Welcome to Influencers!
I’m here with Adam. For those of you who were paying attention last week, there were a few critical hints. When he was traveling, he met a child who was quite poor. The child was asked if he could have anything, what he would have. The child said, “A pencil.” Adam is a New York Times bestselling author that achieved position two, which is absolutely incredible. If anybody were to play him in a Hollywood film, he would want Denzel Washington. The song that represents his life is Everything in its Right Place by Radiohead. Among the many other hints that he gave was that his last name is associated with a major brand that although there’s no relation, it’s a household name.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
MissionU and The Promise of a Pencil with Adam Braun
Adam, who are you? What have you done? Tell us all about it.
I’m Adam Braun. As you alluded to, I wrote a New York Times Bestseller called The Promise of a Pencil, it subtitles how an ordinary person can create extraordinary change. I previously founded and was CEO of Pencils of Promise, a non-profit, or as I would call for-purpose organization, that has now broken ground on more than 400 schools around the world. I’m currently primarily and almost exclusively focused on transforming our higher education system here in the United States via a college alternative for the 21st century called MissionU.
Before we go into our standard questions, because MissionU’s brand new, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on there?
As Pencils of Promise grew and it went from $25 in hopes of building one school to now, as I mentioned over 400 schools, I kept thinking to ask one question. That question that was really troublesome for me was, what about all of our education challenges here at home in the United States? I met my wife almost five, six years ago. When I met her, she had grown up with this really loving family, but without financial means, really bought into college as the path out of that situation. That’s what we sold the American dream on for generations for decades.
After about two and a half years of school and managed a massive amount of debt and financial hardship, she had to leave school to start working. When I met her, she had just over $110,000 of student debt with no Bachelor’s Degree. When I learned about this situation and saw how crushing it was for her, I encouraged her to declare bankruptcy and at least fail to start fresh once we got married with my clean credit. That’s when she told me student debt is the only debt in the United States you cannot declare bankruptcy on. That was the watershed moment for me when I recognized this is supposed to be the thing that unites us as a society, yet my fundamental belief is that college is actually creating a greater divide between have’s and have-not’s. The more you look at the system, you can’t help but recognize that it is currently broken. It doesn’t work for the majority of students. For some students, they can afford it or get into a really elite school. It’s most likely worth it for you to participate in a four-year Bachelor’s Degree program. Nationally, the percentage of students that enter a four-year Bachelor’s Degree program and graduate in four years is only 18%. It’s shocking but the debt is there for life.
MissionU, as I mentioned, it’s a one-year college alternative for the 21st century. Our aim is to prepare young people for the jobs of today and tomorrow completely debt-free. If you get into MissionU, it’s incredibly skills-based. It’s career-focused curriculum. About 90% of it happens online in live virtual classrooms. These are not pre-recorded lectures. This is you in a small cohort with 25 students and industry practitioners that are teaching you real skills that will help you land fantastic jobs. If you get into MissionU, there is no tuition at all. We think it’s our responsibility to invest in you upfront. We commit to investing in you for a full year. When you complete your year-long program, once and only once you secure a job paying you $50,000 or more, we receive 15% of income for three years. That’s the way you contribute back and enable us to be able to offer this opportunity to more students ahead. We just recently have launched. We have these incredible employer partners, companies like Facebook and Warby Parker and Lyft, Harry’s, Casper, plated on down the line.
Anybody can go to MissionU.com. We have a really inclusive application process. It’s really simple and short. We don’t look at SAT or GPA. You don’t have to complete high school. We think talent is incredibly universal. We want to encourage anybody from any part of our society to be able to get a great path to a career. You can just go to MissionU.com and apply right now.
It seems that you’re obviously very mission-driven regardless of what you do. When people discovered what you’ve accomplished and what you’re working on, what’s the most common question they have for you?
I would say, over the last eight years or so, with Pencils of Promise, the most common question was either one of three things. It was either, “How do you choose the countries and the communities in which you work?” For us, it’s a really rigorous process. We do a lot of diligence and we have this whole rubric that is based on data points of need and cost-efficiency and sustainability and the communities’ commitment. The second question that I probably get asked most often is about teachers, “How do you find your teachers? How do you train your teachers?” All of our teachers come from the localized environment. They’re from the country in which they’re working. They’re trained by the education ministry and then we layer in a lot of additional teacher training. The third question was, “This is really great but what about the promise here at home?” Those are questions I get about Pencils of Promise. With MissionU thus far, everyone is super curious about it because what I found is they’re really passionate about their own education. They probably know a family member who was crushed by debt or is currently in college and getting crushed by debt. The most common question is, “How does somebody apply?” which is obviously encouraging.
I feel like we’re in this resurgence of a population that everybody wants to do something and contribute. Everybody wants to make an impact. There are probably a lot of misconceptions from people coming into the social good industries. Do you have a few tips for people who really want to succeed or want to start their own organizations or ventures?
One of the things I really advise people is to understand that you don’t have to be a founder to make an impact. There are 1.8 million registered organizations with 501(c)(3) designation as a non-profit in this country right now. There are a lot of people who have already gone through the logistical and administrative work of starting an organization. I find that it’s actually way more valuable to learn from that individual even if you desire to start something on your own one day. Find an organization that’s in the space in which you hope to make your own impact and volunteer or try and work with them directly. I spent four years working with an organization called the Cambodian Children’s Fund and really learn from their founder, Scott Neeson, before I ever started Pencils of Promise. Part of it is learn from those who have operated in the space before, try and find great mentors. Books are really great resource to read the stories of those who built organizations that you admire.
The truth is, there are not a lot of great resources that actually show you the tactical how-to of building at least in the non-profit sector, a high impact organization all the way from how do you actually incorporate to how you build the board of directors to how do you do effective fundraising. That was frustrating me. I actually built a course maybe about a year ago. It’s called The Non-Profit Playbook. Anybody can just go to TheNonProfitPlaybook.com and sign up for that course. It’s literally ten modules, templates, downloadable PDFs. It’s everything you need to start like I did with $25 and grow it into an eight-figure organization. You have to pay for it but it’s not particularly expensive. I believe people need to have some type of skin in the game, but the value of it is much much more than it actually costs. There’s also a 30-day money back guarantee if you’re not happy, if you don’t think there was value into it, just let me know and I’ll send you a refund, no questions asked.
There’s a characteristic of human behavior called the IKEA effect. We actually value things that we invest more into, that’s why we disproportionally like our IKEA furniture. I’m a strong believer that people should pay or put effort into something if they’re really committed to it, because it will make them engage with it more. What pitfalls are there that people really just don’t know or just don’t talk about in the pursuit of creating these great social impacts?
One is the difficulty of recruiting top talent. People love to engage. I don’t know that they love to deeply commit for years of their life in this type of work because there’s real sacrifice; on the financial side there’s sacrifice. At Pencils of Promise, we’re fortunate that we’re able to draw in really great talent early on and build a lot of credibility that enabled us to be an effective recruiter down the line. All of the initial teams that was there building the organization with me in the early days, none of them could take on a full-time job with us because we couldn’t afford them in the early days, maybe myself and one other. We lost a lot of great people that would have stayed on for a lot longer if we could offer them equity or something like that.
One thing that I would encourage people is if you’re building a purpose-driven company or organization and someone offers you free services, don’t accept them for free. Instead, ask to pay something but low bono, so small amount. What it does is it creates some accountability on both sides. What I’ve seen over the years is we’ve been offered so many services free and when it’s free, it just doesn’t get paid attention to. You don’t have that social construct of expectations on both sides. That’s something that I really encourage people to really consider.
I also see that same characteristic when people say they’ll trade services, “I’ll do this for you if you do this for me.” Unless it’s a physical good that you can quantify, then nobody gets their stuff done. It just ends up tethering. That’s phenomenal advice. You have achieved an immense amount of reach. Obviously with the success of your book, you’re a public figure to a big degree, what’s something completely unexpected about reaching your level of success?
One thing that’s completely unexpected is that your sense of satisfaction in the work or in the accomplishments doesn’t abate at all whatsoever when you get to certain thresholds. Before reaching certain levels of accomplishment, I assumed once I get there I’ll be happy and I can stop this internal motor that keeps me up late at night thinking about how the next thing can be achieved. What I would find is you just either have it or you don’t. It either stays on or it’s never on. It’s not like it just flicks on and off based on your level of accomplishment. That was a surprise for me. I was talking to a friend of mine, Ben Rattray, he’s the founder and CEO of Change.org, over the weekend and we were laughing about the fact that as soon as you hit some big milestone that everybody externally thinks is a “Wow, it’s such a great accomplishment,” the moment that that’s accomplished, you are already setting your sights on that next thing. You’ve also now held yourself accountable to some larger goal than the thing you already thought was so large. That was definitely a surprise for me that any award or accolade doesn’t abate the ambition. If anything, it multiplies it because now suddenly you recognize, “I can get to that level that I never thought I’d be able to get to before.” You start setting your sights off into the distance again.
It seems that all the research suggests that human beings are happiest when they’re pursuing something just outside of their skill set. Every time you’ve achieved something, it’s no longer novel. If you’re a driven individual, you’re going to want to do it in less time or better or reach double the quantity. Maybe raise X amount of dollars this year and then you’re, “How do we do 10x next year? What’s that going to take?” It’s not all of a sudden, “Look at this. With this amount, we’ve already accomplished so much.” The driven person is constantly looking for that thing that makes them uncomfortable.
You state it very aptly. It’s one of those things where the moment that threshold is achieved, a new threshold is set.
Let’s talk a little bit about what inspires you. Is there a certain book that influenced you the most?
I would say, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. My mom gave me that book when I was in high school and it profiles the front half of his struggles in the concentration camps and seeing men that were larger, stronger, more fit. By almost every designation should have survived through the hardships that they were enduring and yet one after another, they were perished. He identified that the reason that certain survived and others didn’t was because some of them had a sense of purpose and that they had something in the future that they were holding on to, some set of expectations.
Both my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I’ve always been amazed by their struggles and stories of survival and inspired by them. When I think about why it happened, my grandmother entered Auschwitz with 27 family members including her sister and her mother. They all were sent to the gas chambers the first night and she was the lone one that was working. She was a survivor. When I asked her how it happened, it was because her father was not in the camp with her. She knew that everyone had died but she felt this sense of commitment to make sure that she would survive so that she could find her father after the war so he would have some family to survive. When she got out, she says the most crushing moment of her life was when she got back to the train station in Budapest after she was liberated, after fourteen months in the camps, and no one was waiting there for her. She found out that her father had been killed in a separate concentration camp, because that was the one thing that she had held onto. Beautifully it had enabled her to survive and obviously need to be here today. That book, Man’s Search for Meaning really rooted me in this idea of living a purpose-driven life.
Is she your hero? Who would you consider your big heroes?
I would say that my family first and foremost for sure. Almost every member of my family inspires me in some capacity. A lot of the work that I undertook with Pencils of Promise was certainly inspired to honor her. The very first school was an idea because she was turning 80. My grandfather said, “I’ll pass away” and I wanted to her to know how much she meant to me, how much she meant to our family, and that her legacy would carry on for generations. I thought if I could just build one school and dedicate it to her, have her name on a school that will accomplish that feat. That was the impetus for starting Pencils of Promise was on her.
In about three and a half months ago, my wife gave birth to our twins. It’s our first children. Ma, as we call her, had been very sick over the last year. She passed away about four hours before they were born. It was this incredibly sad moment to lose her obviously after such a beautiful and incredible life. I can’t think of something more symbolic for the circle of life in our family that at the moment that we lost this incredible woman, the only way to really replace her was with these two new children.
To shift gears a little, I’m sure you get bombarded by requests from countless people. What would have you accept an invitation from a stranger for a meeting? In fact, did we know each other before I invited you to the dinner?
No. One is a really warm reference from someone who I trust and really value. In our case, had been telling me about you for years and saying, “Jon’s such an extraordinary individual. These groups that he brings together for dinner are really fantastic. You should participate.” That’s one. It might be a stranger, but it’s someone that I really value and respect. This is worthwhile. This is someone that you should spend time with. I’m pretty trusting when it comes to my relationships and their recommendations. That’s probably the most common way in which I might meet a stranger.
The second one is if they write something really heartfelt that strikes a chord with me in some capacity, I get anywhere from three to ten random emails a day. My email address that I give out openly is Adam@ipromise.org. It’s in the back of my book. In most talks, I’ll share it. Almost every day, there are multiple emails coming in. They’re really heartfelt personal stories. Usually after people finished the book and it’s their thoughts and feedback because I ask for it at the back of the book. It became so much that I couldn’t respond to everyone of them individually anymore. There are certain ones where someone really just shares something that strikes a chord with me and I’ll record a quick video on my phone just thanking them and sharing my feedback.
There’s a kid who recently left college and was on a cross-country road trip and sent me a bunch of different heartfelt notes. I met with him when he came to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. He’s a total stranger. I spent an hour with him. Same thing with another young woman who was a graduate of the college I went to, Brown University. I’m certainly open to it but somehow they have to strike an emotional a chord I would say.
With all of the mission-driven work that you do, what is it that people can do to really support? I’m sure that journalists can write about MissionU and all that. Beyond that, when somebody hears this podcast, what’s a clear next step they can take to make a difference and impact?
I would say the clear next step in my mind is always not to dream in the clouds and think, “I have to do something huge.” It’s taking one small step, one small action in the direction of the thing that you hope to compound on in the days and months and years ahead. It’s that first small step is all. For reference, I started $25 and I put it in a bank account then we were real as an organization. With MissionU, I decided to leave my role as CEO of Pencils of Promise. I led a yearlong search. I moved out to San Francisco to not only try out the life on the West Coast but to really build this company out of the Bay Area. It was that commitment to say, “I’m going to give up my lease in New York.” That was both a small step but it was a really big step that was going to force me in the direction of the aspirations I had around MissionU. It’s to understand where the end goal is like, what’s your huge accomplishment? What’s your empire state building as often referenced? Know that it starts with your one millimeter act.
What is it that we can do to support MissionU?
Our goal here is again to really help transform higher education so that there’s greater outcome alignment between institutions and students. That’s why we have this motto where you pay nothing upfront and we invest in you for a year and your successes are tied to our success. With Pencils of Promise, part of the way we grew was organically and it was based on this cultural movement of people who believed in the idea and shared it with others. We wanted to enable that with MissionU. We don’t have some massive built-out front office of 100 admission staff like some colleges that exist nowadays. We believe that every single person knows at least one or two young people, ages 19 to 25, that could be a really great fit for this. If you go to MissionU.com, you can just get a referral code. If you send it to any person and they apply and get in, we give you $500. We also give them $500 towards their education at MissionU.
Now, a couple of my favorite questions. You know I’m a geek. If you could be any comic book hero, who would it be?
I would say the notion that you’re one person by day and another person by night. That always sound too pretty cool.
If you could pick any three living people to hang out with, that you haven’t met before, who would they be?
I would say, Will Smith. He just seems wildly entertaining at all times. As much as I’m a diehard Jets fan, Tom Brady is just so committed to winning that I really admire him. I’d love to spend some time with him. Michael Jordan, because he was my childhood hero.
We’ll see if we can get you all at dinner together.
Sounds like a plan.
Adam, thank you so much for joining us. I have to say, I’ve rarely met a more heartfelt and genuine human being. It’s been a real privilege to have you on the show. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Thank you. I appreciate that. The feeling is mutual.
I would love if you would let people know websites, Twitter, Instagram, all that stuff where they can follow you so that we can keep your missions alive and keep people apprised of what’s going on.
The website of the company is MissionU.com. I’m personally on Instagram, @ItsAdamBraun, same handle for Snapchat as well, @ItsAdamBraun. On Twitter, it’s just @AdamBraun. The easiest way to reach me is via email, just Adam@ipromise.org. That course I was referencing before is TheNonProfitPlaybook.com.
Listeners, stay tuned for the second part where you’re going to find another anonymous interviewee. If you can figure out who it is, you can get an invitation to The Salon. Thanks for sticking around.
About Adam Braun
Adam Braun is a New York Times bestselling author and the Founder & CEO of MissionU. He previously founded and led Pencils of Promise, the award-winning organization that has built nearly 400 schools around the world.
Website: www.adambraun.com AND www.missionu.com AND amzn.to/1z7ZLRb
Anonymous Guest Interview
We have our newest anonymous guest. This person’s absolutely incredible and one of the most enthusiastic and energetic people I know. Jeff, thank you so much for coming on.
My pleasure. Thank you for that introduction.
I’m super curious. Tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up? What was it like?
I grew up in a little town in Connecticut called Milford, right near New Haven; very suburban life. It’s not much of an interest to talk about at all my childhood really.
Was there a certain incident or a teacher or experience that inspired you to go down the path you went?
Yes. I had a great teacher in high school in my Creative Writing class. His name was Barry Wallace. He was unbelievably encouraging. I took a Creative Writing class my sophomore year, I think it was. I started writing short stories. It just took off from there. I couldn’t stop writing.
Jeff, was there an accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
There is. We recently hit 100 episodes with my TV show. We had a cake sent from the network, gathered the crew and the cast together for a photo. Had a thing in Entertainment Weekly, they were there. It was a milestone that we never really thought we’d hit. That was a big surprise to us. It was really special. It was a very special moment.
One of the things I love about your show is I heard a rumor that it’s viewed an absurd amount illegally. You guys have just an insane number of illegal downloads and streams going on that doesn’t necessarily get reported.
We do. We have a lot of illegal views of our show. I hear it’s especially popular on other countries’ Facebooks like Russian Facebook. Many, many, many of our fans steal the show across Europe. We’ve actually heard though that many of the people who steal it also watch it on TV when it finally comes out in their country.
I also heard a rumor, and without saying the specific show title, that it’s saved quite a few lives.
I’ve had an extraordinary number of people come up to me at San Diego Comic-Con, other signings or events that we’ve had, and tell me that this show has actually saved their life or helped them through an incredibly difficult time. It’s an amazingly gratifying experience when someone comes up to you and they have tears in their eyes and they tell you that a TV show you’ve been writing, just thinking you were going to entertain people has actually affected them in that way. It’s an amazing thing, actually. It makes you feel like you’re doing something almost important in the world.
I think we spoke about this once or somebody told me that one of the starting premises of when you’re writing the show was, what would it be like to have a world without homophobia?
Yeah. It’s hard to write that in a realistic way, but whenever it came up in the writers’ room, I’d always say, “There’s no coming out on the show. There’s no homophobia. It’s just another experience. It’s just another part of the world.” We’ve tried to write that to that idea as best as possible. I think in many ways we succeeded. It’s made it to show a very inclusive story. It’s a way to make people feel not necessarily that this is the world, that the world can’t ever be this way. It’s more inclusive. It is a bit of a fantasy, but this is my show, it’s my world.
When a movie comes out about your life, who’s going to play you?
I can’t imagine a movie about my life. It doesn’t seem that interesting.
The bigger question would be, are they willing to clock in the time at the gym to look like you?
I do workout six days a week. I’m a bit of a not-about-fitness. I also feel as though it helps the writing process. I have a rule that every day at 4:00, we stop the writers’ room and the writers can take a break or they can come and workout with me in the gym with a personal trainer. I’m going to say, if I had my wish, Ryan Phillippe. How about that? Even though he’s far, far, far better looking than me.
Was there a certain moment or experience that made you feel like you had arrived to some degree?
I still don’t feel like I’ve arrived.
That’s the forever problem for people who are really driven and influential is that, at the core of it, we always want more.
We always feel like amateurs too. I love hearing the person like Aaron Sorkin talk about writing. He says he feels like a fraud every time he sits down at the computer to write. That’s the way we are. There was a great moment where my first show, which I created which is heading into its thirteenth season, I do remember calling my mother on the phone. When we were picked up to series after shooting the pilot, I said to her, “Mom,” and she knew from the first word, she started crying. She said, “Is it really happening?” I said, “Yes, mom. It’s really happening. The show is being picked up. It’s going to be on the air.” That was a great moment when you could tell your mom about your successes like that and when you can share them with family.
What hint or riddle would you give to people to figure out who you are?
Think of an ‘80s movie starring a young actor who became famous on a TV show and we rebooted that movie and are now finishing up our sixth season which will air this summer.
Wasn’t it Michael J. Fox?
Yes, it was.
Otherwise I think that description was so obscure. A movie with an actor that was in the ‘80s that became popular might be a bit tough to follow. Listeners, you have more than enough to figure out who Jeff is. Remember to submit your guesses. If you get it right, one of you can come to The Salon.