Pencils of Promise Founder Adam Braun seeks extraordinary change

Nick Onken Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, with primary school students involved with the non-profit organization.

Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, with primary school students involved with the non-profit organization. —Nick Onken

The quintessential career question of whether to pursue a passion or a paycheck is a complicated one with no easy answers.

It’s one that many have grappled with, and for most, the two don’t always coexist. But Adam Braun, CEO and founder of Pencils of Promise (PoP), documents his struggles with this question, and his journey from student to philanthropist, in his New York Times best-selling memoir, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, which he will be discussing with local resident and former news anchor Joan Lunden at Greenwich Library on May 5 as part of the AuthorsLive series.

Mr. Braun, 30, grew up in Greenwich, graduating from Greenwich High School in 2002 as a scholar-athlete and captain of the basketball team. He began working at hedge funds at the tender age of 16, propelling headfirst toward a career on Wall Street, and continuing his pursuit into finance while at Brown University. He made all of the requisite steps toward securing a lucrative and stable career in finance with the right internships and the right classes, and upon graduation, all of his hard work paid off with a coveted job as a consultant at Bain & Co.

But something was missing. His extensive travels abroad while in college, backpacking with friends and attending a semester at sea fundamentally changed his outlook. One seminal conversation was with a young boy in India. Mr. Braun met the little boy, who was begging on the streets, and asked him one question, what he wanted most in the world. His answer? “A pencil.”

This conversation replayed in Mr. Braun’s head over the years and he claims, “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the image of that boy holding that pencil out of my head.”

That day Mr. Braun realized something. Even something as small as a pencil symbolized much more. It meant the “the foundation of an education” and a chance to unlock a child’s potential.

Mr. Braun said he once believed he was too young to make a difference, that he couldn’t help change anybody’s life without a thick checkbook and a sizable donation. However, in the small act of giving a child a pencil, that belief was shattered and he realized that even the smallest of acts could set off a ripple effect of change.

He began PoP soon after, in 2008, with just a $25 deposit. He took the leap and quit his job at Bain, hoping to build an organization with a “for-purpose” approach, combining nonprofit idealism with for-profit business principles to build primary schools in areas of poverty within developing nations. However, it would be more than just a handout. PoP sought to create a long-term partnership with the community to create the school and supply its staff.

“Ultimately, the most important thing is the commitment from communities, the educational ministry,” Mr. Braun said. “We’re going out there and building relationships up on the ground that ultimately lead to successful programs.”

PoP helps communities self-organize to collect raw materials for building and provide the necessary funds and infrastructure to build a school. Parents, elders and siblings put in the time and effort to help build a school, and the surrounding community is invested in the school and its children being there long-term.

Its mission is centered around the belief that education is one of the most powerful tools for combating poverty and disease. It seeks to make education accessible for thousands of children who would otherwise never have attended school.

Six years since its inception, PoP is now a global organization that’s grown from one primary school to 206. It helps more than 22,000 students in such high-need areas as Ghana, Laos and Guatemala. And the organization’s commitment doesn’t end there. It invests in teacher training and scholarship programs for kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford secondary school.

PoP reports promising data that underscores its long-term impact. All of PoP’s schools are primary and Mr. Braun said that most students have progressed to secondary schools, at twice the regional average. Students who have attended classrooms with staff that have attended teacher training perform three times higher on test scores than those who haven’t. To date, 182 teachers have been trained and 22,536 students have been served by its schools. PoP estimates this to amount to more than 200,000 lives having been impacted by the broader reach of its programs.

Mr. Braun is the first to admit there were many challenges along the way. People told him it would be impossible, that nonprofits shouldn’t be built on a for-profit ethos and that it would simply never work.

“At the very beginning, one of the biggest challenges was getting people to believe that you could create a stronger type of nonprofit by building for-profit ethos into the organization,” said Mr. Braun. “I’ve always been around great businesses, and I really wanted to bring a business-like approach to this. Getting people to recalibrate their thinking about how an organization like this could be built and getting people to believe in crowdsourcing was a challenge.”

At PoP’s inception, digital and social media were just beginning to take off. The financial environment was unstable, witnessing the closing of major investment banks and a national recession. It was not a favorable time or climate for nonprofits. Mr. Braun’s approach to target the digital sector, namely social media, and young people was a “complete inversion of the nonprofit model.”

“I kept on hearing that it would be impossible,” said Mr. Braun.

Nevertheless, he bet on the impossible, and in his memoir, he shares his advice on how to do just this and “enact extraordinary change.”

His book, which is available for sale on Amazon.com, is organized into 30 mantras that helped him achieve success. When asked which of these he found most critical, he picked three: to never take no from someone who can say yes, that vulnerability is vital, and to make your life a story worth telling.

“At some point in time, all of your possessions will be left behind and what’s left is your legacy. I want to really encourage people to cultivate a story you would be proud to tell and leave a legacy behind,” Mr. Braun said.

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