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The Promise of a Pencil: Building Education From the Ground Up

“Love what you’re doing or else you’re doing something wrong”

The Promise of a Pencil: Building Education From the Ground Up

Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun and student in Guatemala.

It was in backpacking around the world during his college years when Adam Braun, 31, discovered how he would turn his passion into opportunity. While traveling, Braun got into the habit of asking children, “What do you want most in the world?” The response from a young child in India: a pencil.

“I handed him one from my backpack and watched as a wave of possibility washed over him,” Braun told Monster. “I then saw the profound power and promise brought through something as small as a giving a pencil to just one child.”

Over the next five years, Braun continued to backpack, handing out thousands of pens and pencils across six continents. These pencils led to conversations with local parents and children across cultures and languages, all which helped lay the foundation for an international organization. Thus, Pencils of Promise was born.

Today, Pencils of Promise (PoP) works in communities across the globe to build schools and create programs that provide education opportunities for children, regardless of where they were born and what resources are available. PoP currently runs more than 300 schools throughout Laos, Nicaragua, Ghana and Guatemala, which provide education opportunities to more than 31,000 students. The organization is layered on teacher support, student scholarships and technology pilots.

Braun and the PoP team envision a world where everyone has access to quality education. “Pencils of Promise believes where you start in life shouldn’t dictate where you finish. Therefore, our motto is ‘everyone has promise’ and we work to unlock this every day.”

The Road to Finding Passion

When Braun was 16 he started working at hedge funds during the summer and through high school and college. He graduated from Brown University with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, Sociology and Public and Private Sector Organizations. “I went to college thinking that I was going to major in economics because I wanted to work on Wall Street. Sociology taught me about how people make decisions and in particular, how you can influence groups and how you can ultimately catalyze movements.”

Upon graduating, Braun was recruited and hired by a prestigious consulting firm, Bain & Company. Braun credits his education and experiences working at the firm as helping him gain the skills and foundation upon which to build his business.

Making a Change

Braun started working on PoP while at Bain & Company, noting that, “It was becoming impossible for me to balance my corporate workload with the amount of time I was dedicating to developing PoP. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but I was ready to fully commit to turning PoP into a movement that changed people’s perception of education.”

In 2009, Braun left Bain & Company to pursue Pencils of Promise full time.

Starting From Scratch

He did not have a single full-time employee­ or major institutional donor. Braun says his greatest success as founder of PoP was breaking ground on their first school in Laos, which he dedicated to his grandmother. To fund the first school, Braun deposited $25 into his bank account on his 25th birthday and asked friends for donations instead of presents. Braun says this was an incredibly rewarding experience for him because his grandmother is a Holocaust survivor and he wanted to honor her in a meaningful way that would ensure her legacy would last.

Braun started PoP on $25 in his bank account; in the first two years, about 98 percent of donations were made in the amounts of $100 or less from young supporters. PoP also strategically partners with forward thinking companies to establish long-term relationships.

“Many of today’s top businesses have a mission-driven commitment to solving a societal problem,” Braun explains, “which ensure that they are giving back on a global scale.”

For-Purpose Versus Nonprofit

Braun says another rewarding aspect of PoP is the tangible impact they have accomplished over the past six years. Braun identifies PoP as what he terms a “for-purpose” organization as opposed to using the word “nonprofit.”

“Our adaptation of the term ‘for-purpose’ epitomizes PoP’s outlook on helping others. 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,” he said

Challenges and the Future

The most challenging aspect to Braun is the feeling that he can do more. He explains that once a child gains literacy, they’re always thinking about the next stage of education, so it becomes difficult to keep up with the ambitions they set forth. As for the next five to 10 years, Braun says they will continue to break ground on a new school every 100 hours. He also notes that they’re not solely interested in creating infrastructure, rather, Pencils of Promise also looks to change what a learning experience for a child anywhere in the world looks like, including the United States.

“PoP is known as a school-building organization that provides access to education, but we are evolving into a learning organization focused on quality education outcomes,” said Braun. “With our dynamic approach to ensure quality education through our programs, we are going to reshape the landscape of education in the developing world.”

Hiring and Inspiring

PoP is an organization led by passionate young individuals who want to change the world for better. PoP offers job opportunities and internships, both in New York City and in the three countries they work in.

“All of our PoP staff are 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,” said Braun.

PoP looks for candidates that are relentless, optimistic and who have a passion for making a difference in the world.

“Love what you’re doing or else you’re doing something wrong,” is a motto Braun says is hanging on the wall in their office.

“Innovation, collaboration and creativity are core components of this organization and traits that we look for in our team,” Braun describes. “Whether an executive or an intern, everyone at PoP is a valuable part of this movement and plays a part in contributing to our impact.”

See what jobs and internships are available at Pencils of Promise. 

Monster Wants to Know: What are you most passionate about? Are you working to pursue that dream? Share with us in the comment section.


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