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'Pencils of Promise' founder to speak about purpose at ASU West campus

After a near-death experience, Adam Braun re-evaluated his life's purpose and ultimately established an organization that works to ensure access to quality education in developing nations. His book was the 2015 Summer Common Read at ASU's West campus.

September 09, 2015

After surviving a shipwreck that nearly cost him his life, Adam Braun decided to re-evaluate his purpose.

He dropped his pursuit of a career in finance and began traveling the world, making a habit of asking children wherever he went what they wanted most. One child’s answer ultimately inspired him to establish Pencils of Promise, a for-purpose organization that builds schools, trains teachers and funds scholarships to help ensure that children all over the world have access to quality education.

In March 2014, Braun published his book “The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change,” which tells the story of how he came to found Pencils of Promise and also provides advice for others looking to make positive change in the world.

The book was chosen for Arizona State University’s 2015 Summer Common Read at the West campus. Braun will be visiting the campus Sept. 10 for a 7 p.m. keynote speech on “The Promise of a Pencil,” followed by an 8 p.m. book signing, both located in the La Sala Ballrooms in the University Center Building.

For more information about the event, click here.

ASU News caught up with Braun ahead of the event for a brief Q&A. Read on to find out more about what inspired Pencils of Promise and the philosophy behind it.

Question: During your Semester at Sea in college, you had a near-death experience in the form of a shipwreck that you said gave you a “renewed sense of purpose,” and after that you began traveling extensively. At what point did you know that purpose was to work toward accessible education?

Answer: While traveling in India I met a young boy begging on the streets who, when asked if he could have anything in the world, answered, "a pencil." It made me realize the tremendous injustice that millions of children around the world lack access to quality education, and from that moment forward I wanted to do something about it.

Q: You make a point of distinguishing your organization, Pencils of Promise as “for-purpose” as opposed to “nonprofit.” What is the difference between the two?

A: It's a subtle shift in language, but it's also a difference in two approaches. For-purpose focuses on maximizing impact and not treating your work with a scarcity mentality where you're constantly trying to do the most with the least amount of resources expended. It's important not to overspend, but if you're constantly focused on the nonprofit side of this work then you undercut its true value.

Q: Pencils of Promise works to provide educational opportunities in developing worlds. Are there plans to address access to education in the United States? Why or why not?

A: We believe in the value of laser focus and that great organizations clearly define where they can have the greatest impact. Given that, our programs are focused on rural parts of the developing world, but we train and equip people in the U.S. to become changemakers by supporting those efforts.

Q: Before you started Pencils of Promise, you went to school for finance and also spent five years backpacking through foreign countries. What would you be doing now if you weren’t the founder of PoP?

A: I'd be working for sure on a different company or organization serving a social mission. The world has a lot of problems that are only going to get addressed when audacious people step up to change things, and whether it's with PoP or another effort, I know that I'm here to make a difference.

Q: You recently gave a Zeitgeist talk at Google in which you describe the five steps involved in the “road map to profitable purpose.” What would you say is the single most important piece of advice for college students interested in pursuing careers in the nonprofit sector?

A: Focus on gaining a hard skill first, and you'll be more valuable to the organization you seek to support. Whether that's in graphic design, database management, coding or any other marketable skill, there's plenty of people that have passion, but college students should focus on finding that unique ability that nonprofits all need but rarely find, and you'll find yourself ahead of the pack.