Julie Randles
Adam Braun is changing the global learning experience

Adam Braun knows how to navigate the fast-track Wall Street lifestyle with the best of them, but this Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and Business Insider’s 40 Under 40 honoree has also found a handle on balance.

Braun is the founder of Pencils of Promise, an award-winning organization that has broken ground on more than 300 schools around the world – and that landed him on Wired Magazine’s 50 People Who Are Changing the World list. 

He began working summers at hedge funds as a 16-year-old. He started his college career as a Division 1 basketball player, but while traveling abroad, he met a young boy begging on the streets of India. When Braun asked him what he wanted most in the world, the young man simply answered, “A pencil.”

This small request became the inspiration for Pencils of Promise, the organization Braun would leave Bain & Company several years later to start with just $25. Using his unique “for-purpose” approach, he meshed for-profit business acumen with nonprofit idealism and in doing so created a leading organization in the global education space, proving that anyone can start a movement that matters.

At its heart, Pencils of Promise believes every child should have access to high-quality education. The organization builds pre-primary and primary schools, trains teachers and funds scholarships.

Braun graduated from Brown University and is now a frequent speaker at conferences, colleges and Fortune 1,000 companies. He has also been a featured speaker at The White House, the United Nations and for the Clinton Global Initiative. He avidly engages with his social media following of more than 500,000 people, and his book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list and went on to become a No. 1 national bestseller.

In 2015, Braun became the director of the Global Education Platform, an initiative conceived by the UN Special Envoy for Global Education to use technology to accelerate internet-based learning around the world. He has also partnered with 2013 TED winner Sugata Mitra, an Indian-born professor now teaching in the United Kingdom, to introduce the innovative School in the Cloud learning platform to Pencil schools. The two are launching this project using Microsoft’s Work Wonders Project at a school in Ghana and hope to use cultural approaches there to improve education systems in the West.

As Sir Richard Branson says of Braun’s work, “For anyone looking to transform the world, this [man] will show you how to get it done.”

If your life were a novel, what would the title be and how would it end?

I’ve actually already written that book and it’s called “The Promise of a Pencil.” It ends with the recognition that even though Pencils of Promise has come a long way, our goals will only be achieved when we enable others to carry the torch forward.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? From whom?

A few years ago, I met with one of our initial investors to ask him to become the first member of our advisory board, which would entail making a large financial commitment to Pencils of Promise for three years. We met up at a prestigious private club in midtown Manhattan, and even though he told me I should wear a jacket and tie, I hated dressing in business attire so I wore black jeans. I was also in the midst of a juice fast that week, so when he recommended several of the entrees at lunch I had to decline.

The conversation went well and eventually I asked him for a six-figure commitment. He said he would talk to his wife and get back to me, and that I should let him know how the juice fast went.

I sent him a nice thank you email and some materials about Pencils of Promise, but two weeks later still hadn’t heard back. I finally got an email from him asking me to give him a call. He told me that he had spoken to his wife and that they had decided to join the advisory board. But he also had some feedback for me.

First, that if I was asking people for large sums of money, I needed to dress the part – I couldn’t wear jeans to a meeting at a private members club. Second, he reiterated the importance of follow-up. I had said at the end of our meeting that I would let him know how the juice fast went, but I didn’t. He told me I had to be relentless with follow-up – nothing should slip through the cracks. Both of these pieces of advice have been integral to my, and Pencils of Promise’s, success.

What’s your idea of the perfect day?

Any day in which I get to be with my wife.

You’ve said the reason you first worked at Bain was that you felt strongly that nonprofits should be run more like for-profits. How are you implementing that philosophy at Pencils of Promise? What advice would you offer leaders at other education nonprofits regarding how they could be more impactful?

Our adaptation of the term “for-purpose” epitomizes Pencils of Promise’s outlook on helping others. We are a for-purpose organization, which means that we blend nonprofit idealism with for-profit business acumen. We are driven by our results on the ground, which I think is the key to any successful organization looking to make a sustainable, lasting impact.

I’m noticing a real shift in the industry to crowdsourcing of contributions rather than just focusing on major gifts. I started the organization with $25 and in our first two years about 98 percent of our unique donations were in amounts of $100 or less from young people. There’s now a pervasive sense that through crowdsourcing contributions you can not only engage the masses, but raise a lot of money, as well.

In terms of another for-profit principle, we’re always thinking of strategic partnerships that we can implement to contribute to Pencils of Promise’s success. At Pencils of Promise, we believe in the power of long-term partnerships with forward-thinking companies to help expand our base of support and enhance the reach of our work.

Today’s landscape of business produces a space where a business’ success hinges more on whether they are “for-purpose” or “non-purpose.” “For-profit” and “nonprofit” designations refer more to the business model an entity follows than its mission.  Many of today’s top businesses have a mission-driven commitment to solving a societal problem, which ensures that they are giving back on a global scale.

In your book, you share your personal journey and explain the steps you say are essential to discover one’s life passion and purpose. Can you tell us about those steps?

I have several guiding principles that I find powerful in my life. I organized my book around 30 core mantras that should enable any reader to take their own extraordinary journey toward creating a life of success and significance. 

First, true self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends, because going beyond the places that make you feel safe allows you to discover who you are and what makes you feel most alive. Second, speak the language of the person you seek to become. By changing your words from your current self to your aspirational self, you create an energy and conversational opportunities that will pull you toward that future self. And lastly, make your life a story worth telling.

You’ve leveraged a host of digital resources, including social media, to spread the mission and vision of Pencils of Promise and to build a community of supporters. What can you tell educators about the power of social media as it relates to learning and teaching?
Social media is incredibly relevant to education. Knowledge is no longer limited to what students learn through textbooks or through the resources a teacher provides in the classroom. Social media makes education instantaneous – anyone with a question can search (or ask) for an answer.

Social media feeds into this notion of instant gratification as it has the power to not only provide answers, but to also connect students and educators to other people who share the same interests or questions.

How does Pencils of Promise support educators in the schools as it starts to navigate the new realities of social learning platforms in the classroom environment?

We support our teachers through extensive training, materials and methodologies. When we introduce social learning platforms like Sugata Mitra’s self-organized learning environments (SOLE) project into our classrooms, we work with teachers beforehand to provide them with the techniques and tools to allow these platforms to operate successfully.

What type of reaction have you gotten to Pencils of Promise schools from local authorities and ministers of education? And how will Pencils of Promise grow deep roots in these communities?

Local authorities and ministers of education have been extremely receptive to and excited about Pencils of Promise schools. Government teachers and members of the community run our schools. We have incredible teams in each country that are invested in providing a better future for their children and for their countries. Education fights poverty and disease, and is a critical factor in contributing to a nation’s growth. All of our Pencils of Promise staff is committed to providing a sustainable, quality education to every child. They choose to be a part of our organization in order to make this mission a reality.

We only build schools in communities that are deeply committed to their children’s education. Our communities contribute 20 percent to every school built, thus the roots of community engagement and support are in place at the onset of every project we take on. That’s why right now, 100 percent of the schools that we’ve opened are fully operational and educating students daily.

What kind of professional learning do teachers and leaders in your schools receive to ensure they are successful? What’s the strategy for long-term sustainability of the schools?

We provide teacher support for our schools, which includes training, materials, lesson plans and teaching methodologies. To ensure our teachers are achieving positive results in the classroom, we measure the success of these schools through extensive monitoring and evaluation. However, it’s not just the physical structure of a new school that indicates success or sustainability. We want to make sure that our students are actually learning and progressing.

Along with the supplemental programming we provide, we have a monitoring and evaluation team on the ground in each country to test and track the progress of our students. We consistently evaluate our methodologies to make sure students achieve the best possible results, and make changes to our programming if we don’t see progress. We rely on measurable data to qualify our success and remain willing to change our goals or in-classroom methods to establish the long-term sustainability of our schools.

You partnered with Sugata Mitra through Microsoft’s Work Wonders Project to bring Mitra’s School in the Cloud learning platform into your schools. What’s the status of that project? What kind of outcomes are you seeing?

We’ve piloted SOLE in Pencils of Promise schools in Ghana and it was a huge success. I believe Sugata’s project is one of the most exciting and disruptive concepts in education, which is a good thing. Children who are living in rural Ghana, within 30 minutes of introducing the lesson, successfully researched a brand-new topic and produced a PowerPoint to share with their classmates. Now that we’ve seen how well the focus groups worked out, it’s given us the confidence to move forward. We’ll start with Ghana, but the hope is that it’s just the pilot phase. The smallest bit of technology through innovation excites our students. It genuinely allows them to see the better life that they’re in school to one day attain.

Your nonprofit, on the surface, focuses on a low-tech learning instrument. School in the Cloud brings technology to classrooms. Tell us how this dual approach plays out for students.

We break ground on a new school every 90 hours, and will continue to do so in the years ahead. But we’re now really interested in not just creating infrastructure, but additionally in changing what a learning experience can be for a child anywhere in the world.

For students, introducing technology into the classroom will allow them to have access to more educational materials, which ultimately has an immeasurable impact on their learning process. In the communities we work in, most classrooms contain few, if any, engaging books. Without books, students don’t read. One e-reader provides a student with 50 books in both English and the local language. Bringing technology into our schools allows us to level the playing field by providing students with the most basic classroom needs.