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Changing the World, One Pencil at a Time

One of the greatest parts of my work as a speaker is getting to watch other presenters at events share their amazing stories.

A couple of weeks ago, at a celebration of a company’s top performers, I met Adam Braun ( and it was a jaw-dropper. I couldn’t wait to join in the standing ovation.

I can’t do it justice, but here is a synopsis of his story: a basketball player at Brown University, Adam saw a movie that included a scene from India that inspired him to go abroad for a semester of learning. He signed up for a “semester at sea” program that met with near-Titanic results when the ship was hit by a 60-foot wave in the north Pacific. He described the moment “not as one of near-death, but certain death.” Rescued from the ship along with his classmates, Adam continued on with a different sense of purpose and while studying in India he met a young boy. There he asked a question he would ask many children on his journey: What do you want most in the world? The boy’s answer: a pencil.

Most would have simply handed over a pencil. Adam Braun decided to build a school. (By the way, he did give the boy his pencil, too!)

He discovered that 67 million children in the world had no access to ANY school. Adam decided to change that and on his 25th birthday, hosted a party asking guests to show up with $20 instead of a gift. Four hundred friends showed and he had $8,000 toward the building of a school. Working for Bain & Co, Adam took a sabbatical and travelled to Indonesia where he identified the village for his project. As the school was built, he shared pictures and video with his burgeoning network. More contributions flooded in and, fast-forward a bit, Adam left his job to found Pencils of Promise. ( The organization was built on several powerful principals, including transparency and a vision that it is “For Purpose” rather than just “Non-Profit.”

To date, Pencils has built more than 50 schools in developing nations and Adam has an aggressive goal to build another 50 this year.

Adam wrapped his speech with two quotes that I’ll hold onto forever.

The first: “Big dreams start with small unreasonable acts.” Adam describes himself as an impossible-ist, a person who believes in the impossible.

The second was: “Make small decisions with your mind, but make big ones with your heart.”

Children all over the world are grateful for Adam’s heart.

Have you seen a speaker or learned of an organization that tugged on a heartstring?

Join the discussion now.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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