Adam Braun
Photography by Elisabeth Caren

ADAM BRAUN vowed to improve the state of education around the world, and he is — with help from one of the planet’s biggest pop stars.

When he was just 25, Adam Braun quit his job with global consulting firm Bain & Company and founded Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that raises money to build schools in developing countries. He began humbly, slowly cobbling together enough funds to build a school in Laos. Five years later, his organization has broken ground on more than 150 schools in four countries — ­including its first in Ghana last year — with plans to build hundreds more. But it’s not just your ordinary multimillion-dollar grassroots organization. Pencils of Promise (PoP) got its global legs from an unlikely spokesman: Justin Bieber, who is managed by Adam’s brother Scott Braun.

Though Adam brings glamour and young blood to the global education movement, his true legacy is twofold: encouraging travel as a means for social entrepreneurship and applying the for-profit practices he learned at Bain to sustain his organization’s mission to provide every child in the world with access to quality education.

By the Numbers

Number of completed PoP Schools

Teachers trained

Student scholarships distributed

8.77 million
Education hours delivered

Students in PoP schools

$ 25
Cost to educate a child for one year

$ 25,000
Cost to build a school

< $ 100
Average PoP donation

American Way: Did you always know you wanted to be a social entrepreneur?
Adam Braun: As a child, I actually wanted to work in finance. I started interning at hedge-fund [companies] in high school, but when I was 21 years old I went into the developing world for the first time and found a sense of purpose. I saw children begging on the streets, and when I asked one young boy what he wanted most in the world, his response was, “a pencil.” I realized for him and millions of others, they’ve never had any access to a school or quality education.

AW: How did your background in consulting help you make your vision a reality?
Bain & Company was the per­fect­ training ground to teach me how to run an effective organization, especially one where you have to build a culture that keeps your team and supporters motivated and impressed. If we didn’t deliver results for the companies that hired us at Bain, we were gone within a few months, and that’s how we think about our donors.

AW: Is it true that you started with just $25?
When I started PoP, I was turning 25 years old — so I didn’t have much money and neither did my friends. I also founded the organization two weeks after Lehman Brothers crashed and the recession began, so my approach was never based on dependence on a few large donors. Fortunately, with the combination of individuals making contributions of all sizes along with support from small businesses and large brands, we’ve been able to grow.

AW: You coined a new term for the type of work you’re doing. Why?
Language is incredibly powerful in creating norms, rules and expectations. After a few years of this work, I realized that the phrase nonprofit didn’t describe the power and value of our work, so I introduced the term for-purpose instead.

AW: You’ve gotten a lift from two prominent spokesmen — your brother Scott and Justin Bieber. What role have they played in ensuring PoP’s success?
The connection they both share with the organization is personal and genuine. My brother selflessly asked for donations rather than gifts for his 30th birthday, which raised enough money to build a new school, and last year he came with me to Guatemala, where we dedicated it to him. Justin was one of the first youths to get involved in the organization, before he had become an international star, and he now serves as an active spokesperson. We’re very close, and he deeply cares about the organization. They’ve served as amazing role models to the millions of kids they influence, and they came together to donate $1 per ticket for every North American show Justin plays. That’s not only going to raise a tremendous amount of money, but it’s inspiring a new generation of young philanthropists to enable education for all.

HOW TO HELP: Start a custom fundraising page with your own photos, video and text on to educate a child or to build a school. Or, donate to Pencils of Promise’s Back to School campaign, which aims to provide 5,000 children with full-year, $100 scholarships, by visiting