Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Notes from the Case Files: Meeting Adam

By Jesseca P. Timmons, a case writer in Entrepreneurial Studies and Social Entrepreneurship for the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

Last fall, Professor Les Charm told Associate Professor Mary Gale he had a fantastic new case for us: New York-based Pencils of Promise (POP), founded by 27-year old Adam Braun.  Les, whose son had attended Brown University with Adam, assured us, “This is one exceptional young man.”

Mary and I were intrigued. We learned that since founding POP in 2010, Adam had grown his education “for-purpose” business to over $8M in revenue, and had built over 50 primary schools in four third-world countries. Most interestingly, the company’s “Celebrity Ambassador” was then-17 year old Justin Bieber.

We set up our first interview with Adam online, but, like most entrepreneurs, he had to re-schedule our meeting three or four times. Then, technical delays disrupted the interview and we had to finish on speakerphone. Adam was incredibly gracious and gave us as much time as he could, but we didn’t feel like we had enough of a read on him or POP to really develop a case. One thing that we did learn was that Adam—who was at Brown while Mark Zuckerberg was at Harvard—had led the curve in using social networking to launch a nonprofit.

When we reported back to Les on our frustrating interview he said, “Forget the internet. You have to meet him!”

We agreed. Mary booked us Amtrak tickets, and we we off to New York.

At the crowded POP office a short walk from Penn Station, in a suite shared by several other nonprofits, we could sense the energy in the air. We could tell Adam’s staff seemed to be wondering who was important enough to get a whole hour of his time, so Mary cut right to the chase: “Tell us where you’re at in your own words.”  It turned out that Adam had literally just walked in the door from addressing the United Nations General Assembly. While Mary and I expressed amazement, he explained:

We—the U.N— just launched a new initiative called Education First yesterday. They announced that Gordon Brown—former prime minister of England—was appointed as the UN Special Envoy to Global Education—so they gathered about 80 business leaders, heads of state, and leading education advocates this morning…and they asked me to come and be a speaking participant! I was probably only the person in the room under the age of 35—there was definitely no one else there in their 20’s. I spoke for 3-4 min at the mike and just expanded the notion that while we are talking about global education, I just wanted to reiterate that youth are part of that conversation-it’s not just specific businesses.

POP’s rapid rise and vast and deeply committed Millennial network had caught the eye of movers and shakers who wanted to know how the young founder had engaged the generation famous for being self-involved. As Adam poured out his vision over the next hour, Mary and I could hardly keep up. My upcoming Notes from the Casefiles posts on POP will include material we had to leave out of the case, insights from Adam’s advisors and team, and the latest update on POP.