Adam Braun hands out pencils – and hope

His nonprofit Pencils of Promise has built more than 170 schools in Ghana, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Laos.

Courtesy of Anand Rao
Pencils of Promise is 'successful because we are driven by the head of a for-profit and the heart of a nonprofit,' says Adam Braun, who once seemed destined to become a Wall Street trader. Instead, he helps educate children in developing countries.

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 This story could have been an artsy movie from the 1970s, where a smart and young American goes to India seeking a spiritual reawakening, and transforms his view of the material world.

Thankfully, the protagonist here applies his eclectic experiences, an Ivy-League education, and abundant intelligence to become a globally recognized social entrepreneur and bestselling author. After abandoning a promising career as a management consultant, 30-year-old Adam Braun has taken on the massive challenge of providing infrastructure and resources for educating over 57 million children in the developing world with his organization, Pencils of Promise (PoP).

At his sunny office in midtown Manhattan, Adam sits at his desk, tapping his feet to a pop song on the radio, looking totally relaxed.

“Nonprofit is an inaccurate description of what we do. We are more of a for-purpose organization,” he says with a sparkling smile matched by the beaming faces of children on a giant poster behind him.

The genesis for PoP began after Adam watched the non-narrative documentary, Baraka, and was fascinated by the surreal images of exotic locations, especially the dramatic shots of the Ganges River.

“I was going through a spiritual reassessment at that time, and desperately wanted to go to Varanasi, India,” he says. After joining the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program in 2005, he set sail to visit the places he’d dreamed of—little knowing what he’d encounter when a young child on a street in India asked for a pencil in response to the question “What do you want most in the world?”

The incident struck a chord with Adam, unraveling the stark reality that the basic amenities he’d always taken for granted did not exist for millions of children. He thought about it while returning to the US, completing his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, Economics, and Organizational Development from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, before going to work for Bain and Company, one of the top management-consulting firms in the world.

While learning the ropes of building organizations and earning a six-figure income, Adam was consciously building on the ideas he had developed for a social enterprise focused on quality education.

After deciding to leave Bain, Adam founded PoP in 2008 with an investment of $25, and has not looked back since. He has visited hundreds of small towns across six continents, handing out pencils to thousands of children. Today PoP has built over 170 schools in Ghana, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Laos, and continues to expand to newer territories.

Without any major donors during his start-up, Adam went about building a community of people who believed in his cause. After going to his circle of friends to build a large online community, PoP has nurtured more than 35,000 fundraisers and corporate connections.

“We are successful because we are driven by the head of a for-profit and the heart of a nonprofit,” Adam says. “By training I know how to build a great business, but my desire is not to create personal wealth. I want to bring the best practices that enable individuals to accumulate wealth, and apply them to tackle the world’s most challenging social issues.”

That philosophy marks a distinct shift from Adam’s ambitions while growing up with his brother and sister in the extremely affluent town of Greenwich, Connecticut. His father was a dentist and his mother an orthodontist, and his home was secure and stable.

“Still, the wealth disparity in my town was enormous,” he says. “There were people at the highest and the lowest end of the wealth spectrum, and I just wanted to become extremely wealthy.”

Adam opened his first E*TRADE account at 13, worked with hedge funds at 16, and seemed destined to become a Wall Street player like many of his wealthy neighbors – but it wasn’t just his desire to get rich that governed all his decisions. He was also deeply influenced by his family, who believed in giving back to society.

“My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and my parents worked very hard for everything they achieved. Every Hanukkah we set aside a certain amount to donate to a charity,” he says.

Adam was always looking for answers to questions about meaningful existence, and his travels made him think even more about why he had access to quality education in a safe environment while millions of children all over the world lived without basic needs like water, electricity, health care, and access to education.

“The people I met in the developing countries gave me a better understanding of what my purpose was in the world,” he adds.

Adam still makes it a point to ask, “What is the one thing you want in this world?” wherever he travels. Though the answers vary depending on the culture and country, most of the adults tell him that they want the best education for their children, and the children repeatedly aspire to fulfill big dreams.

A firm believer in the maxim that “Where you start in life should not dictate where you finish,” Adam has taken these answers and shaped them into a mesmerizing book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, published in March 2014.

The book’s title says it all.

“All your material possessions will one day go away,” Adam says. “What you leave behind is a legacy. Your story.”

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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