Impossible FM #003: Building 200 Schools with Adam Braun & Pencils of Promise

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In this episode I sat down with Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun to chat about his organization, Pencils of Promise organization which he started with just $25 and has grown over the last 5 years to build over 200 schools.

Impossible has been involved with PoP for years (we built a school with them last year) so I was ecstatic to sit down with Adam and talk to him not only about his story and the PoP story, but how they did it and where they plan to go from here.

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Impossible FM #003 Transcript

Hey everybody. Welcome to Impossible FM – the show where we talk about pushing your limits and doing the impossible in fitness, gritness, business, and life. I’m your host Joel Runyon, welcome to the show. Let’s get started!

Hey everybody. Welcome to Impossible FM episode number 003. On today’s show we’ve got Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit, a for-purpose organization building around the globe. Now if you guys remember we’d actually built a school with POP before. So I’m pumped to have Adam on the show. In today’s show we’re gonna talk about how Adam left a successful Wall Street career, and with just $25 and a few years of time, turned it into over 200 schools built around the globe affecting literally thousands of lives. Adam has a new book out called The Promise of A Pencil, detailing how he found it, Pencils of Promise, and showing you how mantras can shape the way you look at life, figure out exactly what you wanna do and go ahead what most people think is impossible. We’ve got a great show for you today, so let’s get into it.

Hey everybody this is Joel Runyon with Impossible FM and today I’m ecstatic for this interview that I’m gonna have with you guys. Today on the show we’ve got Adam Braun from Pencils of Promise. If you guys have been paying attention to the blog or website at all, for any amount of you know about Pencils of Promise and the work we’ve done with them. So it’s great to have the founder, the man who started it all, Adam Braun with us today. Thanks for coming on, Adam.

ADAM:
My pleasure, thank you for having me.

JOEL:
Now, if you guys don’t know about Pencils of Promise, I’ll give you a little background on how we got connected. About a year and a half ago they reached out to me and we kinda connected around this world impossible and we decided to do this sort of joint promotion where I ended up running an ultramarathon, the first ultramarathon I’d ever run in order to raise money for school and it was one of the 100 schools that they were trying to build by the end of the year. We ended up doing it raising $26,000, but that’s just one of the many many stories that Pencils of Promise is making happen around the world. That’s just 1 of 100 schools, and now they are up to, how many schools exactly, Adam?

ADAM:
We just broke ground on number 200 a couple of weeks ago in Ghana.

JOEL:
Wow, that’s just, you know, that’s just another year later. I thought it was like 150. Man, you guys are blowing up. Anyways.

ADAM:
It’s pretty crazy to think about.. we’re breaking ground on a new school every 90 hours, so think about it, it’s like every week a handful of schools get added, so. If I get to talk to somebody and I don’t see him for a month, by that time we’ve jumped up in numbers pretty significantly.

JOEL:
That’s gotta be awesome. Now as far as how this all got started, I’d love for you to just kinda share the background. I know it pretty well but I’d love for you to kinda share to the listeners exactly how you came up with this idea and then how it kinda evolved into this, not just an organization but a sort-of movement that you’ve created over the last 3, 4, 5 years and how it’s kinda affected not just people in New York, or Iraq, but globally.

ADAM:
Yeah, sure, so I grew up kinda interested in finance. And so I’ve had all these early internships and experiences that were either in finance or doing something entrepreneurial, you know like when I was a kid I was collecting basketball cards and I’d try and sell them for the next basketball card up or something like that. Essentially I was 21 and I went into the developing world for the first time and I just had a really powerful set of experiences and so I wouldn’t go through all of them. So one of them is like a 60-foot rogue wave that hit a cruise ship that I was on. I had a certain experience that kinda let me really consider my footprint, my legacy, what would happened if perished that day. But then when I went to India I saw poverty I’ve never seen before. Met a young boy who begging on the streets and I asked him if he can get anything in the world what would he want? And had been asking one kid per country that question. His answer was a pencil. So I gave mine, he just lit up. And I soon realized he had never been to school and that was the situation for a lot of kids around the world and I just became committed doing something about it.

JOEL:
And so how did that story about the kid, what do you want most in the world? It’s not a TV, it’s not a PlayStation, it’s not any of that stuff. It’s a pencil. It’s an opportunity which is really what it is. So how did that kind of evolve into like, hey, so maybe I should go build 200 schools in developing nations and not just, we’ll get into this a little bit– but it’s not just building schools and like piecing out, it’s building schools, developing curriculum and training people in the country to create these educational environments for 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 years down the road.

ADAM:
Yeah, so at that time I was 21. I just wanted more than anything to build 1 school. I literally thought I was gonna move to one of the countries that I had backpacked through, and I backpacked that time through like 40-50 countries. And I just became obsessed with these places, the culture, the people and I decided one day I wanna have the ability I’m gonna find a way to build a school. Maybe even more than one. I think a lot about, just kinda like put life on pause or at least the things we aspire towards. Just kinda put them in the back corner or on the shelf, you know like one day, I’ll get to that. And I kinda followed that. And so I moved to New York. I knew what I was passionate about. I wanted to work in global education but everybody said to me like, hey you have the opportunity to work in finance and get all these great jobs and so I did interviews, had job offers in investment banks and consulting firms and so I went to work at Bain which has been the number 1 rated consulting firm by a consulting magazine for 11 years in a row. So it’s kinda one of the more prestigious jobs that I could get. About a year in I found I had like, on paper, this dream life. This sick apartment, an access to parties, there’s making really good money, and from the outside I kind of had the life that I thought I’d aspire towards but it was really absence of purpose. You know, not so say that everyone who works in that space does this, but I was like, in my early 20s, I was 23-24. I just found that I became really self-obsessed and I was only acting on self-interest. So Bain has this great opportunity they call this externship where you can leave for 6-9 months, work for anybody else and come back. So you get industry experience that I kind of ____ them and maybe kind of do something that’s entrepreneurial. And I was like hey, I’m gonna find a way to start an organization called Pencils of Promise because I got really excited about it. One night in 2008 the economy was getting pretty bad, so, like oh yeah, you wanna work for somebody else? You go for it. So I left and I spent 9 month on externship. But the idea was to build 1 school. I dedicated it to my grandma who was turning 80. And then come back to my job, I started with $25, that was my 25th birthday and that’s what it took to get my bank account. So I thought that was a good sign. I asked friends to give small donations and some people gave about $20. My friends and I organized like this series of low-dollars simple gatherings of good people. Parties, basically. And pretty soon, much like you did, we found a way through our community to raise $25,000 in small increments. Then I went out to Laos, got the first school built on the ground. It was like, a rockin’ adventure riding these motorbikes, ___ blasting in my ears, tears in my eyes feeling like, my dream was coming true. Then I returned to my job. And when I returned, I was a very different person. And then I realized I was kind of manifesting this dream that I have and I couldn’t just build just one school, I have to continue with it. And March 2010, about 4 years ago, I left, and we had 2 schools back then. And now we have 202 schools. And so it’s been a pretty incredible journey. But this book that I wrote was really about sharing the guiding steps that I realized along the way could help anybody else create a life of success and significance simultaneously.

JOEL:
Yeah, there’s a couple of things in there I like and I wanna pull a couple of things out of the book. If you guys don’t know, is it out yet? Or do I just have the early copy.

ADAM:
March 18 is the day.

JOEL:
So it’s called the Promise of a Pencil. One of the things I wanna pull out of the book was that when you actually left your job at Bain, the externship idea is to go to an established organization. You were just like, Oh, I’m going to this thing that doesn’t quite exist yet. You know a lot of people out there are like, oh I wanna do this thing, I’ve got all these things that I wanna go do. But they would normally something like that.. well it doesn’t exist yet, I can’t really pursue it because there are rules and we have to follow the rules and so. You basically took the opposite approach, say, it doesn’t exist yet but I’ve got 4, 5 months until this externship starts and I’m just gonna hustle and get things started. I know what my deadline is and I’m gonna make it happen.

ADAM:
Yeah, I mean there’s a couple of things in play there. One of them is, I mean, you’ve dived in to the book so you’re familiar with it, but the organizing principle of the book is mantras. I find that just having simple, really powerful phrases that can guide you can really help change your life. So I listed out the 30 that really helped me. One of them that I think applies here is the mantra in the 8th or 9th chapter. Asking for permission, is asking for denial. It’s really around this idea that, it’s not up to you to ask somebody if something is okay, if you really believe that you’re gonna do it for the best of intentions and that the path you’re meant to walk means taking this initiative so, rather than asking anybody if it okay to start this, I’m just gonna go start it and then make sure people are kind of buying in along the way. Fortunately Bain said, sure if you can get it off the ground, we’ll support it, and let you you leave for 9 months. But then the other one I think is, there’s a really good _____________. He says that entrepreneurs do bigger jumps off a cliff and assembles an airplane on the way down. And I think that that’s really true. It extends beyonds entrepreneurs. Anybody who has a big idea and wants it to succeed, wants to do something as big as run a half marathon or as small as sell 10 boxes of girl scout cookies. At some point in time you have to take this leap of faith and then that leap of faith is the first step to whatever your idea is to become real.

JOEL:
I love it. That’s pretty awesome. I talk about jumping of the cliff and figuring out on the way down a lot, and so that’s just..

ADAM:
You actually jump a cliff though for most people it’s a metaphor. For you, it’s like a real thing.

JOEL:
We actually did that. We bungy jumped or whatever. A year and a half ago. That was the actual metaphor. You have to jump off and hope the rope doesn’t break. There’s another piece in here that I truly liked too. I don’t want to talk about the book all the time. Or maybe we wanna do talk about the book all the time. One of the things I liked from the very get-go is that you talked about your parents kinda said, they set up expectations for you where it’s like, Brauns are different was the phrasing that you used. It’s not necessarily from a superior standpoint, but from… I wanna hold myself to a standard that you don’t have to do. Like you take yourself beyond what is simple, what is easy. You know, for Hanukkah, instead of giving 8 gifts,you know, 1 gift every night, you get I gift 4 nights then you donate to charity every other one.

ADAM:
There’s like, $25. But I remember it was a big deal for us. $25 to get to the Ronald McDonald house. Because back then we love McDonald’s back then or something. At first it was frustrating. We’re like, Mom, dad, everyone else is getting 8 nights of gifts or they got Christmas. And they’re getting tons of gifts and truthfully, Christmas is a better holiday than Hanukkah. I’m Jewish so I can freely admit it. It’s just a better holiday. It seems like it. There’s not a great Hanukkah movie. And you guys have great Christmas movies. Well the one counter is that well, at least we have 8 nights of this. And then for us, we were really told, no, you don’t have 8 nights, you actually have 1 night of gifting and then 1 night of designating something that we’re gonna support and give back to. And whenever we were frustrated by that or anything else, you know, as kids growing up, we really wanted them. Just the immediate response was, well Brauns are different. And it’s not just because it was us. The message is really clear, it was just that whatever the societal norm it, we are gonna hold you to a higher standard. We’re gonna expect you to be different. And eventually, truthfully, my siblings and I, we eventually just lived into the values that they put forward for us to follow. And you know as a kid, you want nothing more than your parents’ approval. And so your parents are really kind of that, hold that approval at a distance. And hold it high up so you really had to reach for it. It eventually forces you to just live that way whether they’re deriving approval or not. You just had to come to expect like, oh the way that I operate is different from everybody else. And eventually just start to cherish it. And so, I’ve talked about this but, my dad is like the intimidating father in town. He coaches sports team, he’s super intense. But his license plate was the letters YEMML. And everybody thought that it meant Why be an animal, because they were super scared of him. But it actually it stood for why be normal. And I think that phrase has stuck with me for a long time. Every time I get a little tired or rejected about the fact that I’m trying to do something and most people aren’t always setting up to do. I just kind of remind myself, why be normal. And I find that if concern yourself with people and ideas and literature and music and anything else, it just pulls you out of complacency and normalcy and into rocking this really unique life. You know, some pretty great things can happen.

JOEL:
I love that idea, I talked about doing, being uncomfortable, doing things that people don’t like to do? It’s sort of this trade off, that if you wanna do the things that you really wanna do, you wanna do something that’s extraordinary, or difficult or anything, you really have to, it’s sort of a trade off from like, getting to just fit in and not have to think about stuff. There’s this whole aspect of. If you just turn your brain off and go on autopilot for a little bit, you don’t really have to worry about fitting in. You don’t really have to worry about what other people are thinking about you that much because it just happens. As soon as you start stepping out or you start to do something different or something that you’re interested in, whether it’s leaving Bain and starting this organization, or whatever it is, you know, all of a sudden people start looking at you out of the side of their eye.. and they’re like, eeeeh what’s going on with that, is he okay, is he going through something, what’s the deal? I think that understanding there’s a fundamental tradeoff between the two. At least when you’re taking that initial step, is a huge thing. It’s not weird, it’s not abnormal. It’s just someone that has to go through in order to go after what they really want.

ADAM:
Yeah, for sure. I think you and your community represents it more than anything else. It’s like this idea of impossible. And just the definition of that word is the sense that most people would view the world through a normal lens don’t think it can be done. And then you know, you and your community, we believe that it can be done, that’s a really cool thing.

JOEL:
Yeah, definitely. So I know you’ve got a lot of other things going on but I want to get a couple of things from you as far as a regular person out there. Maybe they’ve got a normal job, whatever, and they’ve got 25 bucks. They’ve got basically where you are 5 years ago. They wanna do something. They wanna make an impact. What’s the best way for them to go about doing that.

ADAM:
Yes, first thing I would say is you gotta get out of your comfort zone. You just have to break from your normal routine and that could be a trip, that could be getting out of a relationship that isn’t as fulfilling as you want, it could be taking on any job. But you have to do something do break this routine. And then the process of doing that, you start to discover not what you are, but who you are. So once you find this thing, whatever it might be that really makes you come alive, and you have as much as $25, you do what I can the little things that make other people feel big. Because you have to build a community. You can’t do everything on your own. Especially if you’re starting small. And so, what I did, once I threw the first party, I literally took $100 from my own money and I went on Vistaprint, and Vistraprint had a $2.50 business card promotion at the time. And the 40 most active volunteers that are trying to support Pencils of Promise, you know like friends and friends of friends, I spent a whole night making every single one of them a custom business card. And it cost me a $100, I got 40 sets of business cards made and then I mailed them to every one of the people without them knowing. And suddenly they open up their mail and they have a Pencils of Promise logo then name, you know, fundraising manager, whatever title I gave them. And off of that, the organization continued, to like, grow in leaps and bounds. And then we’d get this feedback, people were like, hey I’m giving out my Pencils of Promise business card and it’s all I’m talking about when I go out at night. So that’s the 2nd. And the third thing I would say is just surround yourself with people who make it better.

JOEL:
I think you got out there for a second.

ADAM:
Yep.

JOEL:
Yeah there’ you go.

ADAM:
The last thing was just to, speak the language of the person you wanna become. Just speak in future tense as if it will become real and then it will start to move in that direction.

JOEL:
That’s awesome. I love that last part because it’s not really until you start acting like the person that you wanna be that you can actually.. you actually have to grow into that person. So until you start, in some ways, pretending to be that person, it’s not until then where you can realize how you can actually become that person.

ADAM:
Yeah, live as if you are the future self that you want to become.

JOEL:
Awesome. Very cool. The book is out, it’s called the Promise of a Pencil, pick it up, it’s awesome. It’s the story of Adam and Pencils of Promise and how everything came to be and a lot of really actionable stuff in there as well. It’s a lot of takeaways on how you can actually just dreaming, thinking, and wanting to do these things to actually going out and making them happen. So, Adam thanks for being on. I think we built 2 schools in the time that we had this conversation. Something like that. So.

ADAM:
I hope so. Thank you so much and enjoy. You’re in the book so I can’t wait til you’re kinda community knows your impact on paper.

JOEL:
Yeah, it’s page 233 or something like that. I got all excited when I saw it. Thanks for coming on Adam, I really appreciate it, it’s always a great to speak with you and hopefully let’s talk soon!

ADAM:
Alright. Cool. Thanks so much.
Hey everybody thanks for listening to the Impossible FM podcast. For more tips, blog posts, podcasts, videos, and a whole lot more, check out ImpossibleHQ.com. Until next time I’ll see you guys next Monday morning, right here behind the mic at 8:00 AM Eastern Standard Time. Until then, get out there, go do something that pushes your limits, and do something impossible.

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