Fortune.com selects the most compelling short essays, anecdotes, and author interviews from “250 Words,” a site developed by Simon & Schuster to explore the best new business books—wherever they may be published.
FORTUNE — For this installment, 250 Words’ Sam McNerney sits down with Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise, an award-winning nonprofit organization that has broken ground on more than 200 schools around the world. Braun is the author of the new book The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, published this week by Scribner.
Sam talks to Braun about the origins of Pencils of Promise, his experience as an employee at Bain & Company, and how entrepreneurs can harness social media.
McNerney: In the beginning of The Promise of a Pencil you document some of your early travels around the world. In each country that you visited you asked one child, “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?” Tell us about the answer that became the impetus for PoP.
Braun: When I initially decided to travel around the world, my driving force was the desire to leave everything that I thought knew behind, opening myself fully to experience the different cultures in which I was going to come into contact with. I encountered a young boy begging in India, and he had such a simple and unexpected answer to my question. His reply was “a pencil,” and it struck me in a way that I cannot explain. I decided then and there that offering children the opportunity of education would help them reach their potential far more than anything else that they could be given.
You took a job at Bain & Company after you graduated from college. Your time there contrasted with your life as an entrepreneur. What did you learn at Bain—in terms of skills and life lessons—that helped you develop PoP?
My time at Bain & Company taught me how great companies operate and the value of culture. I honed my skills in those areas and applied them to building a successful company aimed at making a difference in the world.
I enjoyed reading about one of PoP early contributors, Chelsea Canada. Could you tell the story about how you met her and how she embodied the growth PoP experienced early on?
Chelsea Canada is the perfect example of how powerful of an impact one person can make. I met Chelsea at the first college speech I ever gave about PoP. Even though she was the only student to show up, her passion and interest in what PoP was doing started a ripple effect that made a profound long-term impact. It goes to show you just how much of a difference one person can make when they are invested in what they are doing.
One of my favorite parts of the book documents a brief exchange you had with a businessman who referred to PoP as a “project.” Tell us what you learned from that episode and why the label “nonprofit” is a misnomer.
I learned the power of language to craft perceptions of the world around us. By labeling ourselves with a term like “nonprofit,” we take the strength away from our work and instead focus on what we don’t do rather than what we actually are doing. I decided to advocate for calling mission-driven organizations “for-purpose” regardless of tax status, and fortunately it’s really caught on.
Social media played an important role for PoP — from the lucrative Chase Community Giving campaign to 17-year-old Kennedy Donnelly’s bike trip across America to raise money for PoP. Looking back, how do you think social media helped PoP?
One of the biggest challenges that you face when starting a new venture is gaining exposure. I knew that there was an astounding number of people across the globe that would want to be part of what PoP was doing, we just had to find them. Social media offers a quick way to reach a large amount of people. In short, social media has helped us spread the word about PoP, attracting passionate people with the power to spread our influence.
I sense that music plays an important role in your business and personal life. You write about listening to the Rolling Stones and the Raconteurs in Southeast Asia, encouraging your employees to include their playlists in their email signatures. Near the end of the book, you recount a charming moment when you danced with kids in Ghana. What’s the relationship between music, you, and PoP?
Music is the universal language that we all speak and connect through, and it also has the ability to tap into an emotional center that words alone can rarely touch. I’ve been a big music fan my entire life, and it’s helped catalyze and energize my days regardless of which country I’m in. I’ve always said that as long as I have a journal to write in and headphones in my ears, I’ll be a happy man.
Let’s say I’m in an office right now. I’m terribly bored and unsatisfied with my work. I make a good salary and I’m a hard-working employee, but something is missing. Do you have any advice for me?
Find that which speaks to you. Ask yourself “what makes me feel an undeniable, burning desire?” Discovering the answer to this question empowers you then to ask yourself the next question of “how can I use this passion to make a difference?” Then follow the 30 guiding steps that title each chapter of The Promise of a Pencil, and you’ll live your way into the story you want your life to tell.