by Winston Struye

Adam Braun started five years ago with a $25 bank deposit and a goal to build just one school. Now, speaking to him a day before his 30th birthday, Adam’s organization has 155 schools built in four countries. I talked to him about how he got started, his background in finance and about his “for-purpose” approach to his nonprofit.

BFM: Where did you go to school and did you like school growing up? 

Adam: Growing-up education was very highly prioritized in my household, my parents even moved to the town that I grew up in because of the town’s public education system. And I actually loved school, I was a very academic kid and I was obsessed with getting straight A’s. And strangely, that obsession to get straight A’s for years almost taught me entrepreneurial skills that I now have. When you are so focused on a specific outcome, like getting an A in a class, you will find ways to get that specific outcome. It forced me [to] really focus on what was most important, which is really essential as an entrepreneur.

Photo by Winston Struye for Blindfold Magazine

BFM: You mention entrepreneur here, you see Pencils of Promise as an entrepreneurial venture?
Adam: Oh yeah! Absolutely.

BFM: I’ve heard you mentioned before that you don’t consider Pencils of Promise a “nonprofit” so much as “for purpose…”
Adam: It’s a non-profit in its structure, but I never thought: “I want to create a non-profit,”I thought “I want to create some- thing that makes the world better.” And that’s where the entrepreneurial sense comes out, that I wanted to build something, and it’s secondary that the construct of it is through the nonprofit space. I was really committed to starting something that would improve the lives of others. But when I found myself in conversations with other people that I considered my peers, like other entrepreneurs, as soon as I used this word “nonprofit” they suddenly treated me like I was different. I realized it’s because most people are driven by profit, and rightfully so, you need to create profit, and yet we have this industry that defines itself be being “nonprofit.” It’s the only industry that introduces it self by saying “non,” you don’t call the aviation industry the non-automobile industry. So I thought instead of speaking about what we don’t do, let’s speak about what we are doing. The most significant thing that jumped out to me is that we are here for a purpose, and that purpose is meaning, which is created through service to others and social good.

BFM: How did you come up with the idea of Pencils of Promise? 
Adam: Well, I went on Semester at Sea in college, and while traveling I decided to ask one kid in each country what they wanted. I thought that they would say what I wanted; a house, a car, a boat, something like that, but when I was in India I asked this one boy who was begging on the street and his answer was a pencil, and it just blew me away, and he just lit up when I gave him the pencil I had on me. After that, I started passing out pencils as I traveled and I developed these relationships with all these different kids and I just loved it. Then I would ask parents what they wanted, I thought I would hear things like a better home, or a less corrupt government, or better roads, but the answer was always that they wanted education of their child. That gave me this sense of purpose, and what those people told me really helped shape the philosophies around which the organization was created.

Photo by Winston Struye for Blindfold Magazine

BFM: And so what exactly does Pencils of Promise do as a whole? Do you guys just build the schools…?
Adam: We are an implementing organization. Right now, we have more than 60 staff living and working on the ground in our countries of impact and of that 60 staff, more than 90 percent of them are local to that country. We go to a country and hire up local staff and train them on high-performance business, except in this “for- purpose” business model. We select villages based on need, cost efficiency, sustainability, impact, and the communities. After we select the community we organize what we call a “promise committee:” four mothers and four fathers to oversee the creation, construction, and on-going sustainability of their school. So then once we agree to break ground, we provide 80-90 percent of the capital costs, the community provides the rest of the funding, and the community provides labor and materials for the construction. Once the school is completed then the education ministry provides a teacher, and we provide ongoing support with visits three times a month. We monitor the school’s math scored, literary scores, enrollment, progression, retention, teacher training, everything.

When you are outside of your comfort zone, you must challenge the assumptions that you have been told to believe.

BFM: So once the school is built you guys are constantly going back? 
Adam: Yeah, three times a month. As far as I see it building the school is really just the tip of the sword. That’s just the first part of engagement.

BFM: Wow, that’s fascinating. It’s interesting hearing you talk because you speak a lot of numbers here and I’m definitely hearing that background in finance in all this talk! 

Adam: Yeah, I have these two completely different sides to me. I’m half backpacker, someone who loves to just be dropped off in the middle of some third-world country. That’s when I feel most alive, when I’m out in the field in these places that really lack structure, and I’m very comfortable in those environments where you lack structure. Then there is this other side of me that is completely driven by results. When you mesh those two together, I think you can create something very powerful. Traditionally, the nonprofit space, as I see it, had a lot of very passionate people working on causes that they deeply cared about but, unless you produce results, a lot of that can actually create unintended consequences. I realized that if I could create an organization that has the heart of humanitarian nonprofit work, but the head of a “for-profit” business, then we could start to change the way that the space operates.

Photo by Winston Struye for Blindfold Magazine

BFM: Do you think that we, as wealthy first-world citizens, have an obligation to help those less fortunate in countries that we can barely pronounce? 

Adam: When I went on Semester at Sea for the first time, I remember I felt this intense obligation. I couldn’t reconcile why I was born into such a fortunate position to have access to good public education and clean water and safe meals when all these other people didn’t have any of it just by virtue of where they were born. I began to feel really guilty about it. A few years later I backpacked Latin American for a few months and in Guatemala a man came up to me asked me to come and live with him in his village where he was trying to learn English, so that his children and grandchildren could have a better lives. He wasn’t very good at it pronouncing English though, and he wanted me to come and stay with him so that he could record me reading the bible, and he could listen to the recording and then he could learn to pronounce English better. I took him up on it and spent three days living with him in his village. While I was there I realized that this man was in the same exact position that my great grandfather was, and that my great-great grandfather was, and that every single one of us that is in a position of privilege is not here by random selection, but because the generations before us sacri- ficed so that we could be in that position. Once I realized that I never felt that obligation or guilt anymore, now I almost felt honored to be able to carry the sacrifices of those before me. And I thought well, what’s the single best way to honor those sacrifices forward and I thought it would be to extend a hand to the people who are still in that circumstance, essentially: pay-it-forward. Once I realized that, I no longer thought of it as an obligation to help those less fortunate but almost more so an opportunity.

BFM: I know there are a lot of young people out there who really do want to make a difference like you have but are maybe having trouble getting started, any advice for them?

Adam: The first advice that I give to people is that they have to get out of their comfort zone, that’s the first thing. I noticed that all of my favorite musicians and artists would always create great work during periods of struggle, periods of self-discovery, whether it was a war going on or someone had just bro- ken up with them, it was always when they were outside of their space of contentment. My equivalent of that was first going on Semester at Sea, I went without a single person I knew and left the comfort of my normal college life. The second thing is, when you are outside of your comfort zone, you must challenge the assumptions that you have been told to believe. Then you have to look for these “lightning” moments as I call them, these moments where you feel so alive and awakened. These moments are rare but when you have one you have to follow it, and you have to go forward with it. The other thing, I think a lot of people think people build great things when they get some giant rush of wind that enabled them to build but, the truth of it is, there is no one giant wind, but rather 10,000 little winds. It’s okay to start from a small place, that’s why I keep that check in my office (Adam points to the first $25 investment check to he deposited when he first started Pencils of Promise). 

So my story is case in point that you can be a normal person and start from a very small place with a small amount and create something that becomes extraordinary through your efforts. And the last thing that I would say for people to do is to set a bold, but attainable goal. Then when you reach that goal, set another goal, and create a sense of momentum around what your doing. Inevitably, there is going to be failures and people knocking you down, but as long as you have that goal and you’ve stayed with it and genuinely believe that you can get there, that becomes your true north. For me that was building one school, which at the time I first thought of it seemed incredibly difficult. Then once we built the first one I said I wanted to build ten schools, which again, seemed crazy, and then I remember distinctly thinking that if we built 30 schools by the time I turn 30, I could die a happy man. (At the time of the interview Adam was still 29) and we’ve broken ground on more than 170 right now. And I think it’s that incremental goal setting that people don’t realize how important it is.

BFM: How inspiring! Thanks so much for sharing that! How can people best help you out at Pencils of Promise? 

Adam: Well, Pencils of Promise has a holiday campaign where the goal is to fund the next 25 schools in Guatemala. The campaign is the most clear, direct, easy, accessible, transparent thing we’ve ever done. We’ve already sourced the next 25 communities so anybody can go on the site and select a specific community they want their dollars to go to or that they want to fundraise on behalf of. If they just go to our website its campaign is called “Season of Promise.”