Meet the inimitable Adam Braun, former finance enthusiast and consultant who achieved the impossible: he started a charitable organization during the height of the recession, grew it into one of the world’s most impactful global education organizations, and has now helped educate 30,000 first-time students around the world.
Adam’s organization, Pencils of Promise, is based on the belief that every person deserves access to a quality education. The idea took shape in college, when Adam traveled to India and asked a young boy on the street what he would want if he could have anything in the world. The boy said, “a pencil,” a response that changed the trajectory of Adam’s life.
In a stirring speech to IVY NYC, Adam shared his personal journey, and the best ways to make an impact in our lifetime. He dislikes the word “non-profit,” since it implies that a for-purpose organization cannot deliver real returns. Part of his success has stemmed from his ability to approach non-profits with the same business acumen that makes for-profits successful. In his eyes, the future will be built by companies that are both “for profit” and “for-purpose.”
To inspire other people to find their calling, Adam wrote The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person can Create Extraordinary Change, a WSJ and NYT bestseller whose many fans include Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra, and Gary Vaynerchuck. In it, Adam shares the greatest lessons from his journey.
IVY Magazine sat down with Adam to learn his key insights.
The biggest changes in the way we give
First, there’s a huge demand for transparency nowadays. You want to know where your money is going. Second, you want to know that your money is producing positive outcomes for the beneficiaries. Historically, you’d give money to a cause and assume that it made the world better. As people move from for-profits to non-profits, they’re asking the non-profits whether the money is actually producing positive value.
Third, if you look at the origins of philanthropy, the way we think about it has changed. Philanthropy started with people who amassed lots of money, and then bequeathed their money to a cause after they died—think of the Rockefellers. Then came the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, who wanted to see the impact of their philanthropy in their own lifetimes. They’d have a long career, amass money, and give it away in later stages of life. Now, we’re seeing that our generation expects to make positive outcomes through their work. Charity is not something you wait to participate in until you’re dead, and you don’t have to retire first.
How to write a book that feels like binge-watching Netflix
When I began writing my book, I thought of the way we consume media, and how different it is than the historical ways of consuming media. Media nowadays is primarily episodic in nature. We binge on one season and we watch eight episodes in a row rather than a two or three hour movie. I wanted to write a book that felt like an amazing Netflix show. This was how I framed and thought about my writing.
As an author, you have to make a choice between writing rich, dense prose, or writing a page-turner. I started out writing beautiful prose, and three chapters into the book, I realized that if I wanted to convey a message that transforms people, I had to make the form digestive. I ended up writing this book for the person who is walking through the airport, who doesn’t know anything about Pencils of Promise, but who wants to read something good on a cross-country flight. By the time they land, I want the course of his or her life changed.
The book is framed around 30 short chapters, each with its own mantra. You can open up The Promise of a Pencil and read it from the beginning, or you can flip directly to Chapter 16 and still gain something of value. Collectively, those 30 mantras are the road map to creating a life of success and significance. Nowadays, you don’t have to choose between the two. You can actually have both.
How to create something out of nothing: 4 top tips for entrepreneurs
When you’re starting a business, it’s difficult to overcome all the naysayers. You have this huge vision, but you have no idea where to start. You need to get beyond the paralysis of that fear. Just put one foot in front of the other, day by day.
One of the toughest tactical things is prioritization, and time allocation. Know how to spend your time in the most effective way. The reality for all of us, particularly entrepreneurs, is that only 2-3 things in your day will move the needle, and yet you get the option to participate in 100 different actions. A lot of entrepreneurs ignore the big scary stuff, and go instead for the small positive wins, so they don’t face potential rejection. The successful entrepreneurs find a way to do the key 2-3 things a day. The best ones build a culture that forces all employees to become high performers, who then each attack their own 2-3 things.
Part of being a good manager means understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. I’m not the world’s best manager. I’m an ENFP (I believe in Myers-Briggs tests!), and my archetype is strong on vision and less strong on managing others. So, I try to surround myself with people who are extraordinary managers. At Bain, I got a scientific understanding of good management, which to me means ensuring accountability through goal setting, and coaching each individual to his or her highest levels of performance in a way that’s not individually achieved, but collectively.
In the early days for any entrepreneur, you look for talent and passion in your hires. When we first started, I weighed passion over talent, especially since we had unpaid volunteers. Over time, the weights shifted, and now the underlying assumption is that everyone is wildly passionate about what we do, so talent, work ethic and cultural fit matter most.
The best advice I ever received came from the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, who wrote a blog post about Pencils of Promise early on. We got on a phone call together and at the end of it, I asked him if we could speak again in the future. We had 25-30 schools at the time, and he said that we could talk again once we had 100 schools. I told him that 100 schools was a lot. He gave me this advice: make the little decisions with your head and the big ones with you heart and you’ll be just fine.
IVY members: top 3 ways to join the cause!
When I got started, I asked people to donate to Pencils of Promise instead of giving me birthday gifts. We enable people to donate on our website through our own version of a Kickstarter page.
Second, we have leadership councils in various cities. They are the embodiment of Pencils of Promise, so I would recommend joining your local chapter! NYC has a really active one.
Third, you can decide as an individual or a family that you are going to build a school. It costs $25,000, which is not a lot by some people’s standards. Once you reach that goal, you get to choose the country in which your school is going to be. Then you get to see the work yourself on a service trip. You’ll be able to lovingly dedicate that school to whomever you want.
I would love to see an IVY impact trip. IVY members could go into the field together in Ghana or Laos, to meet the children and communities whose lives they’ve radically changed because the IVY community came together as one. It’s a very fulfilling way to get involved. The opening of our first school was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Knowing that those children were about to go to school for the first time because a group of young people in New York City committed to that mission was quite extraordinary.
Adam is an IVY Thought Leader. To learn more about IVY, please visit www.ivy.com.