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President’s Lecture Series: Pencils of Promise founder, Adam Braun Talks Family History and Inspiration

By Noell Saunders

President's Lecture Series speaker Adam Braun shared his journey of becoming an entrepreneur through his family's dark history, images and videos to a packed audience at the Ted Constant Convocation Center Tuesday night.

Braun, a direct descendant of Hungarian-Jews, said some of his family members perished in the Holocaust. His father lost two brothers and his own father in concentration camps. Braun's grandmother whom he called "Ma" was taken out her home and school at age 14 and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp with her family. Her family was then killed. "Ma" spent 14 months in three different concentrations camps.

Braun said his family's unyielding drive to get an education, despite extreme adversity, resonated with him.

"It was this resounding belief you could take everything from an individual but you could not remove their ability to develop a better life for themselves," Braun told the audience.

After watching the film "Baraka" (which depicted various cultures in 24 developing countries), in his sophomore year of college, Braun became inspired to travel and leave his comfort zone.

"True self discovery begins where your comfort zone ends," Braun said. "It was a consideration of leaving my comfort zone that led me to not think about what I wanted to be in the world but who I wanted to be in the world."

He began sprinting down the path to a successful Wall Street career when he was just 16 years old while working summers at hedge fund firms. But while studying abroad in India, Braun met a young boy begging on the streets. When Braun asked him what he wanted most in the world, he simply answered, "a pencil."

This simple request became the inspiration for his award-winning nonprofit Pencils of Promise, the organization Braun would leave global management consulting firm Bain & Company several years later to launch.

"There was this beauty, wisdom and simplicity in requesting a pencil because he was asking for a tool of self empowerment," he said. "I realized that happiness was not found in the largest mansions in the country; happiness was often found in the little one room shack on the side of a remote village."

Pencils of Promise builds schools and increases access to education for children in developing countries. The organization has broken ground on more than 300 schools around the world. Braun encouraged students to push through opposition and naysayers when trying to find their purpose. Braun's experience is recounted in his book, "The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change" which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list

"Often, the problems that people tell you are too difficult to solve are the ones that are most worth solving," Braun said.

By the age of 31, Braun was named to Business Insider's "40 under 40" and Wired Magazine's "50 People Who Are Changing the World." He was also selected as one of the World Economic Forum's first 10 Global Shapers.

Braun has been a featured speaker at the White House, the United Nations, the Clinton Global initiative and Fortune 500 companies. He has over 500,000 social media followers and is one of America's most engaging entrepreneurs.

In 2015, Braun received the nation's most prestigious award for public service, the Jefferson Award. Braun also joined a coalition to address global changes with Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu and several Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

Braun assured the audience that nothing comes without challenges. He's been asked many questions about his organization but there was one in particular he said he kept receiving: "What about our education system here at home?"

He said, at the time, he didn't have an answer. Braun believed America had a good education system relative to what he saw internationally until he met his wife who grew up in poverty and had to leave school to take care of her family. She ultimately ended up in debt without a degree.

Braun said his wife inspired a new initiative he's currently working on called Mission U, a one-year program that prepares young people for jobs through a debt-free process.

At the lecture, Braun was awarded the Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian award.

The annual Wallenberg Lecture is sponsored by the Marc and Connie Jacobson Philanthropic Foundation. Speakers for the Wallenberg Lecture are chosen by the University. They must be humanitarians - those who are "making the world a better place" - balanced in their philosophical beliefs and not at either extreme of the social spectrum.

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