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Adam Braun on Pencils of Promise and How Justin Bieber Is 'Making the World Better'

Scooter and Adam Braun
Wesley Mann

THR's philanthropy special looks at the Bieber-supported organization, which has built 41 schools in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Around the time Adam Braun’s brother, Scott "Scooter" Braun, discovered Justin Bieber, the 27-year-old Brown grad saw the most impoverished corners of the globe with his own eyes while backpacking in more than 50 countries. “In India, I asked a boy begging, ‘If you could have anything, what would you want?’ He said a pencil, so I gave him mine, and he exploded with this big smile and an overwhelming sense of possibility,” Braun recounts. “It was an incredibly transformative moment for me.”

Braun had grown up in Connecticut, the grandson of holocaust survivors and brother to two boys from Mozambique adopted by his parents. The experience taught him “that we’re all part of a global citizenry,” he says. “It's our duty to take care of everybody else who’s a part of this and the single most impactful way I know of doing that is through education.”

And with that realization, Braun quit his finance job at Bain & Company and started Pencils of Promise in 2009. Two years later, Braun had built 41 schools in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala and raised more than $3 million, thanks in part to spokesman Bieber, who earmarked profits from his Someday perfume for the charity. “I could see how smart Adam was, but it was about the cause for me,” the teen phenom says. “I'm young, Pencils of Promise is a young charity and it's helping young people with schooling and education, so I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Of his brother’s ambition and desire to help, Scooter, himself a generous giver to variety of causes and campaigns, says: “Everything on Adam’s list he executes. I think he's brilliant. He's forging his own path and doing incredibly well.”

The two brothers will appear at a gala dinner to benefit Pencils of Promise this November. This week, they’re featured in the Hollywood Reporter’s philanthropy special.

The Hollywood Reporter: What was the impetus for your trip around the world after college?

Adam Braun: I guess to get out of my comfort zone before going down the traditional career path. To kind of say, what else is out there? I wanted to be uncomfortable and see what life is like in the developing world.

THR: You asked kids from all over the world what they wanted most. In general, did their answers surprise you?

Braun: I would expect to hear [them say] a Playstation or a flatscreen TV or an iPod, but the first girl said “to dance.” It took me aback and it changed the thinking of it. Then the next kid in China said she wanted a book. A boy in Hong Kong  gave my favorite answer: he said he wanted magic. But when I got to India, that’s where the poverty was most devastating -- children begging on the street, carrying babies… It's really hard on you. It was tough for me to reconcile it. The boy that I happened to ask in that country, he was probably 8 or 9 years old, begging on the street and he said he wanted a pencil. That was it.

THR: When you returned and entered the job market, did the skills you picked up in finance help set the foundation for Pencils of Promise?

Braun: I took the job at Bain because the company is notorious for having the top post-undergrad training for future business leaders. I worked there for two years trying to learn as much as I could to one day start this non-profit that was going to build schools and then empower a youth movement. Then just before my 25th birthday I kind of had this idea to start an organization called Pencils of Promise because that first pencil led to many pencils. Now, in every country I go to, I pass out pencils which lead to conversations, usually with parents.

THR: What have you learned from those parents?

Braun: That probably 80 to 90 percent of them are most concerned with education for their children. So that's always been my ambition.

THR: Was it a difficult decision to leave the executive track?

Braun: I first left for nine months, went unpaid, threw on my backpack, traveled to Laos and just started meeting people on the ground there. I met with education administrative officials, visited villages, local partners, and as I was doing it, I would post about it on Facebook. This movement just started around it and as it took off, I came back to my job. Once we built one school and had two more under construction, I couldn't reconcile working at Bain anymore. Management was supportive of me leaving. They were like, “Look, if you're willing to give up that much money…” I knew it could be done and I knew that this organization was going to become something really special.

THR: How much has Pencils of Promise grown?

Braun: The movement grew really quickly as did the staff and our presence on the ground. Then with the support of Justin and my brother, it almost put nitrous fuel behind it. They’ve obviously been tremendously supportive and big advocates of the organization. Scott is the chair of our advisory board and Justin is a spokesperson. We just broke ground on our 41st school and we have a few hundred thousand people across the globe that our part of what we call the PoP movement. The goal is now to build, to break ground on 100 schools by the end of 2012. I think that it's possible.

THR: Tell us about your brother’s involvement…

Braun: He’s used every opportunity he’s had to help this organization grow. One day, Justin, Scott and I were talking and they asked, “How much does it cost to build a school?” I said $20,000. They said: "What would you think about donating one dollar per ticket from the second leg of Justin's North American tour and we try to build 15 schools on Justin's tour?” And so we did. He and Justin were able to turn several hundred thousand fans into several hundred thousand philanthropists with each of them giving one dollar to the organization.

THR: Did your upbringing instill this passion for giving?

Braun: Scott and I have a very similar mindset in that we feel really fortunate to have been brought up in a great family and having a great education… but I think it starts with knowing that our grandparents were holocaust survivors. That was really a big part of our identity growing up. And the fact that my father arrived in this country on a boat and he was able to get here because my grandfather prioritized his own education and did whatever it took to get his family over here. My dad was able to become a dentist and my mom was able to become an orthodontist -- they were able to advance themselves through education, so those values were instilled in us.

THR: How many countries have you traveled to and is there a place still on your wish list?

Braun: There's a bunch. I've been to, like, 70 countries now, but there are probably 150 I haven't seen. As an organization, we're currently in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala. If we keep growing, then in 2013 we'll be in a place to enter an African country, so I’d like to spend a lot more time exploring the African continent.

THR: Justin Bieber is popular all over the world. As someone who’s watched his and your brother's meteoric rise from the sidelines, how do you see it?

Braun: I think you have the intersection of Justin, who is the most talented and charismatic person I've ever met in my life, with Scott, who is almost as talented as Justin is, just in different areas. The fact that both of them are grounded in values is what's enabled Scott and Justin to become so successful. It's not just a matter of talent meeting talent, it's the fact that it's genuine and authentic and it's making the world better.