Before he turned 25, Adam Braun had a vision of what he wanted to do in life, and the legacy he wanted to leave behind.
In 2008, he founded Pencils of Promise, a non-profit he prefers to call a "for-purpose” organization, to ensure all children have access to education. Six years later, Braun's organization has built 206 schools, breaking ground on a new building every 90 hours, reaching more than 22,000 children in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Boy and a pencil
It all started when Braun visited India as a college student and a boy begging on the street approached him to ask for money. Braun asked the boy what he would want, if he could have anything in the world.
“I thought the answer was going to be 'a house' or 'a car'," Braun said. "His answer was 'a pencil'. So I gave him my pencil and he just lit up with joy. I realized he never had been to school before, and that was the reality for 57 million children around the world.”
After graduation, Braun was on the path to a successful Wall Street career, but he never forgot that boy and the problem he represented.
“We live in a world in which every single child can have access to quality education, because we have everything necessary already," he said. "We have the capability of educating every child. So I became immensely committed to helping create that world.”
Using social media, Braun spread the word about his mission and raised money. He funded construction of the first Pencils of Promise school, in Laos, five years ago.
Since then, his organization has helped finance more than 200 schools in remote rural areas of Laos, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Ghana. In each country, he says, his organization works closely with the ministries of education.
“Those are the ones who craft the original curriculum, but we provide additional sanitation, health and water curriculum," he said, "essentially teaching kids to live healthy holistic lives.”
Pencils of Promise also works closely with the local communities.
“Every project is uniquely catered to that community, but 20 percent of the funding on average comes from the community itself," Braun said. "We want locals supporting other locals.”
Rallying people around a common goal of education is something that generally brings communities closer, says Leslie Engle Young, director of impact for Pencils of Promise.
“We started saying 'OK, how can we get your 20 percent? What part of the labor can you do? What materials do you have that you can contribute to the project?'" she said. "And through this really organic conversation, we start building true partnership with these people."
Young is amazed at the feedback they receive from parents and grandparents every time a new school is built. Thrilled to see their children given the opportunity to learn, people are willing to pool efforts and resources.
“I was just in Ghana at the opening ceremony of a new kindergarten in the community of Likpe," she said. "One parent got up and gave the students a charge, basically saying to them, ‘This is your school, you need to make the best of it. It’s your right to have an education and now it’s your job is take advantage of that right and see where you can go in the future...Teachers, you’re going to show up regularly. You’re going to do good work. We’re going to help you do that good work.’”
Enthusiasm like that inspired Braun to broaden his organization's reach beyond the elementary school level.
“So we developed scholarships, which enabled them to continue to secondary school, as well as teacher training," he said. "We are really rigorous about making sure that the programs are not just beautiful photos and videos of kids, but that we’re actually seeing incredible results in the classroom. And if we're not seeing results, then we need to change our programs. That’s why our kids in Pencils of Promise schools progress from one grade to the next at two times the national average.”
Braun shares his story in his new book, The Promise of a Pencil, about building up his non-profit, pursuing his dream and proving that one ordinary person can create extraordinary change.