Lessons From A Guy Who's Changing The World One Pencil At A Time

Adam Braun left his banking career to start a nonprofit that's given tens of thousands of kids access to schools. Here's what he learned along the way.

It's often said the biggest changes come from the smallest beginnings. For social entrepreneur Adam Braun, a single pencil changed the trajectory of his life, leading him to stray from a career on Wall Street to start the nonprofit, Pencils of Promise, which has built more than 200 schools and provided education to 20,000 underprivileged youth in developing countries around the world.

While traveling in India, Braun encountered a young boy begging on the street. When he asked the boy what he wanted most in the world, the boy answered simply "a pencil." This request became the inspiration behind Pencils of Promise, which Braun founded in 2008 with only $25.

Braun's new book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, offers lessons he learned on his journey to becoming a world-renowned social entrepreneur. These lessons not only apply to nonprofits looking to make a difference in the world, but can be enlightening to business leaders as well.

Here are four key take-aways from his book:

1. Remember: It's the small things that matter.

When Braun started Pencils of Promise, he couldn't afford to host a splashy event to spread the word about the organization. Instead, he armed all of his volunteers with business cards. "They were going out night after night handing out Pencils of Promise business cards instead of their Goldman Sachs card or their law firm card because they were so proud to identify with the work we were doing," says Braun.

Adam Braun in Guatemala

This small act of printing business cards gave those involved with the organization a stronger connection to the mission and a sense of ownership that Braun says created more credibility than spending thousands of dollars on an ad campaign or throwing a big event might have.

Practicing this mantra in daily activities can take many forms. "Sending somebody a copy of your favorite book with a handwritten note in the front, I guarantee, will create a greater sense of connection between you and that individual than sending a $1,000 gift that doesn't have any thought behind it," says Braun.

2. Speak the language of the person you want to become.

When Braun was working as a consultant at Bain & Company, he would answer the question "What do you do?" with "I work at Bain & Company, but one day I'm going to start a nonprofit that builds schools in the developing world". This answer would shift the conversation from the present into the future. "Immediately the conversation became about the person I sought to become as if I was already there," says Braun. "People would say, 'Here's someone I know who's building a school in this country.'"

Rather than speaking in the present tense, try always looking toward the future. Verbalizing what you plan to accomplish will help you realize those goals faster.

3. Never take no for an answer.

In the early days of Pencils of Promise, Braun was looking for a company that could build him a top-notch website. Without the funds to pay for the quality he was looking for, Braun sought the help of an acquaintance who worked at one of the best digital agencies in the country. "I was so excited about having him on-board to quarterback a group of freelancers," he says. But over the course of the next month, conversations came to a halt and it became apparent Braun's acquaintance wouldn't be able to provide a pro bono website.

Pencils of Promise in Laos

Instead of moving on, Braun requested a meeting with the CEO. "I said, 'I'll fly anywhere in the country as long as he'll meet with me for 30 minutes,'" he says. Later that afternoon, he got a call from the CEO who not only offered $150,000 of pro-bono services, but said he would sit on the organization's board. "He became one of our board members [and] a real personal mentor of mine," says Braun. "That agency has put hundreds of thousands of dollars of pro-bono services into our organization helping us with our digital and web presence."

The lesson here? Find the decision-maker who has the authority to say yes before you take no for an answer.

4. Be honest about your weaknesses.

One of the greatest leadership lessons Braun has learned is the power of vulnerability. "Most leaders have this presumption that they need to be infallible, indestructible machines and if they display weakness, people are going to question their abilities," says Braun.

Acknowledging weakness may be difficult, but being honest about your vulnerabilities can lead others to feel more invested in helping you.

[Photos courtesy of Pencils of Promise, Nick Onken]

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3 Comments

  • Kara-Anne Cheng

    Great story - will be purchasing the book and sharing this post on my biz page. This is amazing!

  • What an amazing organisation and a refreshing, motivating story. I love the second point about speaking the language of the person you want to become. I transitioned last year from the corporate world into the start-up world, and I still struggle with disassociating myself from that identity. I am going to try this technique in conversation next time, which I think will also motivate me to achieve results in what I am doing now.

  • Joshua Jordison

    Great article Lisa.

    I just finished listening to Nick Onken interview Adam for his Shoptalk Radio podcast. I’m definitely gonna pick up Adam’s book. It’s funny how some things that seem so obvious once we’ve got them figured out can be so illusive to begin with.

    I know, for me, it took years to truly understand what it means to make a decision and not take no for an answer. So many of us are afraid to do something new or take risk because we constantly focus on the possibility of it not working out. I’ve found that the best antidote to that fear is to resolve not to take no for an answer… and basically push through any and all obstacles that will, undoubtedly, arise.

    Once I figured that out, everything changed for the better. It’s all about just taking the first step. To anyone who read your article and is skeptical, I’d encourage them to just trying living the way your article describes for 30 days. It would change their life.