39 Schools and Counting: An Interview With Pencils of Promise’s Adam Braun

The Trailblazers for Good Q&A Series sits down with the most world shaking individuals leading the movement to align impact, profit and purpose.  Here we pick the brains of top social entrepreneurs to learn first hand from their stunning accomplishments, utter failures, and stiff challenges in leading the revolution of doing well by doing good.  Join us as we explore the collective consciousness that drive and inspire these individuals.  

Adam Braun is the Founder & Executive Director of Pencils of Promise, one of the world’s most impactful new nonprofits as recognized by Nobel peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, and active supporter Justin Bieber. Prior to founding Pencils of Promise, Adam worked at leading consulting firm Bain & Company, and now spends half the year traveling on behalf of PoP and half the year at our global headquarters in New York City.  Adam graduated magna cum laude and played varsity basketball for Brown University.

Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do at Pencils of Promise, what was the inspiration behind it, and how you got started.

Sure! Pencils of Promise is a non profit organization that builds schools in the developing world and trains young leaders to take action at home and abroad. I previously spent a lot of time backpacking and travelling through the developing world and I had a habit of asking one kid in each country what they wanted the most if they could have anything in the world. When I was in Northern India I met a boy begging on the streets, and I asked what he would want if he could have anything and his answer was a pencil.  So I gave him my pencil and his face absolutely lit up. It was a powerful and transformative moment. There I realized that the thing that was going to make the world a better place was education, and not education as in aid or charity type of education, but education that was in the hands of locals that they owned.  So that became my thing as I traveled, I just handed out thousands of pencils across dozens of countries. We also realized that a lot of non profits operated on just passion, and we wanted to build a non profit that was run with not only compassion, but also with business savvy behind our operations.  I worked for Bain and Company for two and half years and took a sabbatical and put $25 into a bank account with the hopes to gather other people to start a movement.  For the first two years 98% of the donations were $100 or less. To make a long story short, I left my job at Bain, and what started with the humble goal of building one school, has become a movement where we’ve just broke ground on our 39th school and a built a group of supporters of about 250,000. 

Can you tell us a story where you knew that starting Pencils of Pencils was the right thing to do?

When I started PoP, it was by myself in Laos, and one of the things I knew that if we wanted to have the lasting impact we wanted to make, we needed local staff on the ground doing the work and not moving back and forth. So I put out a search for a coordinator, and by chance at the guest house I was staying at, was a young women about 30 years old, who was changing the laundry sheets, cooking soup, and doing the dishes, she also happen to speak the best English out of everyone I met in the country, she is just a wonderful and beautiful person named Noy. So when I needed a translator to come with me to the first field location, I asked Noy if she wanted to be our first coordinator for PoP, I told her I couldn’t pay her yet, but as it kept growing I’d find a way to pay her full-time. She was flattered but told me to ask her mom first for permission, so I changed into the one button down I brought with me and came back to ask her mom for permission. Long story short she’s been working with us for two years now, and has become a person who was changing bed sheets at her home, to someone who is now running a staff of 20 and has helped opened up more than 20 schools.

One organization I liken you guys to is Room To Read which has a focus on girls education, do you also have a focus on educating girls?  

Yes we do. We’ve built it into our programming where we are monitoring gender equality and we are focused on hiring women. One thing we learned though is that gender balance is more important than just girls. We realized that the schools need a lot of great male role models as well, since a lot of young men and boys lack strong male influences.

So what kinds of things do you do with young leaders to build this movement? 

Yeah we actually do a lot. Our office itself has a large youth programming element to the organization so we have rotational classes for our interns where we train them to be the next generation of social entrepreneurs. Right now we have about 25 interns that are working out of our office for the summer.  We also run something called the PoP leadership institute, its five days, with a host of fantastic speakers and industry leaders from lots of different places, and it is completely free. We really want young people to come out, meet each other and meet some of the leading advocates for social change and how they can be part of that.  Then on the website we have a youth advocacy toolkit. So what we got a lot was kids asking what can I do, so we created this toolkit to inform a young person on how exactly they can get involved in creating change.  I also do something called tinychat which is a live video conference I personally do once a week where I answer questions about the organization and social change, and as of the last one we have about 100 young leaders coming in from around the world.

What’s your best advice for those who are looking to build movements big or small.  

Well the first thing I would say would be from the start that whatever it is you are doing that you have to have passion for it. You also have to speak the language of the movement not of the individual.  So for example it is very rare that you will here me say the word “I” in reference to any of the accomplishments of the organization, it’s always “we.” So when I first started I still spoke the language of a movement even at the time it was just me on a motorbike.  So I think speaking he language is essential.  Then actually focusing a lot of your time on how others can become meaningful parts of that movement is a more powerful way to get it grow.  People want their efforts to be recognized and appreciated and if you can make them feel like that what they are going to do is meaningful before they even take that first step then they are more likely to stay with you as the movement grows.

Can you tell us about the new campaign you are running Schools4All?

Schools4All is a campaign that launched 2 months ago.  It’s a personal fundraising challenge where we are asking anybody out there to create a fundraising page, and it’s not just for students, but for parents, sibilings, basically no restrictions on it, you just have to be above the age of 13.  So anyone who starts a page rallies their friends and families to donate through the page and the page that raises the most is going to be able to select whatever school in the US & Canada they want Justin Bieber and I to come visit and thank them in person. It’s been a little over 2 months and we have had more 20,000 personal pages and raised about $150,000 which should build about 7 schools. It ends June 30th midnight so if you would like to get involved please feel free to visit schools4all.org and sign up for a personal page.

How can our readership help Pencils of Promise?

Immediately, please feel to create a Schools4all page.   You can also share the word! Tell their mothers, Tell their schools,and help us get to $250,000 which translates to ten news schools, but in the bigger picture we have a goal of building 100 schools by the end of 2012, so 60 more  schools in the next 18 months.  So if anyone out there wants to join us in building 100 schools by the end of 2012, I think that will be the start of something really special.


Parvez Z.
Parvez Zuberi6 years ago

excellent idea we should all promote

Robert O.
Robert O6 years ago

Good story! Thanks.

Wenmei K.
Wenmei K.6 years ago

Would like to keep an eye on development of this project. Great and wish successful!

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago

Great news, thank you.

Coleen W.
Coleen W6 years ago

using local people is critical

Coleen W.
Coleen W6 years ago

great story

Adrian M.
Adrian Magaña6 years ago

"My Presence depends on you, depends on your will to serve.
Become My people, and do this work for Me.
Become My friends, and serve your brothers.
Become My children, and know God.
This is no easy task I set you, for men are blind.
But when mankind knows that I am here, I am certain that it will respond from its heart, and let Me lead.
My people are everywhere.
Join them.
Become one of them.
Make this life a crowning achievement, and take part in the Great Plan.
I ask you to do this because you have come into the world for this.
You are here, not by chance, but to serve at this time your brothers and sisters.
Seize then this opportunity, presented to you with love."
~ Maitreya, from Message No. 7

Abbe A.
Azaima A6 years ago

beautiful cause

Laurie D.
Laurie D6 years ago

Excellent education! Please offer more!

Irene P.
Irene P6 years ago

Pencils.. yayy for Pencils!