Adam Braun – Founder and CEO of Pencils of Promise

We can say with complete confidence that Adam Braun is one of the most inspiring people you will ever meet. He is passionate about his work, speaks with enthusiasm about his travels and the lessons he has learned, and his hunger for making the world a better place is contagious. Adam worked at a consulting company after graduating from Brown University, but he soon realized his passions lay elsewhere. During a trip abroad, Adam asked a young boy in India what he wanted most in the world. His answer: “A pencil.” As Adam continued to travel, he handed out more pens and pencils and realized the power of a school supply that most people wouldn’t typically think twice about. Pencils of Promise was born in 2008, and as of this writing, 170 schools have been built in countries such as Laos, Ghana, and Guatemala.

In his years of experience starting, building, and growing Pencils of Promise, Adam managed to find time to write a book about the lessons he has learned along the way. All of the book’s proceeds will go towards helping build schools and to support Pencils of Promise. We had the incredible pleasure of speaking with Adam about his career and personal experiences, how he got to where he is today, and to speak more about his upcoming book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, which will be released on March 18. 

Name: Adam Braun
Age: 30
Education: Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Economics, Sociology, and Public & Private Sector Organizations from Brown University
Follow: Pencils of Promise / PoP Twitter / Adam Braun’s Twitter / Personal Website / Order The Promise of a Pencil

Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?

Adam Braun: I define seizing your youth as living each day as if you only have one shot at an experience that can come out of that unique moment. The most powerful element of youth is that young people don’t know yet what’s impossible, and through that they’re willing to try things that others will claim can’t be done. Seizing your youth is trying out things that speak to your inner voice and absolute truths and pursuing them with the honesty and integrity that you believe they deserve.

CJ: You attended Brown University and majored in Economics, Sociology, and Public & Private Sector Organizations. Why did you choose to study these topics?

AB: I went to college thinking that I was going to major in Economics because I wanted to work on Wall Street, and Psychology because I took it in high school and I’ve always been drawn to the way that people make decisions and in particular, how you can influence groups and how you can ultimately catalyze movements.

What I realized in my first semester when I took psychology was that it was incredibly biology-based. I wasn’t as interested in the biology aspect but instead was interested in the humanity element, which turned out to be Sociology. That resulted in me majoring in Economics and Sociology.

I didn’t want to write a 100-page thesis so I figured that if I could do a triple major then I wouldn’t need to write a thesis paper as well. The third major, Public and Private Sector Organizations, was actually about entrepreneurship and how you build a business. I took courses on leadership and organizational management, knowing that I wanted to one day run my own organization. The three of them seemed like a great fit.

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CJ: You left your job at Bain & Company to start Pencils of Promise (PoP) when you were 25-years-old. What skills did you have that were useful in starting Pencils of Promise, and what do you wish you had known before taking the leap?

AB: Though my time at Bain, I developed a set of hard skills that I think are really important early on. That included building financial models, creating impressive and persuasive presentations, and understanding how organizational turnover and retention happens. In my childhood I spent a lot of time doing entrepreneurial things and lot of entrepreneurs fall into this trap of believing that they are the only one who can accomplish something, especially the higher level responsibilities, so you take it all on yourself.

From my time at Bain & Company, I learned that it’s more important to train the people below you and invest in the next person so that they can ideally do your job just as well, if not better, than you can. That allows you to take on higher level responsibilities. I never would have taken that approach if I hadn’t witnessed and experienced it firsthand from my time at Bain. More than anything, Bain gave me a foundation upon which I felt comfortable to build a business.

What I wish I had known was that there is no such thing as the ‘big single win.’ I think early on I had this inherent belief that all the little wins were suddenly going to give me one opportunity and that one opportunity was going to springboard us to a place where we were huge. In reality, there’s no such thing as a ‘big single win’ that changes absolutely everything. It really is a series of 10,000 small, medium, and large wins that create organizational longevity.

CJ: Your book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, comes out in March 2014. The book is your memoir of your experience leaving your finance job to start Pencils of Promise. What is one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned from starting PoP?

AB: The book was written in a style that should enable any reader to not only get inspired by the story itself, but to take his or her own extraordinary journey as well. I really wanted to write something that was a how-to, but framed around this idea that storytelling provides a hook for people because we all want to read, write, and tell great stories.

Each chapter is titled with a mantra, and there are 30 mantras in total. Those mantras collectively create the blueprint for any person to go from ordinary to extraordinary. One of the mantras that I would describe as my greatest learning lesson is called ‘Vulnerability is Vital’. It’s about the one thing that scared me most, asking people for money, which I did not do for the first three and a half years in the organization. When I admitted openly to the people that had the most confidence in me, who are oftentimes the scariest people to show your weakness to, which in my case was my Board of Directors, it was incredible to see how they invested in and rallied around me.

When I finally faced that fear head-on, the results weren’t as bad as I had feared all along. What I learned coming out of it is that the scariest or the hardest part of your day is the thing you should do first. I find that if I have 25 emails in my inbox, I probably do the 10 easiest ones, the 10 medium ones, and I leave the five hardest ones and justify that I’ll do it another time.

In acknowledging how important your vulnerability is, what I realized is that I should start each day with the hardest things and make sure I get it done. I don’t let myself leave the office until I’ve taken care of that challenging element. Ultimately, that one challenging thing is more important for your long-term success than the 10 easy things you did first.

CJ: What was the book writing process like?

AB: It was actually really fun. I wrote the entire manuscript while traveling in the course of three months. I worked with a co-writer, who was wonderful. She had written five books before and she was really more of a writing partner than anything else, helping me craft the stories and lessons I wanted to share. She would take a first cut at some and I would take a first cut at others, but ultimately every single word in the book is mine. It was really enjoyable to reflect on how this path happened and distill it down to the 30 most important lessons that I could share with others.

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CJ: You wrote a blog post for when you turned 30 about setting ambitious goals, chasing them, and then moving the finish line off into the distance. How often do you set goals for yourself?

AB: There are small goals and big goals. I have small goals every single day, and whether I’m consciously admitting or not, I have a goal every day. For the bigger goals, the older you get the longer the horizons you look at. I used to set goals that were in that week or month, and they would be pretty big goals. Now most of my goals are really framed around a year or three years. I try not to set goals any longer than three years because the world is going to change so much in that time that whatever goal I set will become obsolete. Most of my goals are within the next year.

CJ: What advice do you have for teenagers and young adults interested in starting a non-profit organization?

AB: The first thing I would say is that the role of Founder has been mythologized and celebrated in our culture a bit too much. It’s really important to understand that you can have just as big of an impact if you aren’t the founder but you find a great organization that you believe in and work for and are able to channel your energies and efforts into that organization. I didn’t start Pencils of Promise until I was turning 25, but I had been working with non-profits since I was a teenager.

It’s really important to learn from a mentor that you completely and wholeheartedly believe in to see how an organization is built. Building a non-profit is such an uphill battle and you are going to hear ‘no’ more than you hear ‘yes,’ and you have to believe that what you are doing is right.

One, I would advise to work for someone or an organization that you really believe in and two, in the process of doing that, figure out what your greatest sense of purpose or passion is, the thing that makes you most come alive. Thirdly, start with small goals and have really ambitious goals in the distance.

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CJ: What is the best moment of your career so far?

AB: The best moment in my career was when I sat my grandmother down and I showed her the photos of our very first school, which was dedicated to her and she didn’t know. When I showed her the kids and the structure and the photo of the school sign, she saw her name on it. That was the best and most emotional moment of my career. It’s one of the reasons why I believe so much in Pencils of Promise because I know now what it does for children in the developing world, but also the capacity that it has to unite families here, as well. If I could enable that same experience for every single grandchild or child, then I think we will be able to unite a lot of families and educate a lot of children.

CJ: What does a day in your life look like?

AB: I spend about half of my day meeting with individuals, partners, foundations, and brands that are interested in Pencils of Promise. I try to further the mission, so I spend at least half of my time external in terms of the meetings. About a quarter of my day is spent with our staff, going through everything from our long- and short-term planning to working on the branding elements of the website, and then the last quarter of my day I try to spend working on things that happen in the moment. I’ll see a link online that will give me an idea and I’ll share it with somebody internally or externally. I always try and keep a quarter of my day free, though it doesn’t happen all that often.

CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

AB: The advice I would give my 20-year-old self is that as much as you feel both lost and found at the same time, keep pushing as hard as you are pushing in both directions. I love the quote: “Not all who wander are lost.” I started traveling when I was 21 and I spent a lot of time from age 21 to 26 traveling.

A lot of that period was spent in a state of exploration without knowing exactly why I was doing something or where I was going to be. There’s a bit of fear that comes from not knowing what comes next, but there is also a lot of beauty and freedom and creativity that comes out of that. I would say keep pushing as hard as you’re pushing both in the directions of lost and found.

Adam Braun Questions

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