Adam Braun had it made by the age of twenty-four. He’d graduated magna cum laude from Brown University, where he juggled three majors and a varsity basketball career; he’d won a lucrative job at Bain & Company, the international consulting powerhouse (which he thankfully chose over Lehman Brothers); and, for good measure, he possessed the lean good looks and easy charm of a romantic lead in the movies. Clearly, a young man so richly blessed would glide through life like a Jay Gatsby with better judgment.
Yet that pesky inner voice of his had other plans. “I had been on a very safe path,” Adam recalls over a salad at Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan. “I’d graduated at the top of my class and I had this great job at Bain. If you’re a parent, this is everything you’ve worked for, to get your kid in that position. But instead of taking the next step on that path, I said, ‘I think I’m going to leave it.’”
Adam’s parents, Ervin and Susan Braun of Old Greenwich, were used to their middle child’s sudden lurchings onto the road less traveled—he liked to backpack in remote territories—but they never imagined he would completely abandon the sunny boulevard of his career which they were certain, would ascend into the alps of high finance.
But that’s exactly what he did. On October 1, 2008, he went to Bank of America on Greenwich Avenue, opened a new account with $25, and resolved, with this modest start, to build schools in impoverished places around the world. He called his new organization “Pencils of Promise.” But really, couldn’t he have dropped in a little more than $25? “I was turning twenty-five at the end of that month, and $25 was the minimum deposit,” Adam says. “I thought, This is a really good karmic sign. If I could start with $25 and bootstrap that $25 into something significant, it could serve as both a model and an inspiration to anyone else out there who had an idea they deeply believed in and didn’t have a ton of money in the bank. If I could do that, it would really be a story worth telling.’”
Now, a little more than six years later, Adam and Pencils of Promise (PoP) have raised $25 million, built nearly 300 schools in Latin America, Africa and Asia, trained scores of teachers, and educated 32,000 children who otherwise would have no education at all. In 2012 he was named to Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list of unreasonably accomplished young people, and last year he published, to enthusiastic reviews, an account of his story titled The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change. That is the impressive result of his efforts so far; the value for you and me, however, lies not in Adam’s accomplishments so much as his journey.
To understand Adam Braun, one must first understand his family. His grandmother, Eva, was the only member of her large Hungarian family to survive Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. (Her father had escaped the Nazi roundups only to be killed in a Russian work camp.) Adam’s grandfather, Joseph Braun, survived Dachau. He met and married Eva after the war, but Hungary under the Soviets was so brutally oppressive that the populace revolted en masse in 1956. As the Soviet tanks crushed the uprising, the Brauns—now with a daughter and a son, Adam’s father, Ervin—fled across the border and ultimately to New York in a boat packed with refugees.
There the Brauns worked at modest jobs—Joseph as a dental technician making false teeth, and Eva as a sweatshop seamstress for a dollar a day. But Joseph and Eva instilled in Ervin a sense of American possibility. “If not you, then who?” they’d tell him as a sort of inspirational motto. Still, their goals were necessarily basic: “When I was growing up, it was all about, ‘Are we going to be able to eat?’ and ‘Where are we going to live?’” Today Ervin Braun has a thriving dental practice in Darien, and a pretty house on the Old Greenwich waterfront. (Susan, too, is in the tooth trade: She is an orthodontist and a clinical professor.) “I came to the United States when I was three years old—we came literally with the shirts on our backs,” he says. “And to end up in Greenwich, Connecticut.… I scratch my head and wonder, How did that happen?”
“I hoped and prayed that each of my children would become successful in their own lives, with the opportunities put before them,” Ervin continues. “But I wanted to make sure that no matter how successful they got, they knew the lineage they came from—that it was amazing they were even around, because there were a lot of people before them that suffered tremendously. To understand this would keep them grounded.” So, with family history in mind, the Brauns urged their three children to pursue their dreams. They were buoyed by Ervin’s own motto: “Why be normal?”—which can be seen on his license plate and at the bottom of his emails as “YBNML.”
“Yeah, they took me up on that,” he says with a chuckle. The chuckle is because they—the two oldest, Scott and Adam—took up his motto with what appeared to be foolhardy gusto. Scott “Scooter” Braun, a three-time class president at Greenwich High School, turned into a kind of inspired party boy at Emory University in Atlanta. Then he dropped out, hoping to parlay his party-promotion business into talent management. “I think my wife cried for two days straight,” says Ervin. But Scooter landed just fine (In fact, Greenwich magazine featured Scooter in 2009). Today he’s an entertainment mogul who guides the stratospheric careers of Justin Bieber (whom he discovered), Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Psy, the South Korean phenom who gave us “Gangnam Style.” He would prove a champion to Adam’s cause, as would Bieber, who raised thousands of dollars for Pencils for Promise. (Adam’s sister, Liza, who attended Duke University on a lacrosse scholarship, is a physician interning at Long Island Jewish Hospital.)
Outside the Bubble
Adam’s life is best viewed as a series of epiphanies. Reflective and even somewhat introverted by nature—here he takes after his mother—he had always been a seeker. That is why, in his junior year at Brown, he opted to take a Semester at Sea (SAS), the better to immerse himself in different cultures. “When I came back from SAS, my entire sense of the world, of how I could be in the world, had been just so exploded,” he says. “I’d never really been outside the bubble of the Northeast. And suddenly you’re exposed to just how many people there are on this planet and how many different ways of life there are.” (It should be said that in 2002, the Brauns assumed legal guardianship of two Mozambican teen basketball stars, Sam Manhanga and Cornelio Guibunda. The Braun siblings consider them their brothers.)
Two instances from his SAS experience explain his changed worldview. The first was a near-death experience. As the ship carrying the students, the MV Explorer, plied the waters of the North Pacific, the sea troughs deepened and the storms intensified. Students were thrown off their feet, sent from one wall to another; desks and chairs toppled and slid. On January 27, 2005, 700 miles off the coast of Alaska, the students were ordered to strap on their life vests and get to the ship’s upper decks in preparation to abandon ship. A sixty-foot wave had crashed across the bow, shattering the windows of the bridge and knocking out the power supply in the engine room. The ship listed so severely that it seemed to be lying on its side. At first Adam felt certain he would die. Is this what my time here was meant for? he asked himself. Then, mysteriously, his panic gave way to a supreme calm. All of a sudden he knew to a certainty that he would survive, that he was meant to fulfill some yet-to-be-defined purpose. An engine coughed to life, and the battered ship limped out of danger.
Later in the semester, Adam received the first glimmer of what his purpose would be. Ever inquisitive, he had decided to ask a child from each country, “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?” The children’s answers had a lovely simplicity: To dance; magic; a book. Nothing flashy or gadgety, no gobs of money, despite the poverty many of these children suffered daily. In India, Adam spotted a small boy begging in the street. As he approached the boy in order to ask his question, a man came over to translate. The boy’s answer: A pencil.
Adam was struck not only by the modesty of the boy’s wish, but also by its symbolic force: What this beggar boy really wanted was not a handout, but a tool by which he could lift himself out of his dire circumstances. “Are you sure?” Adam asked as other men gathered round, encouraging the boy to pick something grander. When he remained firm in his desire, Adam withdrew a yellow No. 2 pencil from his backpack and handed it to the boy. “He looked at it as if it were a diamond.”
His Path Emerges
On his return to the United States, Adam could not help but notice an American excess that had simply seemed normal before. He had to get back to the far side of the world. In Cambodia that summer, he met up with Scott Neeson, a kind of secular saint who gave up a glittering career in film production—Titanic, Braveheart and X-Men were among the hits he oversaw as president of 20th Century Fox International—to start the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF). Neeson had seen something that defies the Western imagination—the garbage dump Stung Meanchey, a sprawling, Dantesque toxic wasteland in Phnom Penh where hundreds of children live, trying to earn enough to stay alive by sifting through the stinking refuse. Neeson took Adam along for a visit. Afterwards he knew, like Neeson, that he could never unsee what he had seen, and so he became an American fundraiser for CCF. “I suddenly had an identity I could be proud of,” he wrote.
More off-the-beaten-path travel followed—to Central America—much to the consternation of Ervin and Susan Braun. Adam wrote out a will before leaving and asked Susan to sign as a witness. She cried as she did so. “That was such a difficult period for us,” Ervin recalls. “You spend your whole life raising your boy to become a man, and then when he wants to be a man, you’re tempted to say, ‘Where’s my little boy? I want my little boy back.’ But I knew he had this burning desire. Adam has always had this simpatico streak for people less privileged or not as blessed as he is, and he couldn’t understand why he was chosen to be one of the top tenth of one percent of the world that was so privileged. He wanted to understand it better.” (When Liza went backpacking in Thailand, Ervin persuaded her to carry a GPS device: “I cut a deal with her that I could never have cut with Adam.”)
Between nearly sinking in the Pacific and experiencing Third World poverty firsthand, the lineaments of Adam’s future would seem to have been clearly worked out. Alas, it was not quite so simple. Adam’s vision for himself still had him succeeding on Wall Street or the like—then diving into altruistic projects once he’d achieved financial security. In his candid account of this period in his life—the Bain period—he describes a life that would be normal for many a whiz kid in New York but seems dissonant for him: hard work at the office, hard partying afterward. He wrote, “When my doctor asked me how many drinks I consumed per week, I answered honestly, guessing about fifty.”
The next epiphany hit him out of the blue. After a certain amount of time on the job, Bain offers its employees “externships”—leaves of absence to work at a company of one’s choice. Adam, who by 2008 had begun to recognize a lack of passion for financial restructuring—Bain’s particular expertise—saw this as his ticket back to Cambodia. But that September, while pondering his options, he went to see the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall—Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, performed by Yefim Bronfman. Listening to the extraordinary passion Bronfman brought to the music, Adam closed his eyes and yearned for a similar passionate fulfillment in his own work. As if in answer, the phrase “pencils of promise” shot through him like a bolt. When he got up to leave, he knew everything had changed: He had found his purpose.
Adam’s New York social whirl had a hidden upside. It helped him shed his native reserve and build a network of friends who would—by attending parties Adam organized—raise Pencils of Promise’s first thousands. “Oh, this is crazy, but if it’s your externship, it’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had,” his mother remarked. Adam strategically withheld his hunch that Pencils of Promise was far more than a side project. Indeed, his performance at Bain sagged in proportion to his zeal for Pencils of Promise.
Adam structured his book as a memoir in which each chapter carries a moral, or “mantra,” as he prefers. The one that applied now was, Big dreams start with small, unreasonable acts. Put another way, don’t think you have to do something dramatic as a first step toward achieving your dreams. A small step will suffice. Thus the $25 bank account. Three months later, Adam had raised $35,000 and selected a village in Laos—one of the most impoverished countries in Southeast Asia—for Pencil of Promise’s first school. (The schools are funded almost entirely by Pencils of Promise, but the organization requires villages to donate a small percentage of the cost through raw material and labor in order to fully vest itself in the school. That is, a village must embrace it.)
In March of 2009, the rural village of Pha Theung celebrated the groundbreaking of its first modest schoolhouse, which would have bright white walls and a red roof. The children he’d met in the village had been hungering for education; Adam had been hungering to make a difference. Now he saw their parallel dreams rise as one. That afternoon, on the car ride back to the simple wooden guesthouse where he was staying, he put on his sun-glasses—not to shield his eyes from the fierce Southeast Asian sun, but to hide the tears running down his face.
Adam dedicated the school to Eva Braun, his grandmother. As the strange turnings of history revealed themselves, Adam understood that had Eva not survived the Nazis’ inhumanity, this most humane of endeavors could never have flowered.
A Promise Kept
Adam pursued opening new schools like a Fortune 500 executive pursues opening new Starbucks or new CVS pharmacies. He learned how to court donors (Pencils of Promise brought in $80,000 in 2009, and $5 million in 2012), win celebrity backing (supporters range from Bill Clinton to Desmond Tutu to Pitbull; Justin Bieber helped raise a wall of a school in Guatemala, calling the experience “one of the most powerful and humbling days of my life”), and make savvy use of social media and “cause marketing.” Pencils of Promise now employs sixteen full-timers at its New York headquarters and eighty-six staff members in Laos, Ghana, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
True to his Bain training, Adam is especially proud of his organization’s efficiency: 85 percent of dollars raised (and 100 percent of dollars raised online) goes directly to schools, while corporate donations cover administrative costs. (To build each classroom costs $10,000, and each small schoolhouse generally runs to $25,000. Costs do not end there, of course; next comes teacher training and health and sanitation training, the latter to avoid easily preventable illnesses that would wipe out hundreds of education hours.) Pencils of Promise requires an unusual sort of employee: a “hopeless idealist,” as Adam puts it, combined with a results-driven pragmatist. That ethos extends to firing volunteers who don’t pull their weight. Entrepreneur magazine took note, writing a story headlined, “Pencils for Promise is Giving Nonprofits a Hard-nosed Entrepreneurial Facelift.”
If Pencils of Promise has received one regular criticism, Adam says, it is this: “Why don’t you support kids here? Why don’t you look in your own backyard?” The simple answer is, the domestic challenge has little to do with infrastructure—we have schools—and much to do with the politically fraught question of how best to teach our children.
“There are such deeply entrenched interests and systems here that it’s very difficult to push forward any form of innovation,” he says. In places like rural Ghana and rural Laos, “you don’t have entrenched systems—in fact, there’s very little system at all.” That means innovation gets a chance to breathe. For example, some Pencils of Promise schools teach the very young how to use sign language, which education experts have found enhances “normal” literacy skills. “My hope is that some of these innovations, once we have the hard data proving they’re effective, will be adopted here at home.”
Adam’s progress has not been without hiccups. There was the time he asked a billionaire for a major give, and showed up at the man’s formal club wearing jeans. (The billionaire gently chided him, but made the donation.) And there was the time two of his workers in Guatemala were mugged and their phones, wallet and purse taken, and Adam obtusely stressed that the organization was not responsible for the stolen items.
“I thought I was protecting the organization,” he says, “but in retrospect I was just a total jerk and exemplified some of the worst characteristics of true leadership.” But that Adam included the incident in his book makes his subtitle a bit more convincing: he’s not ordinary, but at least he’s not perfect.
More significantly, there was the time that Bain—which had grown impatient with Adam’s half-hearted devotion—effectively forced him to choose between the company and Pencils of Promise. The decision was far from automatic. “Every part of my rational brain told me to stay,” he wrote. But Pencils of Promise might easily have fizzled. That night, as he climbed the front steps to his apartment on Tenth Street, he noticed a sign that had been painted on cardboard by a passing graffiti artist. It said, Become Your Dream. “That ‘sign’ was literally a sign by my door,” he says. “Now it’s framed in our office, the actual cardboard piece.” He has learned, he adds, to make small decisions with his head and big ones with his heart.
Adam’s openness to mystic suggestion is one of his most appealing traits. This doesn’t mean he thinks the cosmos speaks to him, necessarily, but rather that he’s receptive to what he needs to hear. On second thought, maybe it is the cosmos. Inexplicably, Adam always believed he would marry a woman with green eyes and an unusual name. At a party one night, friends casually mentioned fixing him up with a woman from Boston named Tehillah. One of the friends said offhandedly, “No, Tehillah lives too far away.” But the name transfixed Adam. He had to meet her. She turned out to be a green-eyed blond beauty—and the daughter of a rabbi. They married last May.
In the end, Adam’s story is about something more than a man getting schools built for children who sorely need them. It’s about living a life of meaning—wherever and however you find that meaning. Adam is here to tell you that chasing after big dreams won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Entirely. In his case, people told him no constantly, at every turn. “Nearly everyone I knew, including my own parents, thought I was an idiot to do this.”
How, then, did he persist? “The simple answer is, I didn’t believe any of them,” he says now, at Le Pain Quotidien. “I knew the vision that I had for Pencils of Promise could be made real. I knew it. I knew it as confidently as I know this table in front of me is a physical table. That’s how sure I was that Pencils of Promise could build hundreds of schools around the world.”