How to build a big organisation that solves even bigger problems
Adam Braun is the founder of college education programme, MissionU, having previously launched Pencils of Promise, a non-profit that has built nearly 400 schools around the world. His book The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change was a bestseller, and he coined the term “profitable purpose”. All of which makes him an ideal choice to be a judge at the social entrepreneurship competition The Chivas Venture global finals in LA this summer.
Braun’s journey to all this began while travelling abroad as a college student. He met a young boy begging on the streets of India, who when asked what he wanted most in the world, answered, “a pencil”. “When I saw how giving one child one pencil could make an actual difference, it motivated me to start the initiative,” Braun tells Esquire Middle East. He was just 25 at that time, and gave up a promising corporate career at Bain & Company to strike out on his own. He has since educated 70,000 students.
And as if that wasn’t a large enough mission to tackle, Braun has now founded MissionU, a for-profit social enterprise that offers “a college alternative for the 21st Century”. Braun felt compelled to act after meeting his now-wife, who had over $100,000 of student debt and wasn’t even able to complete her degree due to the financial hardship she was incurring. “When I saw just how broken our education model is in the US, and around the world, I wanted to do something about it,” he says of this latest project.
The concept could be a game-changer in the many countries where the onus is on students to pay upfront. MissionU works the other way round. There are zero tuition fees upfront, and the company instead takes 15 percent of income from students once they have been earning above $50,000 for three years. “It’s a true alignment because we are only successful when the student is successful,” says Braun.
To help students once they hit the job market, MissionU has partnerships with the likes of Spotify, Lyft, Uber and Warby Parker, who advise on the curriculum and get preferred access to top graduates. Braun is excited about the scalability potential of this venture. “We see the opportunity to eventually serve millions of students. And also to change the industry so that institutions are held accountable to the success of their students.”
The interesting thing about both of these huge ideas is that they began with a personal experience, which is something Braun recommends for everyone. “Identify a problem that you have a personal connection with and then find others who feel that same passion.”
The next step is based upon another lesson that Braun took from his corporate days. “Be willing to hold yourself accountable to results,” he insists. “In the non-profit space organisations aren’t always held to outcomes, and that doesn’t lead to transformational work.”
But before all this you must have the confidence to just start. “A lot of people are paralysed by the idea that you have to ask someone for permission to pursue an idea,” he insists. “No one is going to give you the license to go out and make that change.” He quotes Africa’s first female leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia since 2006: “If your dreams don’t scare you then they are not big enough”.
We finish the conversation by discussing the biggest challenge he has faced on his entrepreneurial journey. “It’s staying true to your vision in the moment of failure,” he replies. “There are so many dark moments in the journey where you hit a low point, but that’s when you have to push on through and recognise that you get a chance to fight again.”
This will be apt information for the Chivas The Venture finalists this summer, all of whom have innovative ideas where there is no playbook for success. When asked what he’s looking for as a winning idea, Braun gives two answers. “I’m looking for ideas that leverage emerging technologies to identify new solutions. But I’m also hopeful that there will be some low tech innovations. Sometimes we fall in love with the transformable ability of technologies and lose sight of the fact that the most effective solutions are in front of our faces.”
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