The Kid Crusaders

Wesley Mann

Sometimes, just the idea of success can carve out your story," says Usher, 32, who started his New Look Foundation in 1999 to give underprivileged kids what they need most: opportunity. He would know. As a kid, the singer credits Boys & Girls Club for providing him with "a place to be and a reason to stay positive, because there was negativity all around." Now, his endeavor, founded on four leadership tenets -- talent, education, career and service -- has a partnership with Emory University's MBA program, an annual conference, the support of presidents (Clinton) and media titans (Turner) and a 98 percent high school graduation rate. Around the time Adam Braun's brother, Scooter, discovered Justin Bieber, the 27-year-old Brown grad saw the most impoverished corners of the globe while backpacking in 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. It was an incredibly transformative moment." Braun quit his finance job and started Pencils of Promise with $25. 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 phenom says. A quality education is on Questlove's mind, too. After watching the damning 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, the drummer for Roots and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (nee Ahmir Thompson, 40) was inspired to raise money for Harlem Village Academies, charter schools that boast top-tier performance while defying socio-economic expectations (74 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch). Growing up, Thompson attended a creative arts program, sidestepping public school in West Philadelphia, which he describes as "season four of The Wire but worse. … Forget an education, your goal was not to get stabbed, killed, raped, humiliated -- just to survive for seven hours," he says, adding that HVA's emphasis on teachers gets to the heart of the issue. "Success starts from the top, and our school system needs a complete retooling."