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>>Adam Braun: So my name is Adam Braun. And I am the founder of an organization called
Pencils of Promise. >>Woohoo!
>>Adam Braun: Yeah. Thank you. I was born in New York City; but I grew up in Connecticut
with a really, really closely knit family. This is my cousins, my brother, my grandmother.
And I'm the awesome kid in the yellow sweater over here.
[ Laughter ] >>Adam Braun: So from a really, really early
age, it was incredibly clear to me one thing, that I was not going to have a career in fashion.
I did have a very distinct interest instead, though. I was really, really interested in
money, in particular, finance. This isn't a joke. Finance I was really, really drawn
by. My mother was an orthodontist. My father was
a dentist. But most of the people in the community where I grew up were bankers that were going
back and forth between Connecticut and New York City either on Wall Street or running
companies. So I was really, really fascinated by how money flowed, how Wall Street worked.
So a lot of my early formative experiences in life were opening up kind of stock market
accounts, doing a little bit of trading, but more than anything working at hedge funds,
at fund of funds, private equity, and institutional banks. So my background, when you hear what
I do, is a bit atraditional. When I was about 20, I was a student at Brown
University. I was really loving my life. I was playing college basketball. Great girlfriend,
great friends, close family, everything seemed to be going right. But I saw a film called
"Baraka." It was shot all around the world in 24 different countries. And there was one
scene in particular that was shot in India. And it just blew my mind. And, before I went
down this clear-cut path, I said I have to go down there and see it with my own eyes.
I discovered a program called Semester at Sea. It's a cruise ship that goes around the
world. And it's a floating campus. And so I quit the basketball team, broke up with
my girlfriend, didn't tell any of my friends the I was going and, very logically, went
on Semester at Sea. I'm going to show you a very quick clip of what happened to us.
This is my ship. It's a thousand person cruise ship 900 miles from land. We got hit by a
rogue wave, 60-foot wave, in the middle of the ocean. You're about to see the wave in
a few seconds. You'll see it shatters the glass on the 6th floor, the bridge.
And it flooded the area where all the navigational equipment was. And, by the time the Coast
Guard got to us, we had no power. And I was on this boat.
Again, I was there. You guys don't have to freak out.
[ Laughter ] >>Adam Braun: And, as you can imagine, this
wasn't a near-death experience. It was certain death. No question at all. This announcement
comes. I hope I never experience something like this again. But get to the 5th floor,
higher. Help the women and children up the stairs. Get to the muster stations, which
is where you evacuate the ship from. And we're looking at 40-foot swells in the North Pacific
in winter. Hypothermia immediately. And so I had this feeling of my time is done. But
this overwhelming calm settled over me and this renewed sense of purpose.
It was clear to me that I just had more to do. It wasn't 21-year-old man perishes at
sea. That wasn't what I was supposed to leave behind. And so, of course, with this renewed
sense of purpose, I went out into the developing world. We got shipwrecked, and then we continued
to travel. I had a habit of asking one kid per country what they wanted most in the world,
expecting to hear a Playstation, a flat screen TV, all the things that we take for granted.
I asked a young girl in Hawaii where we were shipwrecked -- again, a terrible place to
get shipwrecked, Hawaii. I said, "What do you want most in the world?" This young beautiful
young girl said, "To dance." Then I asked a girl in China. I said, "What
do you want most in the world?" She said, "A book."
And then I got to Hong Kong, and I heard my favorite answer, which was "magic," just magic.
By the time I got to India, the reason I went on this trip, the kind of karmic compulsion
to go in the first place, I asked this boy begging on the streets where the poverty is
overwhelming and you can't give money because it perpetuates this cycle of begging. And,
you know, candy works really well. But, as I mentioned, my mother is an orthodontist
and my father is a dentist. They'd be very upset with me. I said, "What do you want most
in the world" to this young boy. And he looked at me. And he said, "A pencil." That was it.
Just a pencil. I had one, and I gave him my pencil. And he lit up completely. And he held
it in the air. And there was an instant moment of transformation in me. He went -- this act,
two things happened. I realized the incredible power of education in the hands of locals,
not just us as westerners kind of imparting our ideals onto others, but the pencil as
a tool for empowerment. And, secondly, even as a young person, I could actually help somebody
in a meaningful way. It wasn't just about, you know, the select few. The creation of
good is a space that should be accessible to all.
And so I continued to travel the world, passing out pens and pencils that fostered dialogues
around education. And I came back 21 years old, a man on fire. I wanted to change the
world, and I wanted to help try and build one school.
But I found that there was kind of two types of nonprofits in existence. There were those
that were kind of mom and pop in the field doing international education work specific
to education space. But they really, really got how communities worked. They usually lived
there. These were really passionate individuals, but they always lacked for-profit business
acumen. They had never run real businesses, and they could never scale efficiently.
The other type was somebody who had a tremendous amount of business experience but often had
never really spent tons and tons of time in the community. I was kind of on this finance
path, but now I was this guy obsessed with backpacking and going to now more than 70
countries just backpacking. So I figured why not try to become a hybrid of the two? So
I went through interviews with investment banks and management consulting firms and
private equity and was really fortunate to land a job at Bain & Company. I spent a few
years working at Bain in management consulting. And, just as my friends started to leave to
go to Harvard Business School and Wharton and Stanford GSB and Blackstone and KK -- all
these places that you guys know well -- I did something that my parents weren't really,
really happy about. I decided to start a nonprofit that was driven by for-profit business principles
with kind of this nonprofit set of ideals. And so I really believe this: Big dreams start
with small and reasonable acts. I was about to turn 25. I was 24. I went to the bank.
And I said, "I want to start this organization called Pencils of Promise and I want to try
to build one school. What do I have to start with?"
They said, "Well, $25." I said, "That's a good sign. I'm about to
turn 25." So I put $25 into a bank account. This is the actual deposit. And asked my friends
to come to the birthday party. I was in Mark Zuckerberg's year in college. I was at Brown
in the sophomore class when he launched it as a sophomore at Harvard. So I was probably
one of the first 5,000 people on what is now 7- or 800 million, whatever the number is
now. All my friends were on it. It was the way we conversed with one another. I sent
out a Facebook invite. I said give $20 at the door. Every dollar is going to Pencils
of Promise. We, basically, found any excuse to throw a small event for young professionals
in New York City. And, in our first two years, 98% of the donations that we received were
in amounts of $100 or less from young people. This is a very, very atraditional approach
to starting a nonprofit. And every person said to me. "It's impossible. Can't be done.
Completely impossible. You need your pillars." So what happened was I said all right, these
people can't donate money. But what they can do is donate skills, their ability, their
energy. So this is the Bain office at 10:00 p.m. These are people -- I won't go through
their backgrounds, but this is the top pedigree across New York City. And we formed this a
model of how we were going to do work. We built it on management consultant principles
of community evaluation, monitoring, and data tracking, really. And not just having kind
of this compassion, but backing it up with a sense of true sustainability. And so, you
know, then we sent people into the field. And we took these beautiful pictures. And
we GPS located everything. And we proposed something that was foreign to the space. And
we said we propose radical transparency. We're going to put everything on our Web site, absolutely
everything. You can see all the data. And we're going to build one of the most beautiful
Web sites you've ever seen. And so we literally started sharing pictures like this. There's
a big bent on empowerment of girls in the developing world. And we really focus on that
within our programs. We're going to show you the girls that are sprinting to school now
because of your $20 contribution, your $25. And this one is in Guatemala. So I started
with this kind of humble ambition to build one school just under three years ago. And
so, in a few weeks, we'll turn three years old. So kind of what's happened? One, we've
broken ground on more than 40 schools across Laos, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. And, two,
we've built up the largest social media following out of any nonprofit startup in the last four
years. And, three, we've delivered more than a million educational hours in the developing
world. [ Applause ]
So thank you. >>Adam Braun: So how has it happened? There's
a few things I can share with this audience in terms of the spirit of the times. It's
the way we approach the work. We're not a nonprofit, at all. That's an oxymoron of a
term. We're a "for purpose." We want to make massive profits, but we're more driven by
our purpose than our profits. I really believe in this notion that there's change coming.
There is this angry, angry for-profit space and this doe-eyed kind of for-purpose space.
But there's this emerging change that's happening where the for-profits are actually creating
a lot of good through cause marketing and different initiatives, CSR, et cetera. What
I think is coming is the for-purpose space is, actually, going to start treating itself
more like the for-profit space and the intersection I call "profitable purpose." Okay? This is
a new term I'm, hopefully, going to start project without there. That's what I think
is the future. How does that happen? Five kind of really,
really simple steps but, again, somewhat atraditional. One, you find your revolution. I was really
inspired by the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and all these other individuals, who they
created a revolution within people. But it started within themselves. And I really believe
this. Every person is a revolution within themselves waiting to happen. Okay? So find
your revolution. You find what you love most. That's the first step.
Second, you speak the language of the person you want to become. If you run a company and
you have an interest in actually using your company to build true, true social change,
you just speak it. And then the universal energy of the world conspires to make it happen.
Third, you embrace the late sleepless nights. This stuff doesn't happen easily.
People say, "How did you build up hundreds of thousands of followers?"
Well, I spent a lot of time in front of a computer. That's how it happened. I mean,
we really -- we spend our time in the middle of the night dreaming up concepts that I think
only occur in this kind of weird state of liminality when the rest of the world is at
rest and we're still dreaming but kind of doing it while we're awake.
Fourth is, you seek out the impossible ones. I'm not a realist. I see no point in being
a realist and a pragmatist. I think of myself not even as an idealist. I'm an impossiblist.
I believe in things that are utterly impossible. We built 40 schools in three years. We now
really believe that we can build more than 100 by the end of next year. But it starts
with individuals who believe in the impossible. There's a 13 year old girl, her name is Katrina
Davies in New York City who just raised $27,000 a few months ago. Better than that, she made
me a friendship bracelet at camp and gave it to me.
[ Laughter ] >>Adam Braun: This girl's incredible. But
tossed at this pointed 27,000 to build a classroom and sustain it with a community's involvement
and true investment throughout. That means all we have to do is find 60 impossible ones.
Just by a show of hands, just curious, how many people believe that they are an impossible
one within this room, that they can actually achieve something that is impossible, utterly,
utterly impossible? I would hope so. I mean, this is Google; right?
And so the last thing that I'll leave you with is, there's this concept that I really
believe in called GTS. I think it's something that the millennial generation in particular
has really adopted. Countless people really believe in this. GTS, I think, is the way
that you cannot only access, but actually find the exact path through which that change
can be made. I really encourage all of you to practice
it. GTS, when you can't figure out what to do, Google that shit.
Thank you so much. [ Laughter ]
[ Applause ] >>Adam Braun: Our footprint awaits.
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Spirit of the time - Adam Braun at Zeitgeist Americas 2011

2078 Folder Collection
ANYI published on January 27, 2015
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