Adam Braun, CEO and Co-Founder of MissionU
Man on a Mission
Adam Braun is best known for founding Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that builds schools in developing countries. With his latest venture, MissionU, Braun is taking on higher education.
If you could have anything in the world, what would you want the most?
That’s the question that started it all for Adam Braun. In a study abroad program in college, he posed that very question to one child in every country he visited.
“I thought I’d kind of have this collage of global interests,” Braun explains. But he got more than he bargained for, in particular, with the answer from a street beggar in India. “When I asked him what he wanted most, he answered, very simply, that he wanted a pencil.”
So Braun gave the boy a pencil, and the boy gave Braun a smile. “This just kind of light emanated from his face [because of] how excited he was.” He later learned the boy had never been to school before, a discovery that was both unexpected and devastating for Braun.
That experience, which he writes about in his New York Times-bestseller The Promise of a Pencil, stuck with him. As he traveled to other countries, he talked to children and parents and noticed a recurring theme—what they wanted most was a better education for the future generation.
“Eventually, when I decided to start [Pencils of Promise], it was really inspired by meeting this one young boy and the fact that I always carried these pens and pencils as I traveled and handed them out in random villages I was backpacking through.”
Hustling Since Childhood: Braun’s First Entrepreneurial Endeavors
While Braun is well known today for his charitable work, his career path began in a very different way. Growing up, he had an interest in working in finance—he started working at hedge funds when he was just 16.
But his first entrepreneurial endeavor began back in middle school when he made money selling the recordings of live concerts. It was the era of CDs, and the practice known as “blanks and postage” was in full swing. If you sent someone a blank CD and return postage, they would burn the latest concert they’d been to onto the disc and mail it back to you.
A big music fan, Braun amassed an impressive collection of recorded live concerts—and then eBay launched. This got the young entrepreneur’s gears turning. “I thought, ‘You know something, what would happen if I offered to sell a couple of these concerts to maybe a wider audience?’”
His concert recordings were a hit; he was getting between $20 to $70 for some of the shows he had. All he had to do was burn a CD and mail it out. Just like that, Braun was making thousands of dollars on eBay—and he wasn’t even old enough to drive.
“I think that was the start of this kind of journey where I recognized that regardless of your age, you shouldn’t view yourself as limited in terms of the outcomes of what your effort can generate.”
That entrepreneurial lesson followed him into high school, where he was recruited to play basketball for Brown University. The summer before he started college, some local parents approached him to see if he would give private basketball lessons to their children. He said yes.
And like any good entrepreneur, once Braun found his business was profitable, he scaled it. The following summer, when a parent asked him if he would teach a basketball clinic to their son and his eight teammates, Braun realized: “‘The economics of this are better. I’ll charge each of them half of what I would’ve charged per private lesson, but it’s eight of them, so I’m making four times as much money.’”
He ended up writing a business plan for a full-scale basketball camp, and after encouragement from one of his college professors, he pursued it. It was the first time he’d opened up a bank account and hired and managed staff. That basketball camp went on to become the largest in his county.
After college, Braun went to work for Bain & Company, one of the world’s largest management consulting firms, and temporarily put his entrepreneurial endeavors to rest.
From Finance to Philanthropy: The Founding of Pencils of Promise
It wasn’t long before the entrepreneurial itch returned.
“I was just used to having something on the side that kind of brought excitement and inspiration into my life,” Braun says.
Around that same time, Braun’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was turning 80. “I wanted to find a way to build one school and honor her in a meaningful way in her lifetime, [and] let her know that her legacy would carry forward.”
That reignited the dormant spark that had been lit on that study abroad trip back in college; Braun decided to build a school in the developing world.
To fund his new venture, he put $25 in a bank account, because he was turning 25 that month and “thought it was a good sign.” Plus, that was the minimum deposit required to open a new bank account. And in October 2008, Pencils of Promise was born. The timing was troublesome. The United States had plunged into financial crisis. But Braun knew that even if his peers didn’t have jobs, they were still going to have drinks.
“I just kind of created a better alternative than giving money to a bar,” Braun says. “I said, ‘You know, come out and give money to help us build a school.’”
His first fundraising event? A Halloween birthday party, where he charged $20 at the door. Four hundred people showed up, grossing him $8,000. Many at this event expressed interest in getting more involved, so Braun asked them to join the committee for his next event, a holiday masquerade with an open bar. That party drew 600 people and netted about $23,000 in profit.
At the end of those two events, Braun and his team had about $30,000—enough to build a school.
After their first school in Southeast Asia was completed, it became clear that the results could be replicated and scaled.
“That’s when the aspirations moved from building one school to building hundreds,” Braun says. To date, Pencils of Promise has built more than 400 schools worldwide.
The Grassroots Efforts Behind Pencils of Promise
If it seems like one of those overnight success stories, think again. According to Braun, “People can look at [Pencils of Promise] in retrospect and say, ‘Oh wow, that was such a quick success!’ But when we began, it was really grassroots.”
In fact, their first 10 schools were funded by contributions of $100 or less from people in their teens and 20s. Yes, Pencils of Promise was built from the spare cash of millennials.
“I think I recognized early on that, as millennials, we were just different,” Braun says. “You know, we kind of came of age with the internet, and we also had a really deeply embedded social conscience. We wanted to kind of vote with our dollars and what we stood for in the world.”
During the early days of Pencils of Promise, Braun had a unique approach to press coverage—he avoided it. In fact, he didn’t seek press until almost two years after launch, relying instead on grassroots marketing efforts via social media and word of mouth.
“I was really committed to not telling our story, until it was kind of one of these ‘wow’ stories,” Braun explains. “And that meant at least 10 schools, something that could almost make you feel like you wanted to tell somebody else about it because it was just really impressive. And in my mind, 10 schools was that.”
As Braun and his team threw more events, word began to spread. Pencils of Promise built a strong community on Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram. “We tried to engage people and make them part of the story, make them feel valued.”
They also emphasized that there were more ways to contribute to the organization than just through monetary donations. They encouraged others to give pro bono services or volunteer alternative ways to keep their mission afloat. It was by reaching out to his network that Braun was able to land pro bono legal services to help him register Pencils of Promise as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Throughout the process of starting a nonprofit, Braun found that there weren’t enough resources out there on how to do it, from registration to fundraising to hiring a staff. That inspired him to create The Nonprofit Playbook, a self-paced, 10-module online course that guides you through the process of launching and growing a nonprofit.
In 2015, Braun stepped down as CEO of Pencils of Promise to begin work on a new venture, one that brought him from nonprofit organization to Benefit Corporation (B Corp), and from elementary education to higher education.
Next Mission: Higher Education
When Braun met his wife, Tehillah, she had $110,000 in student debt and no bachelor’s degree. Raised by a loving family with modest financial means, Tehillah believed that a college education was her ticket to greater financial security But two-and-a-half years into her studies, she had taken on so much debt that she had to leave college early and start working to pay it back.
She’s not alone. In 2017, the National Student Loan Data System showed there were more than 42 million borrowers in the United States. Student loan debt in the nation totals $1.34 trillion, according to an August 2017 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Through his wife’s story, Braun found out that student debt is the only debt in the U.S. that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy (unless you can prove “undue hardship”); it is with you for life, and if you die with private student loans that were cosigned, the lenders will go after the cosigner.
“When I learned about this, it just seemed like such a massive injustice in our society,” says Braun. “Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, but … I believe it is continuing to create a greater divide between the haves and have-nots.”
Braun recently launched MissionU to tackle this problem.
“MissionU is a college alternative for the 21st century,” he explains. “And our aim is to prepare young people for the jobs of today and tomorrow, debt-free.”
An ambitious goal, for sure, especially considering that higher education in the United States dates back to the colonial era. How does MissionU plan to make an impact in such an entrenched sector? Through one-year programs during which students learn in-demand job skills from practicing industry professionals—and don’t pay a dime in tuition. Instead of charging students upfront for their education, MissionU will take 15 percent of the graduate’s salary for three years post-graduation if, and only if, that graduate is able to land a job that pays at least $50,000 a year.
“Institutions of education should invest in their students rather than vice versa,” Braun says, “and so if you get into MissionU, there is no tuition at all. We commit to investing in you for a full year.”
In MissionU’s programs, each cohort has a maximum of 25 students. Most of the education will happen online via live (not pre-recorded) virtual classrooms taught by world-class industry practitioners. MissionU’s initial offering is a data analytics and business intelligence track, a fast-growing industry in dire need of skilled professionals.
Is MissionU for you? Braun says it targets 19-to-25-year-olds who have not yet completed an undergraduate degree or haven’t even started down the path to college.
While MissionU’s business model is unique, there is some precedent for it in other arenas. For example, coding bootcamps have proven that you can learn a technical skill in a short amount of time and land a good job without a degree. App Academy in San Francisco puts students who don’t necessarily have technical backgrounds through a grueling 12-week program that prepares them for a software engineering position upon graduation. Instead of charging tuition upfront, App Academy similarly employs what it calls “deferred tuition,” requiring an upfront refundable deposit and then taking a percentage of the graduate’s first-year salary after completion of the program. Braun says he drew inspiration from the many bootcamps in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Purdue University offers students an income share agreement option to fund their college education. In this program, called Back a Boiler, eligible students receive interest-free funding and then repay a percentage of their salary for a set number of years after graduation.
The government of Australia implements a similar structure in a program known as HECS-HELP. Through this program, eligible students repay their student loans via a percentage of income taken out of their tax return once their income reaches a certain threshold.
Though aspects of MissionU exist elsewhere, Braun believes his B Corp is the first to unite all these parts into one solution that will help tackle the student debt crisis.
Listening to Learn
An identifiable pattern weaves its way through Braun’s history of launching different ventures: He always begins with listening to people and meeting them where they are before he even tries to meet their needs. With the boy in India, he asked him what he wanted (a pencil), and then he gave that to him. He then talked with more people in different developing countries before founding Pencils of Promise.
Even after launching Pencils of Promise, he continued conversations with different parties to grow and scale his organization.
“I would meet with anybody and everybody that was interested,” he recalls. “And the conversion rate was low, like most things. But I was willing to meet with 50 people to find the one kind of diamond in the rough who was actually going to really commit to working with us.”
That work paid off. Some early board members even came on as a result of those meetings.
Braun took a similar approach when founding MissionU. The idea for it all started when he heard about his wife’s student debt story. But he didn’t run out and try to solve the problem right then and there—no, he asked questions. And most importantly, he listened.
“One challenge is having the humility to come into a space and understand even though you might have some very strongly held beliefs, that you can still learn from those who came before you.”
For the past two years, Braun has embraced a beginner’s mindset, aiming to listen much more than he speaks. Before launching MissionU, he talked to students, entrepreneurs, and employers. He curated a list he playfully termed, “The Dirty Dozen” of entrepreneurs who had all built companies valued over $200 million.
From talking to college students, he learned that the single biggest problem for them was crushing student debt. From talking to employers, he learned that young people were entering the workforce without real skills and job preparedness.
“And I thought, ‘Okay, how do we create a model that kind of meshes these two challenges for the two different stakeholders?’ And that really manifested into MissionU.”
Is there any proof this college alternative will work? Will MissionU truly create a debt-free future for graduates and produce well-trained workers for employers, while also sustaining itself as a business? Time will tell. MissionU’s first cohort began its classes in September 2017.
In the meantime, Braun leaves us with these words of advice: “Keep in mind that you get one chance at this life. … You hopefully have some wonderful and aspirational ideas in your head, and we need people like you to pursue those ideas with conviction, with integrity, with ambition, and with bold intent. And people like myself will be cheering you on.”
- How to use event marketing to build your brand and attract investors
- What makes a story “newsworthy” and how to use it to build an audience
- Braun’s methodology for attracting A-players to work toward his vision
- Social media marketing tactics to reach your target audience without paid advertising
- The right way to go about asking for money, whether it’s for crowdfunding or from investors
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Adam Braunn
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the “Foundr Podcast,” my name is Nathan Chan and I’m the CEO of “Foundr Magazine,” and the host of the “Foundr Podcast.” I just wanted to say thank you, so much for taking the time to listen to this podcast. You’ve been following along this journey that we’ve been on with “Foundr.” For those of you that are just listening, and are new to the podcast, I started “Foundr Magazine” a digital magazine on the App Store Google Play store about four years ago, not knowing anything about apps, publishing, design, magazines, business, startups you name it.
And along the way, we launched a podcast and have built up this platform, and we’ve been lucky enough to interview a ton of super successful founders around the world. Many that have shaped the world today as we know it. And today’s guest he isn’t much different, he’s somebody that I have a lot of respect for, he’s the founder of Pencils of Promise Adam Braun. And he’s also started a new company recently called Mission U].
And one thing that I’ve been thinking about on my journey being an entrepreneur, being founder for the past four years now officially, is more than anything now, I’m actually caring less and less about the revenue we make, and becoming super obsessed with the culture, the team, that we’re building at foundr, and more than anything the mission and communicating that. And just kind of building a big pitch of vision, not just for what I wanna achieve, but also our team as a company, and this stuff is like actually so are much more important I think than money.
Obviously, without cash you can’t run a business, and cash is the lifeblood of business and sales is important to us at Foundr, but one thing I’m becoming really, really obsessed about lately is the mission. And that kind of brings me to Adam’s story, where Adam builds businesses that are extremely mission purpose driven. They’re businesses that a much bigger than himself, and they may or may not be for profit businesses. But at the end of the day, he’s building a business that is so much bigger than himself.
So one thing I can share with you guys is something that I’ve learned on this journey, is it’s much more rewarding to build a business and to build a legacy, and to make a massive impact in the world. And I don’t mean to sound kind of all spiritual and fluffy around it, but yeah for me, it’s actually being quite a game changing thing to think about these past few months. Around what the future foundr looks like, and obviously we need to grow the business and generate more sales to do these crazy things that we wanna do, and build a household name entrepreneurial brand that helps tens of millions of people in a monthly basis.
But yeah, I’m caring more and more about the vision more than ever, and I think you’ll really appreciate Adam’s interview, and our conversation around what it actually means to build multiple social enterprise that are extremely mission driven, and actually how to start one. We get this question a lot of people wanna know, people wanna hear from our social enterprises. So Adams is a brilliant, brilliant guy and he shares a lot with us.
All right guys, that’s it from me, if you are enjoying these episodes please do take the time to leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Sound Cloud, wherever you’re listening. I know that us Foundr we hang out with other founders, so please do share this with a friend, if you have enjoyed this episode, or any of our other episodes it helps more than you can imagine. And it will help us grow the brand and get closer to our mission. So that’s it for me, guys I hope you enjoy the show now let’s jump in. So the first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Adam: How do I get my job I created it. I think since I was a little kid I’ve always had this desire to kinda build things in the world, that I thought could add value to the wellbeing of others. And ideally enable me to have the opportunity to keep working on those things in the future on a personal level. And so my current job is CEO and co-founder of Mission U, and that’s a venture that first lived in my head, when I saw a real problem in our society with higher education, and so I went about building that into reality.
Nathan: Got you I see. And can you tell us about your first I guess entrepreneurial venture, how did it all get started. Because as we were talking off air Pencils of Promise you’re quite well known for that, and you’ve done some amazing things built I don’t… is it thousands of schools now?
Adam: Now it’s over 400 schools thousands of classrooms.
Nathan: Yes, got you thousands classrooms. So you’ve made incredible impact on the world but I’d like to understand how you really got started into this social enterprise space.
Adam: Sure, well my first entrepreneurial venture that I could ever remember was probably when I was in middle school, and I started to really get into music. And there was this thing back then, this kind of big bootleg community with a certain websites where certain bands that you would follow, there was always kind of live versions of their shows being posted B and P’s blanks and postage.
Where if you sent somebody six blank CD’s, they would kind of burn the latest concert that they might have, and you kinda find the person with the special concert that you wanted, or that you had been at personally. And if you sent them return postage they mail back to you. And I built up this pretty great collection of live music concerts, and then eBay rolled around, and I thought something what would happen if I offered to sell a couple these concerts maybe a wider audience.
The next thing I knew, I was getting anywhere between probably 20 and $70 for some of the shows that I had, and all I had to do was burn a disk and mail it out. And so when I was in middle school I was making like thousands of dollars on eBay. And I think that was the start of this kind of journey, where I recognized that regardless of your age, you shouldn’t view yourself as limited in terms of the outcomes of what your effort can generate.
And certainly over time as I kind of aged and matured a lot of that kind of entrepreneurial focus shifted away from… how can I generate some money more so that my chores were creating for me, or the kind of local handiwork I was doing at some of my neighbors’ houses, into how could I use these kind of tools that I was developing to really make a lasting and meaningful positive impact on the lives of others.
Nathan: I say see, so was Pencils of Promise your first big venture that you did or did you run other businesses before that?
Adam: So I grew up really interested and particularly working in the finance industry, and so I had internships and kind of jobs at hedge funds and institutional banks, starting when I was 6 years old, and so I had exposure to big companies. The kind of formative entrepreneurial experience that I had before Pencils of Promise was I was a basketball player, I was play basketball at Brown University.
And even the summer before I entered college some local parents who knew me through the success of my high school team approached me, and asked me to give private lessons to their kids and that I made some coin. And the next summer I had one parent approach me say “Can you do a clinic for my son and eight kids in total all together they’re all teammates on a team, maybe can teach them all together.” And I thought yeah the economics of this are better I’ll charge each of them half of what I would have charged private lesson ,but it’s eight of them, so I’m making four times as much money.
Then I ended up running a business plan for a full scale basketball camp, and a college professor of mine really encouraged me to pursue it. And so I built in college what became the large basketball camp in my county. And it was the first time I’d really opened up a bank account and managed the staff and hired people, and kind of envision something larger than kind of side hustler. So I think about what I did in middle school and high school this is a first real business, and over time it generated real money.
And that was kind of the first thing that opened my eyes to the abilities that you can create as a founder as an entrepreneur. And when I started Pencil of Promise, it was partially because I put my basketball they stopped running it once I started working at Bain after college. One of the world’s leading consulting firms, and I was just used to having something on the side that kind of brought excitement and inspiration into my life. And my grandmother was turning 80, and she was a Holocaust survivor, and I wanted to find a way to build one school and honor her in a meaningful way, in her lifetime let her know that her legacy would carry forward.
And so the dream was really just to build one school, to start an organization I put $25 into a bank account because I was turning 25 that month, and I thought it was a good sign. And that was kind of the bare minimum you needed to open up a bank account. And so with $25 and essentially a birthday party and kind of the early beginnings of the crowd sourcing movement that we almost predated. And in some ways I think hopefully inspired others to get into, we were able to raise I think 25 or $30,000 or so.
And with that we certainly felt confident myself and some of the others that started to join me in this effort, that we could build one school. And in some ways it felt smaller than my basketball camp, but in other ways it felt like so much bigger. And once that first school was complete and I spent about four months by myself in Southeast Asia, meeting with local education ministry officials, going back and forth to the school that we had identified. It became very clear that this experience could be replicated, could be scaled, the quality of it could be increased. And that’s in the aspirations moved from building one school to building hundreds. And certainly that’s what we’ve been fortunate enough to achieve.
Nathan: Yeah, wow it’s been amazing, a lot of my friends have built schools, and it’s incredible the impact you’re making. And I’m really curious can you tell us more about the name?
Adam: Sure, yeah when I was in college that was kind of my first set of formative experiences in the developing world, I’d really never been in developing at all. And I was on this study abroad program called Semester at Sea, and when I was in India a country I’d never been to, I’d never seen poverty like the level of poverty that I saw, in particular the way it affected children. And it was really devastating, and I wondered how could I do something to help even one of these kids.
And so I had a habit of asking every country that we went through, I’d find one child and ask them if they could have anything in the world what would they want most? And I thought I’d kind of have this collage of global interests, and this boy in India was a street beggar, and when I asked him what he wanted most he answered very simply that he wanted a pencil. And so I gave him my pencil and this just kind of a light emanated from his face how excited he was.
And it was really beautiful and I asked him questions and I learned that he had never been to school before, and that was both devastating to hear, but it was also kind of a shock. I mean I figured every kid at some point goes to school, and I started to ask more questions of more kids as I traveled and more parents. And I was kind of heard this notion that the single thing that they wanted the most was a better education for the future generation.
And so eventually when I decide to start the organization it was really inspired by meeting this one young boy, and the fact, that I was carrying these pens and pencils as I traveled, and handed them out in random villages. I was backpacking through that eventually led to the name Pencils of Promise.
Nathan: Got you, and what happened next, when you started it? Because it’s not easy.
Nathan: It’s not easy and there’s a lot of charitable organizations and social enterprises. So tell me how did you spread this message so far and wide? And you have some incredible ambassadors and people that are on the board, so tell me about that.
Adam: Well, when I started I certainly didn’t have a lot of resources personally or behind me or involved. Like most things people can look at it and retrospect and say oh wow that was such a quick success. But when we began it was really grassroots, I mean our first 10 schools were built through contributions of $100 or less from people in their teens and 20s. And so we began truthfully just by throwing events these are really parties. And this is late 2008, the economy was in shambles especially in New York and Manhattan where I was based.
And so I think I recognized early on that as millennials were just different, and now I’m 33 so I’m kind of at the top end of the millennial generation. But we were the first ones to be called millennials, and it was because we were just fundamentally different. We kind of came of age with the Internet and we also had a really deeply embedded social conscience, and that we wanted to kind of vote with our dollars and what we stood for in the world.
And so I knew that all these people were still gonna go out and have a drink on a Friday or Saturday night or go to a party or whatever they could in New York, even though not a lot of people had jobs 20 something’s were still. And I just kind of create a better alternative than giving money to a bar, I said come out and give money to help us build a school. And so that’s what kind of drove the early growth, but we didn’t do any press for almost two years, I was really committed to not telling our story, until it was kind of one of these wow stories.
That meant at least 10 schools something almost make you feel like you wanted to tell somebody else about it, because it was just like really impressive and in my mind 10 schools was that. And so I think over time as we started through to do these events the word started to spread about us. We also built a great community on Facebook in the early days eventually Twitter and Instagram and now the organization obviously is growing Snapchat.
But we’re trying to engage people and make them part of the story, make them feel valued. We were very open and upfront early on about saying that there are more ways to make a contribution than just through your dollars. You can do it through volunteering, through helping us with pro bono services. And so over time just word started to spread and incredible people started to approach me and say, I’ve heard about your going from my niece, or my nephew, or my friend went to your event.
And I would meet with anybody and everybody that was interested, and the conversion rate was low like most things. But I was willing to meet with 50 people to find the one kind of diamond in a ruff who was actually gonna really commit to working with us.
And some early board members came on about two years in that we’re adults, we’re all kind of early 20 something’s and mid 20s. And finally, was like there’s adults in the room, but these are people who had built really powerful businesses, and I think they saw the potential of what we were building. And were really instrumental in terms of kind of getting us up to speed about how… really run a world class organization. And then with that credibility we started to attract more and more kind of talent on the business side, on the celebrity side. And one thing kind of led to another and what started with small step started to very soon feel like very big steps.
Nathan: I see, and when it comes to… like a lot of people do wanna start a business for profit and I’m curious how does someone structure a business like that? Like when you just got started it’s all self funded by you, is it self funded by the people that are making contributions? How does all that work?
Adam: Yes, so as a nonprofit in the states 501(c)(3) is kind of a tax code, there are certain requirements on how to register. And again I mean I was gonna put self money but that was like a some… I basically personally was covering our administrative costs which were a couple State registrations it really wasn’t much, so it was a couple hundred bucks probably.
Early on I emailed any friend of mine that had worked at a law firm and I said, I don’t know how to register I know that there’s some legal requirement here, it seems pretty complex is there anyone at your law firm who’d be willing to donate pro bono hours to help me get registered. And out of all the people I emailed one of my uncles who worked at a law firm sent my email to the entire firm, and one random woman said “Yeah sure I’d love to help him out.”
And so we started meeting after hours outside of my job at Bain, and she helped me kind of put the paper together. And then it was just events, our first event was my birthday party and asked people to give $20 at the door for Halloween birthday party, and 400 people came and so we had $8000. And then a bunch of people that came to that event said, “Hey this is great I’d love to get more involved.” And I said okay, join the host committee for our next event we’re gonna do a holiday masquerade, and it’s gonna be open bar for like five hours.
We went out bought all this alcohol filled up this big space, and I think it was like 60 bucks on average for a ticket but 600 people came for our holiday party. And we netted out I think around $23,000, and it was like oh my gosh we have about 30,000 that’s enough to go build a school let’s do it. And so that’s really how it began, and then we just continued to do those events, until eventually we started to really attract kind of mid, and eventually high level contributors.
Now we do an annual gala and it raises between a million and a half to two million dollars a night. So things have certainly stepped up we generate millions of dollars in corporate contributions and foundations.
But in the early days one thing that I found was that there’s not a lot of kind of information out there on how to build a nonprofit. Everything from that early registration, to how do you build a board, how do you do fund raising across all the different channels of fundraising that are out there, how do you hire staff, how do you pay yourself when you get to that point. After I wrote my book a lot of people were asking me these questions, and I thought let me just actually build a course to teach people how to do it.
So if anyone’s listening and they are actually interested in the space, or they know somebody that is interested in starting or already has an organization that they want to scale up. You just go to the URL is thenonprofitplaybook.com it’s course that I built. And it’s been really transformational for now hundreds of people that have participated, and it’s entirely self paced, and it has all these downloadable PDFs and templates. It’s really the step by step guide so 10 modules, it’s called the nonprofitplaybook.com anybody can check it out,
Nathan: That’s awesome that’s a great resource I didn’t know you did that, because you’re right this side of things is completely foreign to me. So when it came to leaving your job at Bain, when did you do that?
Adam: So Bain has what they call and externship program you can leave for six to nine months and work for anybody else in your third year. And it was during the externship program, that I actually launched Pencils of Promise, but I had to come back after my nine month leave. And I had about seven months left on my third year, because they let me go a little bit early. And I was back for maybe three months, and I officially left in March of 2010.
Nathan: Gotcha, and then how big is the team now for Pencils of Promise, or is it all self sufficient by contribution by talent or how now?
Adam: So Pencils of Promise now has 125 staff, full-time employees, and that’s in five countries around the world. So it’s a substantial organization I think in the coming year or so we’ll pass about $50 million raised and we’re best n class in terms of the total contributions that go directly into the field. But you also in obviously you need to cover the staff that’s gonna support and really guide this work both in the field and from the headquarters.
So we’re based out in New York but operations in Laos Guatemala although we have about 20 schools we support through a partnership in Nicaragua. And then we also have an office in Ghana and a little bit of staff in Liberia.
Nathan: Because I thought you guys were quite big but then when you were saying to me that people started to come to you giving… they don’t have to donate money they could donate their time or provide services. I was thinking maybe you guys aren’t as big as I was thinking and you’ve got this whole organization running of people just contributing their time and I was like wow.
Adam: Well, that’s where we started and that’s my advice to anybody, is you start scrappy and understand that maybe one day you’re gonna have the resources to hire full time staff, and kind of work with the capital at hand. But most people don’t start that way, I certainly didn’t and so you have to find a way to leverage the talent around you. And so we started all volunteer team for a substantial period of time, until I was the first one to leave my job, and then a second and over time we started to build out a staff.
Now we have 125 or so staff but most of them are working in the field, and these are people from the countries in which they work. So they’re not on kind of full salaries, but they’re on salaries, but that makes them the biggest breadwinner probably in the history of their family.
Nathan: That’s awesome because then you’re also creating jobs as well.
Adam: Yeah, exactly I mean that’s really important to us, is building local capacities in the countries where we work, and making sure that it’s not just Westerners showing up building schools and leaving, but all this work is really owned and sustained by the locals.
Nathan: Got you. Now I know you’re working on something new that love to talk to you about, but before we switch gears on to Mission U, can we talk about like crazy story of a time, give me a good one something interesting something…
Adam: Geez, and I’ve told a lot of them over the years, one probably I haven’t really talked about really ever, I wrote about in my book in the “Promise of a Pencil,” but I haven’t really talked about it in an interview in any kind. Is on that four month trip in Southeast Asia, at one point I had to leave Laos because you’re only have a 30 day visa. So you have to leave and then come back. And when I left I ended up going to Nepal, and while I was in Nepal the day that I was flying out after about three weeks there, hiking in Himalayas like and track.
There’s a full on basically strike across Katmandu and they shut down the whole city and there was just angry mobs rioting, but I had to get to the airport somehow to fly out. And there was no cabs running so I found one rickshaw driver, that was willing to like pedal me on his bike across the city. And I got to this one really big kind of a crossing areas it’s almost like a square, and as he peddled me right into the middle of it an entire angry mob of Nepali men basically carrying sticks just surrounded me in my thing, like shouting and shouting and waving sticks.
And literally my heart was racing this is how I die, like they’re just gonna beat me, and literally rip me apart and just kill me. And I got out just like just begging, begging all I knew was and I’m just like and I’m like I’ll leave I’m so sorry I didn’t do anything please. And a man kinda stepped in and calmed down the main kind of leader of the mob and this kind of rickshaw driver stood up on my behalf, and fortunately they said you can’t be driven by the rickshaw driver but we’ll let you pass. And then walk away, but it was like one of the scariest moments of my life and not something I’ve really told anybody.
Nathan: Awesome, well, thanks for sharing that man. So talk to me about Mission U, and I guess are you stepping down as the CEO of Pencils of Promise, or are you still running both talk to me?
Adam: So back in 2014, I actually started to lead the search for the new CEO of Pencils of Promise, so it took a year for us to find the right CEO. We had 700 candidates for the job my title was founder and CEO, but those become two very different jobs as you get to the size that we got to. And I was really interested in the founder part where I could support the vision, but we really needed a day to day leader to guide the execution. And I wanted to start working on high education here in the States, a domestic issue that I developed a lot of passion around.
And so fortunately after 700 candidates in a year we found the right CEO, so we hired our current CEO Michael Doherty. He started in June of 2015, so he’s been in place for a little while now, and has done just a fantastic job. My official title is founder and board Ameridose, so I’m still very active with the organization, but not on a day to day basis, very fortunately beautifully it runs itself because of the incredible team in place. And my focus is very, very heavily now on Mission U, this new venture that I’m building.
Nathan: Awesome, can you tell us a little bit more about that, and how that came about and what’s exciting that’s happening with this new project you’re working on?
Adam: Yeah, absolutely so when I met my wife five, six years ago, she was somebody who grew up in a very loving family without financial means though. And really bought into the belief system that college was her way out of that financial status and up to a better place really the American dream that has been kind of sold for generations and over the last probably 50 years. The main pathway there has been through college, and so when I met her though, she had attended two and a half years, she had taken on so much debt, and so much financial hardship that she had to leave school early to start working and paying it back.
And so at the time that we met she had $110,000 of student debt with no bachelor’s degree, and eventually we learned that student debt is the only debt in the United States you cannot declare bankruptcy on. It is with you for life, if you die they actually go after your next of kin, because they usually have to cosign on their loans. And so when I learned about this it just seemed like such a massive injustice in our society, and education is supposed to be the great equalizer. But it was actually… and I believe it is continuing to create a greater divide between the haves and have nots.
So it was something I wanted to address and ideally create a solution for, and so that’s really what Mission U is. Mission U is a college alternative for the 21st century, and our aim is to prepare young people for the jobs of today and tomorrow debt free. And what we mean by that is that in this one year program about 80 to 90% of it happens online, but these are not prerecorded lectures that you watch in your own time, these are live for actual classrooms with world class instructors that are industry practitioners, [inaudible 00:27:26] and a small cohort of about 24 others and a 25 student cohort.
Learning together real world skills that are incredibly career focused, and driven by helping you land that great job. But what we really think is incredibly important is that institutions of education should invest in their students rather than vice versa. And so if you get into Mission U there’s no tuition at all, we commit to investing in you for a full year, and then if and only if you secure a job at the end of that program afterwards, once you’re making $50,000 or more then you contribute 15% of your income for three years back to Mission U.
And that’s the way that we’re able to run and sustain this for the next following cohort of students, but it’s a very different model from a traditional college, but it’s what we believe is absolutely necessary for the type of student who is not gonna be served by a traditional higher education today.
Nathan: Wow, that’s a really interesting model how did you conceptualize that?
Adam: I spent probably two years talking to every person that I could about the challenges of higher education that meant people in this space, that meant a list of folks that I put together called that I call The Dirty Dozen, and these are all entrepreneurs that built companies valued over $200 million. People that just knew how to build a great entity that really resonated with a customer, and I felt like very little higher education is focused on the customer needs, they’re focused on the institutional preservation of kind of keeping this college going, even though it was actually hurting the students. And this is in every college but I think unfortunately it’s a lot of them right now.
In all these conversations over time you find if you approach them with real humility, and the acknowledgement that you have some strongly held beliefs, but you don’t have every answer, and you’re looking for their guidance into how you should find the correct answer, you start to coalesce around very clear questions. And so over time these conversations help me inform the kind of model that I thought was best, and then I put together world class team. My co-founder is absolutely incredible the team that we brought around it of advisers, backers, of staff is really kind of the best of the best, of the best across both academia and business.
And then we kind of drew inspiration from some of the different things that are out there, the boot camp space has proven that you can get a technical skill and it enables to get a job without necessarily a degree. And we’re not teaching coding our initially track it launches a data analytics in business intelligence, which is this massively growing industry that every single company needs now. It’s not just data companies, it’s media companies, it’s the sports companies.
I mean everyone is in need of better data analytics, and so few people are well trained on it.
That the more time I spent with the business side the more I realized geez they’re really being under-served, and then truthfully I spend a lot of time with college kids and asked what would appealed to them. And I kept on hearing that the single biggest problem for them was just crushing student debt, and then on the other side, when I spoke to employers it was that young people aren’t entering the workforce with real skills and job preparedness.
And I thought okay, how do we create a model that kind of messes these two challenges for the two different stakeholders, and that really manifested into Mission U. And we’ve opened up applications so anybody can just go to Mission U, it’s the letter U at the end. So Mission with letter U.com and you can apply. It’s a totally open application system, it doesn’t cost you a thing, and I would encourage anybody that interested to go and check it out.
Nathan: Interesting, and when do you recommend at what point during somebody’s career should they do Mission U.
Adam: So Mission U at our core were at targeting traditional undergraduate students, so if you’re 19 to 25 regardless of whether you’ve completed school or not. We don’t aim to be a finishing school so if you have a bachelor’s degree we’re probably not best for you, were looking to truly replace the bachelor’s degree. So I would say any 19 to 25 year old that probably has not completed their bachelor’s degree yet, or hasn’t even started down the college path, and is looking at the amount of time and money that you’re gonna have to spend to get a piece of paper that may or may not help you get a job.
I would encourage you to check out Mission U, again it’s a one year program and clearly based on the way that we’ve structured it, at the end of that year our expectation is to help you enter the workforce directly, and not have to go back to school right away.
Nathan: Got you, I see so hypothetical because this is an interesting model, does this model exist right now for any kind of educational institutions, or any anyone that’s doing a similar kind of service offering that you’re doing right now, is this is a completely untested model?
Adam: So there are pieces of what we’re doing that are being used by a bunch of different institutions. I don’t think anyone structured it, in its entirety in the way that we have, but for example the income share piece where you don’t pay tuition up front, and instead it’s based on the success of you getting a job. Purdue University which is a very large leading university here in States, Purdue University obviously is world renowned, and they have an income share opportunity called back a boiler. So they pioneered this for a few years they ran it as a pilot, it was so successful they’re expanding it this year.
There’s a couple of the kind of hardcore coding camps in the Bay area are on based where they do this as well. So we’re not the first to do it but, we’re certainly ones that are advocates of it, and plan to help expand it nationally. I think you’ll see a lot of other colleges taking this, I mean Australia as a country has income based repayment for students based on a college experience. The online model that we have there’s companies like To You and Minerva that have done things that are similar.
So I would say every piece of what we’re doing has been probably inspired or related to something that we’ve seen, and we really think is really strong, but no one certainly can put it into the form that we’ve created. And we think that part of that is because there’s a real need for the type of student that we seek to serve to have a new choice.
Nathan: Yeah, got you because I find this interesting, because business models they can change. I was going to say but the more you mentioned Australia the more I think about we have something called Hex here, and it is actually similar. That you have a student debt but I think its if you earn a tax bracket they’ll take a percentage. So it’s in fact, very, very similar to what we do here in Australia so no it does work. Okay that makes sense, I still go a Hex debt it just comes out of my salary every year, but yeah I’ve got two college degrees and never really did anything with them. So I understand…
Adam: I’ve heard that many times before.
Nathan: Yeah, I understand your frustration around this problem and why you want to solve it. So my question is I guess how do you plan to grow this business?
Adam: So every cohort in Mission U is similar in that there are always 25 students, and we don’t wanna have the equivalent of a large lecture hall where you’re kinda sitting in the back and no one’s paying attention to you. So you’re always in the 20 to 25 student cohort, but the way that it will grow is both in three things. One is frequency so the first class begins in September of 2017, and so we have an open enrolling application process so at any one time you can go on, and apply for either a current or upcoming class.
But the first one is September and then we have cohorts that start every quarter, but then you can expand into new geographies, because the only physical requirement is you have to live within 50 miles of your cohorts primary city. And that’s so you’re close to one another, so that you align on time zones for these live courses, because again are not prerecorded. And then the third excuse me is that you’re close to the employers that we are gonna be helping you secure interviews and eventually jobs with. But we plan to expand into many, many geographies, so that’s probably the second part because besides cadence.
And then the third part is new concentration, so at launch it’s focused on data analytics and business intelligence, but were continuing to do a lot of deep research on where the market opportunities are. In particular for young people with skill based training, so we anticipate really becoming a true college alternative over time that much like college you choose your major as you enter Mission U, you’ll have the opportunity to choose various concentrations.
Nathan: Yeah, wow okay interesting and the structure of this business is it a not for profit social enterprise?
Adam: So it’s a public benefit corporation. So B Corp I mean it would fall I guess in that construct under social enterprise. So we’re able to raise venture capital backing which enables us to essentially advance this model. I mean if you think about our venture capitalist investors are essentially providing us with scholarships to give to our students since we don’t charge them tuition. But as a public benefit corporation we can raise that capital… draw on world class talent but still hold ourselves accountable to our social mission.
Nathan: Got you, because cash flows is key right?
Adam: Absolutely, cash is oxygen in a business.
Nathan: Okay got you look interesting, look we have to work towards wrapping up, but I’m curious around you this is a new business for you, you’ve got a lot of experience that we can draw upon as a really successful founder. What are some things that are challenges that you haven’t expected that you’re finding with starting and getting ready to launch Mission U, that our audience can learn from?
Adam: Well, I’d say one challenge is having the humility to come into a space and understand even though you might have some very strongly held beliefs, that you can still learn from those who came before you. So much of the last eight years of my life especially probably the last four at Pencil of Promises, we reach some pretty meaningful milestones of success. And so a lot of people looked at me as an expert in many ways. And then you write a book and it becomes a big “New York Times” bestseller and suddenly everyone definitely thinks that you have all the answers.
And I chose to start something entirely new and still the education space, where I wanted to focus, but going from rural primary education in the developing world to higher education here in the States is a very big leap. And I think a challenge that of a lot of people face is kind of going from the expert to the beginners mindset right, and kind of coming into every conversation with the ambition to listen much more than you speak. And that’s basically what I’ve done for almost two years.
And now finally, the Mission U program is out there, and I think it’s gonna certainly cause really big ripples, and hopefully help make the higher education system more equitable and more just, and help out a lot of young people to build and launch in careers they want. But for 18 months before we launched I had to really focus on being a listener not a speaker.
Nathan: No, that’s key, that’s actually one thing I’m learning from one of my mentors who runs an extremely massive business. And yeah, it’s all about just learning from people that have done what you want to do, and even jumping on clarity and that’s how you grow like shortcuts success, and shortcut to get to goals.
Adam: Absolutely, look one of the best ways to become a great listeners is the have a podcast. And ask a really good questions which you.
Nathan: No, that’s where it’s at too, that’s another good one. Awesome we’ll work towards wrapping up are there any final parting words that you just like to finish off on Adam? Somebody that is a big contributor to society extremely selfless, much more selfless than me, I think to me honest. Any parting words and the best place people can find you, and find out more about Mission U and your work?
Adam: Sure, the parting words I would leave anybody with is just keep in mind that you get one chance at this life. Some people believe in reincarnation, but this life specific life every single day that you are fortunate enough to be gifted into this existence, you had one shot at it. And so you’re gonna end up regretting a lot more the things you didn’t end up trying rather than those that you tried and failed.
And so understand that this world is malleable, and you hopefully have some wonderful and aspirational ideas in your head, and we need people like you to pursue those ideas with conviction, with integrity, with ambition, and with bold intent. And people like myself will be cheering you on.
In terms of finding me, I’m pretty accessible, my email is just [email protected], the letter I so [email protected] If you listened to us and something resonated you wanna share an idea, please feel free to email me. The course I referenced actually earlier, if anyone out there is building a nonprofit or wants to is the nonprofitplaybook.com all one word. The venture I’m now focused on and hope to focus the next decade of my life on is, Mission U, M-I-S-S-I-O-N-U.com. And my handles for all kinda social media sites are itsadambraun I-T-Sadambraun except for Twitter, I’m just Adam Braun. And I write blogs and you can see speeches and talks I’ve given at adambraun.com.
Nathan: Awesome fantastic, well look Adam, thank you, so much for taking the time to speak with me, this is a really great conversation, I really appreciate it.
Adam: My pleasure I really enjoyed it, thanks for having me on.
- Learn more about Adam on his website
- Check out AdamBraun.com
- Check out Adam’s Blog page
- Follow Adam on Twitter
- Learn more about Adam’s book: The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change
- Explore MissionU
- Learn more about Pencils of Promise