Adam Braun photo

Adam Braun

Founder, Pencils of Promise

What do a single mother struggling to make ends meet and a millionaire talk show host have in common?  They're just two of the many people who have been inspired by the story of Bain New York alum Adam Braun. Adam is founder and CEO of Pencils of Promise (PoP) and author of the new book The Promise of a Pencil, which debuted on the New York Times best-seller list in March of this year.

PoP's story is well known within the Bain network. While traveling in his early twenties, Braun asked one child in each country he visited what he or she wanted most in the world. One young boy in India answered “a pencil,” opening Braun’s eyes to the dearth of educational opportunities for children in many developing regions. Braun then joined Bain in 2007, planning to save money until he could afford to fund international education in a significant way. That day came sooner than he expected, however, when a nine-month Bain externship afforded him the chance to build the PoP organization and set up its first school in Laos. Realizing that his heart was in education, Braun left Bain in 2010 and worked full-time at marshalling capital and time from others with the same passion. By 2012, PoP had built 100 schools. It had also established many other education-focused programs, such as teacher training and scholarships for students to continue their education past the PoP primary schools.

Braun initially met with resistance on almost every front. "One of the biggest challenges early on was forging forward in a nontraditional way in a very traditional industry," he says—“and laying out a vision that everyone told me was not going to work.” Rather than seeking out large donors, he asked for small donations from large numbers of people at in-person events and over social media. Then there was the issue of what he was going to do with those funds once he got them. "Trying to build a school in a foreign country where you do not speak the language and have never been before; that was definitely not going to work, people said."

Braun’s time at Bain left him with a host of lessons in overcoming such obstacles and building a strong organization. One week into his first Bain case, for instance, he submitted a slide deck—and it came back covered with red ink. The senior associate consultant on the case, Hayley Barna (herself now a successful entrepreneur) had marked up the deck and suggested he try again. Given the time constraints, Braun was baffled. “I remember thinking, ‘Why is she asking me to redo these slides when I have such limited knowledge of PowerPoint and Excel? She can do this in probably 15 minutes, and instead we’re going to wait two hours while I do it.” What he learned in that moment, however, was the value of investing in staff members so that both the manager and the staff member can advance. “If you give someone the training to take on your specific job responsibilities, that allows you to focus on higher-level issues—and they can become the expert and replace you.”

That approach—“very different from most start-ups,” where tasks generally go to the person who can complete them the fastest—is now pervasive at Pencils of Promise (PoP).  Braun says he is “constantly” trying to train other people to replace him as the organization has grown to over 200 schools in four countries—Ghana, Guatemala, Laos and Nicaragua—in just five years. He has recently divested himself of two favorite tasks, social media and marketing, and says the same process occurs at every level of the 80+ employee organization. “I think it’s ultimately why we’ve become so successful. If I never went once into any of our [schools] ever again, PoP would be just fine, and that’s because of the experiences I had at Bain."

Braun, now 30, is formally seeking someone to replace him as CEO as the organization heads toward a new phase of growth. He put the wheels in motion last year, when he took a three-month sabbatical to capture the organization’s history in writing. “I looked at peer organizations that had grown beyond one person on a stage, and time and time again it was a book that galvanized” additional interest in the organization and allowed it to become less dependent on the founder. The book has so far garnered an enviable range of favorable reactions. Large corporations including Coca-Cola, Salesforce and, yes, Bain & Company have purchased books for their employees. Several universities are making it required reading for incoming freshman classes including St. Bonaventure and West Texas A&M. Individuals all over the world have responded positively as well, perhaps taking to heart Braun’s favorite mantra, “Make your life a story worth telling.” After a struggling single mother in the UK read the book, for example, she says she gained the courage to start her own business. Braun has also caught the attention of major TV personalities such as Katie Couric and CBS This Morning America co-host, Gayle King. 

Next up for PoP is to expand within the countries where it already has a presence. Its goal is to hit 500 schools by 2016 while increasing its investments in teacher training, student scholarships and innovative classroom technology. “It’s clear we have a very great opportunity; it’s also clear we need a very seasoned and experienced leader” to make the most of it, says Braun of his decision to relinquish the CEO role. He’ll continue to focus on his role as founder, traveling around the country to meet with donors and partners.

Braun’s ties to Bain and the alumni network also remain strong. Hayley Barna (read her profile from our 2012 newsletter), the SAC who taught him the lesson of investing in others, now has her own successful company, Birchbox, an innovator in “discovery commerce.” In 2012, Birchbox partnered with PoP to build a school by donating one month of profits from their online Beauty shop with the goal of raising $25,000. The new three-classroom school, opened in December 2013 in Pasebeyena—a village in the Boca Costa region of southwestern Guatemala. Braun also remains close with Bain NY office head Bill Neuenfeldt, who has invited Braun to speak to the office at their upcoming retreat, and to Karen Harris, a Bain director who sits on the board of PoP. In fact, in 2011, Adam created a happy new year video as a thank you to Bain for supporting him in his journey in founding PoP (see below).

And while Braun has made plenty of bold decisions in his own life, his best advice for other young people who have big ideas about changing the world is surprisingly practical. "Passion alone does not create successful organizations; passion alone often leads to failure," he says. Instead, young people should build a solid skill set, taking on jobs that are essentially “a paid form of business school,” so they can later leave to follow their hearts. “That was Bain for me. Working there was an incredible experience that gave me the skills and the tools set that eventually allowed me to become confident that I could be successful in pursuing something like Pencils of Promise.”