do this so a short answer won't really share all the things I'd like to, but look at Lean In as the model (or even Socrates Cafe) for turning books into orgs/movements. Best thing you can do is establish a committed, deep early leadership team/base. "Find the Impossible Ones" is the term I use, but don't try to win over every person, rather understand the value of the committed few who will accomplish 80% of your efforts even though they make up less than 20% of your supporters.
Adam, what have you found is the best way to hire talented people? What is your favorite hiring process?
Best way to hire talented people is through quality references from other talented people you know and trust. We're rigorous with our interviews, and I think it's great to give people homework or assignments that are similar to the work they'd undertake to see how they'd truly perform at the job, which tells you a lot more about their skills/abilities than a formal interview usually can enable.
I always hear people in the social good space say that you shouldn't start your own nonprofit, you should go find one that is working on what you care about and help make it better. Do you believe that as well?
And also what's your advice for breaking into social good, in general?
Absolutely, I completely agree with it. No need to start something if others are doing great work already, I just saw a need for a global education org that represented my generation but was also driven with for-profit business acumen and that didn't exist from what I could find at the time.
My advice is actually to get the best training you can on a unique, hard skill set. That could be financial modeling, graphic design, coding, etc. But work somewhere that trains you on something unique, just saying "I want to help" isn't enough to produce results. It comes from true, rigorous training that you can then apply to a social good org or outcome.
when it comes to a career, would you choose the safe way or what really inspires you (and you're afraid to say, and you'll have to work way harder to get to where you want)?
I think there are times to choose the safe path and times to choose the risky path. It's all about understanding where you want to get to one day, and what type of journey you want to encounter along the way. I think people should understand there's three types of value: Money, Meaning and Mastery. At dif stages in life you should weight them different as to what will help you get to that place you want to get to next.
Why have you not built any schools in India given that that is where the inspiration for POP came from?
When you start an org you have to focus somewhere, and my early commitment was to Laos. Over time we wanted to be in Asia, Africa and Latin America so that's where we expanded to (Laos, Ghana, Guatemala, Nicaragua). We're not adding any new countries until 2016 at the earliest, but India will be heavily considered at that time!
Do you like what you are doing?
No I don't like what I'm doing. I LOVE what I'm doing.
I took the day off from work to read your book and finish it before I meet you tomorrow in Tribeca. Mantra 13 and your story with Ma is specially touching for me since I've grown up with a loving grandmother in the countryside in Paraguay. I'd love to hear more about how to stay confident and motivated when it is incredibly hard and discouraging. What do you do, think or say to yourself to remain confident and keep pushing through the dark tunnels? How could I replicate your conviction and determination?
The key is to picture your grandmother, and do everything in your power to make her proud. Think of her when you reach a dark place or things get really, really hard and recognize you're doing what you're doing to make her proud rather than for yourself and it'll help you get through. And from my experience, I'd suggest deciding you're going to fund or fundraise to build a school through PoP and dedicate it to your grandma! http://pencilsofpromise.org/get-started/
What are your top 5 productivity hacks you use every day?
Also, top 5 apps?
Top 5 apps I use every day: Captio, Sunrise, Tweetbot, Dark Sky, Pocket
Top 5 productivity hacks:
What is your vision of the future of classrooms?
Great question. My new role as Director of the Global Education Platform (an initiative conceived by the UN Special Envoy for Global Education to leverage technology for global youth) is all about figuring this out. I think there was a lot of excitement in recent years about the internet replacing the teacher. I don't believe this is correct, and the data is showing it. You need the teacher, I just wonder whether they should be acting more as a coach or facilitator rather than content expert. The future of the classroom is one in which learning is personalized for each student, and not determined just by age or grade but by progression level on that given day or week.
What (for profit) company would you want to be running right now, besides Pop?
I like high growth companies that are still early stage. I love my friends at Warby Parker, there company would be an awesome one to run.
What motto or advice do you live by?
The 30 mantras I live by are the titles of each chapter in The Promise of a Pencil but one of my favorite is from Rilke.
"Live not in dreams, but in contemplation of a reality that is perhaps the future."
Do you collect pencils?
I used to, now people send in a lot to our org. At this time I think we're good on pencils in our inventory, plus we try to buy pencils from the surrounding areas in which we have schools to support the local economy.