How grassroot parties grew into the non-profit Pencils of Promise

I keep seeing Pencils of Promise everywhere. What is this organization and how do they get everywhere? I have the creator here today to find out.

Pencils of Promise is the non-profit created by Adam Braun. It helps build schools and increase access to education in developing countries.

Adam has recently left the organization and launched MissionU, a one-year program that gives you the skills and experience needed to launch a successful career.

 
Adam Braun

Adam Braun

Pencils of Promise

Pencils of Promise is the non-profit that helps build schools and increase access to education in developing countries.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, where I’ve interviewed over a thousand entrepreneurs about how they’ve built their businesses. My goal here is to understand what they did that allowed them to grow so fast, that allowed them to have such big impact.

Today I’m talking to entrepreneur whose company I started to notice because the other entrepreneurs who I interviewed have associated themselves with his nonprofit. I remember, for example, there was an entrepreneur who I interviewed who had a journal, a journal that was going to help make your year much more productive. I looked at his Kickstarter campaign and part of the money was going to go to Pencils of Promise. I said, “Huh, I keep seeing this freaking Pencils of Promise everywhere. What is this organization? How do they get everywhere?” I just kept like that question in the back of my head for a long time.

And then one of Gary Vaynerchuk’s people emailed me and said, “Hey, Andrew, do you know the founder of Pencils of Promise?” I said, “No, I’d love to.” He goes, “Well, Adam Braun is his name and he’d love to come on and do an interview on Mixergy. He can talk about Pencils of Promise, and he can tell you about his new for profit organization.” I said, “Hell yeah, let’s do it tomorrow.” He said, “Hang on, dude. We’ll book it. We’ll make it happen.” So today we’ve got it here.

Pencils of Promise is the nonprofit that nonprofit that Adam Braun created. It helps build schools and increase access to education in developing countries. He has recently left it, and on March 21st, 2017, he officially launched MissionU. MissionU is–it’s finally an organization that understands what you’ve recognized if you’ve gone to college. You go to college and you see a lot of people aren’t actually graduating in four years. It takes them a little bit longer. Then when they do, they don’t end up getting jobs where they use what they learned in school, right? I noticed that. I know I didn’t.

And then to cap it all, they actually leave with tens of thousands of dollars in school debt. I remember having that over my head for years. So MissionU is a college alternative for the 21st century. It prepares students for jobs of today and tomorrow debt-free, which is kind of interesting because they’ve got this angle where they come back and they let you pay when you’re ready to pay. I don’t know how they can trust that you’ll come back and actually pay. We’ll find out in this interview.

We’ll do it all thanks to two great sponsors. The first is a company called Toptal. They help you hire your next great developer. The second is a returning sponsor called ActiveCampaign. They ensure that your email is actually smart and out there bringing you new customers.

Adam, good to have you on here.

Adam: Thank you so much.

Andrew: You know my first question to you is going to be how did you get Justin Bieber to support Pencils of Promise. And then I freaking read your book and I understand it. You’re not only related to his manager. You gave his manager his name. Can you talk about that?

Adam: Yeah. Sure. Justin was discovered by my brother, my brother Scott, my older brother, who in high school, a friend of him was visiting, a childhood friend who had the name Scott. One night over the dinner table, that friend said, “Hey, Scooter, pass me this.” My brother said, “I hate that nickname. Don’t call me Scooter.” Of course, like any good younger brother, at the age of 15 years old, I heard that and thought, “I’m going to start calling him Scooter.”

I did it. I got my friends to do it. He really despised it, but he went off to college. I guess in his freshman dorm, he just started introducing himself as Scooter and started to adopt the name. When our family went to visit him months later, we asked for Scott and knew who was I talking about, then Scooter was born from there.

Andrew: That’s fantastic. And so he discovered Justin Bieber, right? He helped grow Justin Bieber. I read that–you read that, you must have, that fan-freaking-tastic New Yorker article about him.

Adam: Yeah. It was great. I mean, my brother is an incredible, incredible person. Obviously he’s well-known for Justin, for helping grow his career, but now he manages a ton of really, really influential and major artists and also has done a tremendous amount of work in philanthropy and investing.

Andrew: What other artists has he worked with?

Adam: He managed Kanye West, Ariana Grande. He just recently signed on David Guetta, Cody Simpson. There’s a whole bunch of them. Truthfully, there are too many for me to remember right now.

Andrew: All right, a really impressive lineup of people. But you already had traction with Pencils of Promise before Justin Bieber signed on, before he even discovered Justin Bieber, right?

Adam: Yeah. I founded Pencils of Promise in late 2008. The goal was really just to build one school and honor my grandmother. She was turning 80. I put $25 in a bank account and asked my friends to give $20 at the door for a Halloween birthday party. That was really at the beginning.

My friends and I organized these grassroots parties in New York and said, “Rather than spending your money at a bar, spend it on something that’s going to transform a child’s life.” Our first 10 schools were built off of contributions of $100 or less from young people in their teens and 20s as we were really growing rapidly, we were still in our very, very early days.

As of today, Pencils of Promise has built over 400 schools around the world. But we were already growing and gaining some traction. Justin came along and was super interested in what we were building and, fortunately, he became an incredible supporter and ambassador and he and his brother have really helped shine a tremendous spotlight on the work of the organization as well as so many others.

Andrew: The idea for the name came from your trip where you said, “I’m going to ask people what do they want?” One girl said, “I want to dance.” You said, “Really, you’d want to dance, not an iPod?” She said, “Yeah, I want to dance.” Another person said, “I want a book.” One of the kids you talked to said, “I want a pencil.” What’s the importance of a pencil?

Adam: One thing I’ve shared with a lot of people, I learned this statistic and it just blew my mind, but it made so much so sense, that the average pencil holds 40,000 words. We look at it as kind of this static instrument, but ultimately it’s a tool for self-empowerment. I think that it’s really important from a symbolic standpoint for us as an organization to remember that our job is not to give education. It’s to enable education. It’s one of those spaces, having spent now a decade in education, where it’s very different from health. You can’t inject somebody and suddenly make them better. They have to have the commitment, the dedication, the willingness, the effort demonstrated themselves.

Oftentimes it’s really about giving people those opportunities and resources. So the pencil was not only the thing that this one young boy asked for in India, begging on the streets because he hadn’t really been to school ever before and he saw other young children with it, but also found tremendous symbolism in that request.

Also, the other thing is, especially in my early 20s, I was pretty introverted. I fell in love with backpacking and travelling. Oftentimes friends didn’t want to go for four months into the most rural parts of the developing world not know where you were sleeping every night usually in $2 and $3 guest houses.

Andrew: Go figure.

Adam: But I loved it. So I found that I needed ways to build new friendships. I realized that if I just carried pens and pencils with me, they’re incredibly low cost items, but I could walk into a market and hand a pencil or a pen to a young girl and she would bring me over to her mother and I could sit with her mother and talk to her at her stall in that market and hear about her story and her dreams and aspirations for her daughter. You bring a handful of pens and pencils into a village in the developing world and suddenly you’re the most popular there. So I always carried pens and pencils with me as I travel.

Andrew: I walked into this interview with a curiosity about a few things. The first is like why get into this. We’ll talk about KKR and Bain and a couple of other things in relation to that. Why do this? The second one is so you have the idea. You want to start a school. How do you even know how to find the teachers? How do you know how to put this third thing together?

The third is I saw even going back to your early website, one of the first things you were looking for was not just money, but volunteers. I’m curious, how do you organize all these volunteers. And then I want to evolve into how you discovered this new business and why you want to take it on and leave this nonprofit that you became known for.

Why don’t we start with this–did you ever watch the movie “Barbarians at the Gate?”

Adam: No. I haven’t, actually.

Andrew: You didn’t? “Barbarians at the Gate” is fantastic. I grew up watching this thing over and over.

Adam: It’s at the top of my list now.

Andrew: It’s about these guys who decide they’re going to take over RJR Nabisco with other people’s money. The group that wins this epic battle in this HBO movie was Kohlberg Kravis and Roberts, KKR. You freaking got a job offer from them.

Adam: No. I didn’t have a job offer from KKR, but I was on the path. 80% of Bain consultants–well, 80% of Bain Capital hires come from Bain and KKR recruits really heavily out of Bain.

Andrew: Well, this is like the promise land when it comes to finance. Didn’t you–I know that when someone would say to me in school when I had this passion for finance like you did, “Why don’t you go backpacking?” I go, “Screw that. That’s going to take me off the path to become a bajillionaire.” Did you feel any of that in the back of your head? We all have these conflicts? Did you feel any of that? “Why am I going to this nonprofit when I can be a bajillionaire?”

Adam: Truthfully at that stage of my life, my commitment to the work that I believed was my genuine purpose on Earth was so clear to me that there was no part of me that really second guessed it, truthfully.

Andrew: How do you get to that place? How do you get to the place where you know what you’re doing is essentially the best thing for you to be doing with your life?

Adam: The truth is it takes a lot of work. It’s an intentional process. So my experience was really kind of two distinct practices. The first was I really believe your path to self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends. The first was consistently forcing myself out of my comfort zone. So that meant backpacking in particular. I was really uncomfortable a lot of those nights. I was in new environments. There was a lot of uncertainty. Some really bad shit happened to me in some of these countries?

Andrew: Like what?

Adam: I was held up at gunpoint in Guatemala. Not held up, the guy chased me with a gun, actually, and I ran away, which was even scarier. I was kind of surrounded by an angry mob in Nepal by myself at one point in time, and I genuinely thought they were going to beat me to death just because I was kind of an outsider. I’ve been hospitalized and put on an IV in Laos in probably the most destitute hospital you can possibly imagine. I’ve had three really bad motorbike accidents, bad stuff.

Andrew: Yeah. And you know what? The book I’m referring to is “The Promise of a Pencil.” I’ve got it up on my screen here on the right. Every chapter it’s like, “Oh no, Adam is sick again.” First of all, in the beginning, “Adam’s backpacking one more place and Adam’s throwing up in a whole new country.” I get how that pushes you out of your comfort zone. That’s a lot of really solid examples of being outside your comfort zone. But how does that help you find your mission in life? What is it about that?

Adam: Well, I think that most of the time that we spend interacting with other people is based on what we are, not who we are. So I’ve given a lot of talks in which I ask an audience, “When you meet a stranger later today or tomorrow at a café, at a bar, in some social setting, what’s the first question that you get asked or that you ask that question?” With 99% frequency, people in that room will say, “What do you do?” That’s the starting place for almost every single adult conversation we have is, “What do you do?”

And ultimately it’s really about what you are based on a series of professional attributes that we start to categorize people rather than who they are. My path starting at 21 was to recognize that that was starting to happen and that I didn’t know who I wanted to be. I knew I was interested in finance and that I was pretty good at some of the skills that were necessary there. I didn’t know who I wanted to be. So the second part of this practice, one was leaving my comfort zone.

The second, which I think is absolutely essential, is I kept a journal throughout this entire process and I still have one with me in my backpack right now. To this day, I have like dozens of these journals filled up over the years, and I think it’s really important that you allow yourself to write by hand your kind of deepest thoughts with no intention of sharing them with anybody or having them read by another person.

When I started backpacking, this was 12 years ago or so, there was no social media. So you didn’t do things so that you could share them with other people. Maybe you posted your photos on like Shutterfly or something like that back then. But I found and–yeah, right, throwback–I still find that the practice of writing by hand in a journal for yourself allows you to tap into this concept of kind of your internal conscience and kind of the listener.

Andrew: What’s your process for tapping that into conscience that allows you then to find your path? What is it? Is it just like train of thought, whatever comes to your mind you write down, or do you have anything more organized than that?

Adam: I try to have the discipline to not write what I did and almost like a stream of current events. I think that’s the default for anyone who’s keeping a journal in any capacity. It’s like, “Today I went here. Tomorrow I’m going to go there.” I try and instead really focus on what truths did I learn in the last day either about myself or about the world? How can I articulate that through my hand into this pen onto this piece of paper in a way that feels honest and sincere to the inner voice that I have inside of my–

Andrew: What truth did I discover today? What’s an example of a truth you discovered in the last few days? That seems like a really big thing to uncover.

Adam: One truth that I’ve discovered in the last few days is that when you have something really built up in your head, the highs are never going to be as high as you anticipate they will be and the lows might actually surprise you at how low they can go, but you always find a way to rebound and get back to those highs.

Andrew: What made you realize that recently?

Adam: All the hard work going into launching MissionU. I’ve been working on this for a while now, almost two years. You’re catching me on a great day. Today is the day that it gets released. But you try and craft it in your mind so that every piece of the puzzle is going to work out perfectly and inevitably some things shift and you can respond to that with, “Oh my gosh, that phrasing didn’t get through the way I wanted it to get through,” or, “We didn’t send out our video at the exact perfect time for perfect conversion and optimization.”

But you realize that you can only control the things that you can–there’s only so much you can control. The things that are out of your control, you have to be willing to accept that the world is going to shape them in a way beyond the ability of just your hands.

Andrew: I see. So you just journal this every single day. One of the things that surprised me about your book was before one of your trips, you wrote a will and you made your mom sign it as a witness, which has got to suck for a mom.

Adam: That was terrible.

Andrew: And I get like who you’re giving to the money too, everyone else, but you’re willing then, you say in your will, to give your brother your journals. That tells me that maybe you’re not writing things that are deeply personal in them and maybe a little more analytical, maybe a little more than a Medium post but less than what I imagine would be a journal you wouldn’t want someone who you stuck with the name Scooter for the rest of his life to see.

Adam: Well, in a lot of ways, my sister as well, but my brother is really my best friend. The other thing is at that point in time, I certainly hadn’t written a book, but I was kind of known in at least our family and some concentric circles as a writer. I’d always been writing. I’d shared some of the writing I’d done, not the depth of personal writing that was in my journals, but I had shared some pieces with family and what not and I’d write these really massive blogs that would get shared around back then they were just emails, before they were blogs. I’d literally meet distant cousins and they’d be like, “My parents read me your stories of your travels,” when I was like eight years old.

So my brother was always saying to me, “I want your journals.” And I always said no. I had like no money, I was 21. I said, “Whatever I have can go to the Cambodian Children’s Fund,” the organization I’d really fallen in love with. I can’t remember what I gave to who, but it’s in the book. I just remember one of the things is my brother was like, “Look, I want your journals. At some point, I want your journals. These need to be public. I was like, “All right, I’ll throw this in there.”

Andrew: You know what? There’s a performance space here in San Francisco that had people read their journals from high school. It was such a hilarious experience because it’s like goofy things like who you’re in love with.

Adam: That would be mortifying.

Andrew: It’s so mortifying it gives you douche chills and at the same time, you see yourself in it and you give yourself permission to have felt those things without feeling bad for them. I’d love to read your journals. If you die, can I also read your journals?

Adam: If my brother approves.

Andrew: I’ve got to go through him now.

Adam: I think at this point my wife is the first line of defense. So she can decide.

Andrew: All right. So the next thing I’m curious about is how you figured out–I get raising the money, strangely, I understand it. But figuring out how to put together a school is what I’m curious about. Let me just take a moment to talk about my sponsor and then I’ll ask you about the details of how do you get the teacher, how do you know what you’re going to teach people and so on, especially with there have been issues where other nonprofits have built schools and then walked away and they didn’t end up teaching.

But the first sponsor I want to talk about is a company called ActiveCampaign. Anyone who’s listening to me knows that I used to promote ActiveCampaign and then they stopped because we only do like these small tests for some people and then we want big commitments from them. ActiveCampaign tested the audience and they came back and they said, “We want to buy a bunch of ads from you because your audience likes it.”

And Adam, truthfully, when you told me you were an ActiveCampaign person, I was hoping you had a super positive experience you could lean on for this ad, but you told me, “Andrew, truthfully, I have an issue with them.” I thought let’s just be open. If you don’t mind talking about what the incompatibility is, I want to be completely open with my audience about my sponsors. So what’s the incompatibility that you have with ActiveCampaign as a customer of theirs?

Adam: Sure. They are still my main email service provider for AdamBraun.com, my main website where I write blogs and share talks and what not with people. And they’ve been fantastic there. But one of the challenges that I found having done a lot of public speaking growing Pencils of Promise, now about to be speaking a lot about MissionU is that I can never really follow up with people afterwards.

Eventually I found this great tool in LeadDigits, which is part of Leadpages, where I could essentially offer people access to a downloadable free eBook, which everybody seemed to be interested in, and said just kind of enter this little number and this code and I’ll send you this eBook, if you want it, it’s free and you can share it with anybody you want. And it didn’t integrate very well with ActiveCampaign.

It’s supposed to kind of capture those emails and send them over. We had a lot of challenges and that was months ago. I’m hopefully that they resolve it. They know that it was an issue that I was dealing with. Their customer service did respond really well, but I just don’t know that it’s integrated.

Andrew: That is may not fully be integrated with that. Still, I asked you then you’re sticking with them, what do you like about them that keeps you really them?

Adam: Yeah. I think they have a robust set of tools. All of the different kind of action-based automations are really effective.

Andrew: What does that mean, action-based automations?

Adam: If somebody comes into your website on one specific part of a landing page versus another, if somebody clicks on a button and a second email they receive, then it triggers a certain email versus another. So you can kind of really cater your messaging based on the actions an individual takes. So that’s really great. I think they’re very reasonably priced as well. They’re kind of middle of the road. Pricing, I try not to go with the cheapest because you usually pay for what you get.

Andrew: Yeah.

Adam: But overall, I’ve been happy.

Andrew: Yeah. It’s one of the things I admire about you. I’ll get back to ActiveCampaign in a second, but you think like a marketer, you think like a social media person.

Adam: 100%.

Andrew: You think like somebody who’s using all the tools which is why your organization was in my world all the time. I’m not used to nonprofits working like that. I’m used to nonprofits being the nice little people in the corner who don’t do jack who you wish would just update they’re website so you can give them money on their site.

Adam: 100%.

Andrew: So just to close out this ActiveCampaign spot, that’s one of the reasons why a lot of people stick with ActiveCampaign. They really are good at allowing you to say if somebody clicks this link, then treat them that way. So, for example, they keep clicking on the heavy coats articles on your site, then give them emails about the heavy coats and not the light coats because they’re in a colder environment.

If somebody has bought from you, tag them as a buyer and treat them as a buyer and start messaging them via email like you would a buyer and don’t keep offering them 10% discount if they’re going to buy because that’s kind of an insulting thing. So it allows you to do all these customizations and they do it using this really beautiful flowchart, really nice workflow.

I’ve talked to so many people here who I’ve interviewed at Mixergy who use ActiveCampaign. They told us that Mixergy was their number one most effective source for getting new customers. It’s largely because their software was so freaking good. They’ve definitely updated it over the years. It’s also because they’re giving our audience the second month free. They’re giving you two free one on ones with their platform consultants and they’re going to do free migrations.

So, if you hate your platform, you can switch over to them. Go check them out at this special URL they set up just for Mixergy listeners. It’s ActiveCampaign.com/Mixergy. Even if you do nothing else, go there and take a look at their workflows because it will show you how marketing should be done.

All right. I’m grateful to them for sponsoring. So coming back to that, how do you know what to teach, how to get the right teachers in there? That’s a heavy responsibility to put together a syllabus, to put together an understanding of what your teacher should be showing your students.

Adam: Yeah. I think every entrepreneur has a different approach to building companies. Some think that they have to have all the answers and can never show weakness and they need to demonstrate they’re this brilliant thought leader that has every answer from day one and never show the cracks.

One of the most important things I learned in my time at Bain is what when you are willing to be open and honest about where your shortcomings are and you build a culture internally within that organization that celebrates you going to others and saying, “Can you teach me this?” and you create a culture that fosters personal growth in that capacity, that incredible things happen.

So my ambition in really setting and driving the culture of Pencils of Promise was to replicate that. So a question like, “How do you train the teachers?” it was very easy for me. I’m not a teacher. I wasn’t an educator. I have a deep passion for education. I think I’ve become incredibly knowledgeable about space, but I don’t put together a syllabus for a classroom.

So I went out and I found individuals who had backgrounds in preschool and primary education. We developed great partnerships with local education ministries. We started to develop partnerships with leading NGOs and different organizations that had really deep experience. Then eventually, we just kind of hired in house some real teacher training experts in particular.

Andrew: But at first it was, “I’m going to put the money together for the schools and I know how much it’s going to cost. I need you as the NGO. I need you as these other organizations to come and tell us what to teach.” Is that right?

Adam: Well, because all of our schools are public schools, these are not private schools that we are independently running, so we partner with local education ministries. They’re setting the curriculum. They are really kind of taking ownership of the school once it’s completed, even though it’s a partnership between us, the actual village themselves and then the local education ministry. But one thing that we found over time is that we can certainly add a lot of benefit and support by building out really, really high quality and robust teacher training programs. That was the biggest deficiency.

Building a classroom is absolutely essential. Building that whole school is certainly important so they have a safe structure in which to learn, but if the teachers aren’t of significant quality and training and commitment, then it all falls apart. So now we actually invest a tremendous amount of money into ongoing teacher programs and student support programs, e-reader programs a lot more than just physically building schools, but it’s really critical for us to really support these schools for the long-run.

Andrew: And your vision, how does it differ from traditional education? Or was it more traditional education?

Adam: With Pencils of Promise, I think it was certainly in line with traditional education. When you’re dealing with primary ed, and in particular focused in rural parts of the developing world, the goal is literacy. The goal is just the foundations of being able to literally read, write and do math because that is such a huge hurdle in these contexts where very few of the parents are literate.

They’re primary sustenance farmers and maybe seamstresses. There’s no kind of recognition of opportunities beyond their village because literacy is the pathway to that opportunity. So, for us, it was certainly more in the kind of traditional education, I would say, space, whereas MissionU is very different.

Andrew: So I really like you. I really liked your book. Still, I had to just research the negative stuff in preparation for this interview. The only thing that I found, unfortunately, because I like to do deep research and it tells me that I’ve been thorough when I see some negative stuff. The only thing that I found was that you made $180,000 a year and that the new head of Pencils of Promise is doing over $250,000 a year. For a company that wants to keep overhead reasonable–I know you’ve talked about why you don’t want to keep it too low, was that high?

Adam: So just to clarify–my salary was–I’m no longer the active CEO, I asked to bring on a new one and co-led that search with our board member–my salary, which anybody can look up, was very much in line or lower than industry standards. We always had independent board members who assessed–I don’t set my own salary, our board does. I recused myself from any of those conversations. But my salary was consistently well below that.

I think maybe in my final year, the compensation was at that level. I think if anything it’s probably reflective that as a founder, you’re willing to take the lower salary and in order to bring in a really strong executive, our new CEO, Michael, really has a 30-year career, primarily in building entrepreneurial ventures in the education space. And even for him, it was a really significant salary drop, but it was important for us to stay competitive in hiring him.

One thing that was absolutely critical for us was to maintain a high quality and industry leading ratio of cash to overhead versus programs. If you look at Pencils of Promise historically, we’ve always been honestly transparent about all of our financials. We always maintained a ratio above 80% to programs versus overhead and that’s in line with what’s kind of traditionally known as best practice in the industry.

Andrew: And individuals’ money goes directly to the schools. So if I were to donate, it would go directly to the school.

Adam: If you donate online, 100% of the money that you’re donating goes directly into our programs. For our overhead, we have things like our gala and some of our corporate sponsors, but we allow any individual to make that distinction by just donating online.

Andrew: Got it. Yeah. So now you can bring in Michael Dougherty, who’s the CEO. In the beginning, you were basically looking for anyone to volunteer. It’s really hard to coordinate employees who you’re paying full-time. I imagine it must have been so much harder to coordinate volunteers who aren’t necessarily the best at what you’re hiring them for because you’re taking what you can get. I always wondered how did you organize those people? How did you keep them from wasting your time and theirs?

Adam: It was challenging, but most of these people that we were working with as volunteers, it became very clear very early whether they were huge value additive or they just wanted to show up and sign some people up at an event. Those that were really significantly value additive and committed, for the most part had really strong backgrounds. Keep in mind, this is 2008, 2009, 2010. These are folks who otherwise would have had great jobs in our economy, but the economy was suffering. So they were looking for something else to contribute to.

The other thing is a lot of our interns were high school and college interns at the time. I think that if you have people who understand how to manage one another–I had Bain training, some of the other people had Bain training. My first COO was a very good friend of mine. He came from Deloitte. We had the kind of infrastructural knowledge about how to do this.

But the other thing is–and this is something that I’ve coached a lot of nonprofit folks about before and advised them on is you have to be willing to fire volunteers. It’s a really counterintuitive thought, that you would fire someone who you’re not paying. But if you don’t hold them accountable to delivering on the value that you expect of them, then they end up becoming energy vampires. They kind of drain you of energy.

Andrew: Yeah.

Adam: And your organization of time and energy and resources. I think in those early days–even now, Pencils of Promise has a ton of volunteers in various capacities. It’s important to treat every person as if they are a valued contributor and then hold them accountable.

Andrew: How do you fire someone who’s a volunteer?

Adam: You tell them their services are no longer needed.

Andrew: That’s it. We don’t–that’s it.

Adam: You set goals for them. You set deliverables for them. You set milestones around them just like as if they were a paid employee. You say, “This is what we’re expecting you to deliver on in this time.” Oftentimes, someone might have a bad attitude or something else and you just have to say to them, “Thank so much. We really appreciate the time and effort that you’ve put in to supporting us, but we’re not going to need your support going forward. Thank you so much. We wish you best of luck.”

Andrew: What software did you use to coordinate these goals and keep track of it?

Adam: I don’t know that we ever used an active software for goal setting. Over time, Salesforce became the backbone of Pencils of Promise. We’re huge mega users of Salesforce for nonprofits. That was really essential for us. But I’ve never been a big person for active tracking. Probably Google Docs over time became the main method. That was always more our COO really kind of leading than my parts.

Andrew: But everyone who was a volunteer knew what they were expected to do or most people, what they were expected, what the deliverables were and whether they were hitting them or not.

Adam: Yeah. I also don’t want to act like we weren’t an early stage nonprofit startup, where I was 25, 26 and most of our team was somewhere between the ages of 16 and 23. So we were figuring it out as we went, but I think we always operated with really the head of a nonprofit that was going to held accountable to results and the heart of a great nonprofit that was focused on the humanitarian ideals that drove us to get involved.

Andrew: You guys are really active on social media. You actually said, “Look, we made two bets. The first was a big bet on the ride of social media and the second was a bet on the rise of cause marketing.” Can you talk about what you did in social media in the beginning that allowed you guys to grow so much?

Adam: Sure. We just focused on building community. It was one on one conversations with anybody that interacted with us. So if you tweeted at us, if you posted about us on Facebook, we could track that. We reached out and we thanked you in some capacity and we acknowledged you.

We also used to run things like we would call Pop Star of the Month. So anybody that was in our community and engaging with us, we would nominate I think like five high school students and we’d say, “You are now the potential Pop Star of the Month nominee and you have to have your friends vote on our Facebook page whether you’re going to win or not.” Suddenly, they were reaching out to their friends and saying, “Vote for me on the Pencils of Promise page,” because you had to like the page in order to vote.

So a lot of, I think, creative tactics to build community, not kind of shouting from the megaphones like we’re Pencils of Promise, but instead kind of going into those one on one conversations that made people feel valued.

Andrew: I see. I can see why Gary Vaynerchuk would like working with you. That does seem like his type of thing.

Adam: Yeah. Totally.

Andrew: What’s an example of something really big that one of the volunteers was able to help you guys accomplish?

Adam: Volunteers, one thing is we had a guy who was–it turns out that he was the CEO of a company that was a large subcontractor. He said, “I want to help,” and I said, “Great.” I didn’t even know what he did. I just knew he was in construction. He came by our office and we spent some time together and he said, “I want to have my teams build out your actual physical office.”

And he gave us the confidence to go out and rent our first like significant–we don’t have a huge office, but we have a couple thousand square feet and room for 20 or 25 employees in terms of volunteers and what not. We took out a raw space on 28th and Broadway in New York, and it would have cost us $100,000 to build it out and he said, “I’m going to have my team do this for free.” So they built out the entire thing for us for free.

Andrew: What’s your process for outreach to people who would do cause marketing with you? Like the guy I was talking about was John Lee Dumas. He asked me to help promote his journal and I felt good about doing it because it was John but also because, hey, he’s partnering up with you and a good amount of money is going to you. What’s your process for finding the people like him and reaching out for recruiting?

Adam: It’s usually one person who finds out what we’re doing, really believes in it and then reaches out to the next person in the chain and it’s always kind of been one person vouching for us to another. With John, it was really Lewis Howes. Lewis, I was at a concert on the Lower East Side for it was actually Jon Batiste back in the day. He’s now the front band for Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.”

But at the time, he was just like a friend of a handful of ours and he played a super small show. There were maybe like 50 people there at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. I walked outside afterwards and a guy, really tall dude, came up to me and was like, “Hey, you’re Adam, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He was like, “I’m Lewis. I want to build a school.” I said, “Great.” So many people had said that and never done a thing. I said, “If you’re interested, let’s meet this week.”

We got together and Lewis within a month or so had donated his birthday and made a personal contribution to build the school, and he became this incredible ambassador and supporter and now lifetime advisory board member at Pencils of Promise. Over time he said, “Look, I have a lot of friends.” He was sharing that he was building a school that saw that they had these incredibly passionate and powerful communities behind them that were looking to make a positive difference in the world and wanted to create something tangible as a community.

So folks like Pat Flynn or Lewis Howes or Ramit Sethi, so many of them that are in that space have had an incredible impact on the work on Pencils of Promise.

Andrew: What do you guys do with the advisory board to make sure that Lewis is helping to his best abilities and not wasting his time?

Adam: We take them on annual trip that’s just the advisory board.

Andrew: And on that trip you guys think through how you can promote Pencils of Promise?

Adam: Yeah. Each person–they see our work really deeply, but each person kind of has a functional area of expertise that focuses on where their personal strengths are and we ask them to really be thoughtful and help advise on some of those strategies.

Andrew: I see. What’s Lewis’s?

Adam: Lewis is primarily in kind of what I would consider influencer marketing and also how do we use things like new media to engage people in an authentic way.

Andrew: Okay. Let me take a moment to talk about my second sponsor and then I’m going to find out why you finally built something. It’s so freaking hard to do it. You talk about in your book speaking to what you thought was going to be a large crowd and then it’s your people and one person–by the way, when you had that experience or you talked about Jon Batiste and 50 people in the audience, do you ever feel like, “Maybe I’m a failure. Maybe no one wants to list to me? Do you have that insecurity in your head or are you just full of confidence now because you’ve lived all those Guatemalan adventures?

Adam: No. When we organized that first speech and it was at a huge college, 30,000 kids and I’m picturing a massive room full and we’re going to launch Pencils of Promise and one girl shows up, it was devastating. I was embarrassed. My friend was up there literally videotaping it. We had a full videography setup for this speech because we thought it was going to be this packed room of kids. I was definitely very embarrassed by it, but it wasn’t going to deter me.

Andrew: And then she ended up being a really important part of the organization.

Adam: Huge. Totally.

Andrew: But do you have that insecurity in your head? Do you feel like, “What am I doing?” This is not right. You don’t feel that at all?

Adam: No. I would say I think everybody has it somewhere. It’s just a matter of whether it is loud enough and whether you allow it to conquer your aspirations.

Andrew: What do you do to keep it from getting too loud and conquering the other side?

Adam: I probably lean on my support system, which is my wife, my parents, my siblings, my best friends and now I have four-month old twins at home and they’re probably going to be hearing a lot about daddy’s dreams as well. Hopefully I can be a positive example for them to pursue theirs as well.

Andrew: All right. So, when I heard you were leaving the organization, I said, “What is this guy doing? He finally overcame the one person in the audience issue, the nobody knows you issue, the what’s the purpose of my life issue, making money, living in New York, married to somebody he’s in love with–what’s the point?” We’ll come back to why you did that in a moment and why you’re trying to change the educational system.

First, I’ve got to tell everyone who’s listening to me that if you have any programming needs, if you need a developer and you’re having a hard time finding the right developer, you’re not alone. It really is a challenge. That’s why the people at Toptal said, “You know, there’s a better way. We’ve got a network of developers. We can expand the network out.” So, they started expanding it out and they put this great network together. They use Slack to keep them all together, to keep them all connected to each other. They found a way to really create this bonded team of people who were the elites.

When they talked to 100 developers who want to work with them, they let 97% know that they’re not smart enough, not good enough, not qualified enough to be part of Toptal’s network of elite developers. The last 3% become part of the network, get to work with the other developers, get to chat with them, get to build their skills with them and then Toptal says to any entrepreneur, any business out there if you’re looking to hire a developer, even if it’s just part-time, if just for a project basis or maybe you need to hire a team of developers, come to us and we’ll connect you with our best of the best.

So, if you’re out there to hire the best of the best, I want to give you a special URL where you can do that, it’s Toptal.com/Mixergy, top as in top of the mountain, tal as in talent, Toptal.com/Mixergy. When you do that, you’re going to get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours and that’s in addition to a no risk trial period of up to two weeks.

If you’ve been listening to my interviews or better yet watching them, you’ve seen I’d say something like one out of two interviewees will write down the name Toptal because they say, “This actually is exactly what we need.” You’re nodding your head too, right?

Adam: Yeah.

Andrew: I understand why when Marc Andreessen heard about this, within, I think, moments he said, “Yes, I know who these founders are. I’m in.” And he invested in the company. Andreessen Horowitz is backing them and they’re continuing to grow and grow and grow, Toptal.com/Mixergy.

All right. Before we get into what you’re doing new, I have to tell you, you created something that’s a dream. Why leave it?

Adam: You know, I think probably the best analogy is I’m a big music guy and a lot of the artists that I love most kind of came out of the ’60s and ’70s, right? I think one of the things that’s most interesting to me is Van Morrison, I don’t know if you know this, but every concert he plays, everyone wants him to play “Brown Eyed Girl,” but this guy wants to evolve and work on new things because, as humans, what we’re often motivated by most is the areas we think we can make new and important contributions.

As much as I’m so proud of the work that we’ve been able to accomplish at Pencils of Promise and I have such big hopes and aspirations for everything the organization can really accomplish going forward, it was hard for me to look at the fact that the work of Pencils of Promise was going really well and yet next to me every single day was this woman, my wife, who I love so much, who was absolutely decimated by the higher education system in our country, that constantly people were reaching out to me and saying, “Can you do something about it?”

Andrew: What do you mean? How did it decimate your wife?

Adam: My wife went to college for two and a half years. She grew up in a very loving family but without financial means. They came to this country when she was nine, from South Africa, really pursuing the American dream with the belief that college is the way to a better life and social mobility.

Andrew: How do you end up with two and a half years, do you mean community college or did she rush through a Bachelor’s degree?

Adam: She didn’t finish college, that’s the point.

Andrew: Oh, she didn’t finish.

Adam: This is the point. She’s one of 31 million Americans that have some college credit without a Bachelor’s degree. In her two years of out of state and then transferring back in state to try to reduce the debt, she ended up with so much financial burden that she started try to work and build her career and whatnot.

When I met her years later, even though she was paying down several hundred dollars every single month towards her college debt, my wife had $110,000 of college debt with no Bachelor’s degree primarily on such high interest rates that she would never be able to get out from under it for life.

The more that I looked at her situation, the more I really researched the state of higher education in our country, the more it became so obvious to me that it’s a broken system. We have some institutions that are doing a great job and working for the majority of students that enter those, but when you look at our national statistics and the growth rate of the cost of college and then combine it with the complete lack of skills and preparedness that young people have to enter the workforce, even if they get a degree, it was very clear to me that we needed new alternatives.

As an entrepreneur and one that felt so passionate about the issue, I wanted to build something that could impact that space as well and that’s really what led to the evolution of MissionU.

Andrew: How’d she end up with over $100,000 in debt? Isn’t it like $20,000 a year to go to school?

Adam: So what college did you go to?

Andrew: NYU.

Adam: So what’s your prediction of how much NYU is tuition right now?

Andrew: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’m going to predict it’s, I don’t know, $22,000 maybe.

Adam: Okay. So I’m going to pull this up right now while we’re live and I’m going to show it to you on the screen.

Andrew: Can you angle it? I see what you did. I think I did the same search on my screen. Is it $47,000?

Adam: No. It’s $66,000 a year to attend NYU currently?

Andrew: Because that includes room and board and other expenses.

Adam: But room and board isn’t that much of it. The tuition is $46,000. Other expenses are another . . .

Andrew: That makes me so freaking angry.

Adam: I know somebody who recently went on a tour at NYU and at the very start of the tour, the tour guide, a student, said, “Before we get the tour started, you should know that it costs about $70,000 a year to attend NYU. Does anyone want to step off the tour? I just want to say that before we get started.” So the notion–there’s no cost in American society that has grown at the rate of acceleration that an average person will incur–

Andrew: It’s producing, I think–this makes me so angry. I’m with you on this. I don’t know how you stay calm. Now I’m furious.

Adam: I don’t. Imagine that. You thought it was $22,000. It’s $70,000 a year. The majority, vast majority, it’s 18% of all students that will enter a four-year program do not graduate in four years.

Andrew: But you know what, part of the scam of it is they charge a lot and basically what they do is they then see how much money you have and then they reduce it to take as much of your wallet as they could. I used to sell sandwiches door to door to stores on Jamaica Avenue and I noticed they’d have these expensive prices on their TVs to see how dumb you were, that if you were dumb, they’d keep it at the high price and dumb and desperate.

If you had money and you were a little smarter, they’d reduce it. If you didn’t and you were willing to buy now, they’d reduce it even further. They were putting variable costs on it. I feel like that’s what schools do too. They’re kind of figuring out how much money you have and how much they could get.

Adam: Well, the other challenge with the space is students are given basically unlimited lines of credit at really aggressive interest rates, but when you’re 18 years old, you don’t have a lot of financial literacy, you come from a tough background where your family doesn’t have much and everyone’s told for you decades, “Hey, college is the way ahead. College is the way ahead. College is going to get you a better job.” Of course you’re going to take out that loan when the government offers it to seemingly for free at the time.

Andrew: And it’s a reasonable organization. It’s not like some credit card company.

Adam: My wife said to me explicitly, I was like, “Why did you take on all those loans?” She was like, “Adam, it was just what you did. My thinking was they didn’t give me the money unless of course it was going to lead to something better ahead.” But right now 3,000 people a day every single day default on their student loans and their credit–

Andrew: You’re making me so freaking angry. It’s such a freaking scam. The worst of it is it’s dressed up like a respectable organization that you, if you disagree with them, must be wrong. I don’t know. You must be an idiot. Now you’re sweating.

Adam: Here’s one thing I’ll qualify all this with, which is that the people that work in higher education are extraordinary. I’ve seen that across the board, the individuals that dedicate their lives to the service of students, whether it’s teachers, administrators, they’re really good people and they want the best for their students. It’s that we’re in a position where the system at this point is drastically failing us and because of that, we need new alternatives and that’s really where MissionU comes in.

Andrew: Okay. So MissionU, is it an accredited university?

Adam: No.

Andrew: Can you actually call yourself a university? No?

Adam: No. So I’ve spent a lot of time researching this and trying to really identify what would be the best model for us to serve students. That’s the goal here is to ultimately create a new pathway so no one ends up in my wife’s position. As I looked at the pathway to accreditation, you can certainly get accreditation. There are a couple of ways to do it. You can partner with an existing institution. You can buy a defunct institution, which is a little shady.

But the biggest thing for me was in order to have your curriculum accredited, it takes a tremendous amount of time. So you have to build the curriculum. It has to go through multiple steps of bureaucracy, then you have to have administrators from an accrediting body, all the people at the accrediting bodies are from existing other institutional colleges.

They have to approve your curriculum. When you look at the rate of acceleration of our economy and the demand for skills that employers actually need, there’s just no way that college, with the needs of the multi-year path to accrediting any type of curriculum, can iterate fast enough to meet those needs.

So our belief is the most important credential is not a piece of paper that says, “I graduated from college x.” The most important credential that you have in the marketplace is your first job. Did you get a job or not? Even in advance of that, it’s actually a robust resume and a public portfolio of work that demonstrates that you can perform in the competencies that an employer is seeking to hire you in. That’s really what we focus on.

Andrew: When you say–can you be a little more specific. I get the first job, but what do you mean by before the first job? What’s that thing that becomes the replacement for the diploma?

Adam: Sure. So, first of all, we really look at higher education in general as an incredibly brand-centric space. You choose where you’re going to go college not necessarily based on the effectiveness of that college, but your brand affiliation.

Andrew: You went to Penn, right?

Adam: I went to Brown.

Andrew: Okay. I thought I saw Penn. And that’s a prestigious school, right? You leave with that attached to you for the rest of your life.

Adam: The brand of Brown has been super helpful for me. If I tell people I went there, they have a certain perception of me, right? But it has nothing to do with what I studied there or what I didn’t study there. It’s just an overall affiliation that, “Okay, he got into Brown and that means x, y and z. But the way that we’ve set up MissionU–so let me just explain it really quickly so that your listeners or you can fully grasp what we’ve built.

So it is a one-year college alternative for the 20th century that prepares young people for the jobs of today and tomorrow debt-free. The way we do that is first of all, we charge no tuition at all up front. It’s modeled so that nobody ends up as my wife did, and we think that the institution should be investing in students rather than vice versa.

So, when you get into MissionU, we commit that there is no tuition at all. We invest in you for a full year and at the end of that year, if and only if and when you reach a point at which you’ve secured a job paying you $50,000 or more, you contribute 15% of your income back to MissionU. So it’s an income share agreement, but it’s only based on our shared success so that our outcomes our tied to yours.

Now, our curriculum is created starting with employees. So we have spent a lot of time and hundreds of conversations now with many of the leading companies in the country saying, “What are your real needs? Where are your talent shortages? What are the tools that you’re using internally that you would love to have somebody train in so that they could hit the ground wanting from day one as a positive contributor to your company and that allowed us to craft a curriculum. We had these employer partners. They advised us on curriculum and then we give them early access to hire our top grads.

Andrew: What’s the curriculum? I’m on your site looking and I don’t see it. What would I learn?

Adam: Sure. If you click on the program page, you would see some details there. Our first major right now, there’s exclusively one major, is data analytics and business intelligence.

Andrew: I see it now.

Adam: That’s the first major. The year is broken out into four quarters, the first we call foundation. Eight hard skills that would make you a great contributor to any company–these are things like project management, business writing, public speaking, Excel modeling, Keynote and PowerPoint, CSS and HTML, basic tech coding foundation. The second quarter is self-discovery, a lot of that deep introspective work we talked about at the very beginning, so you know where you want to point your compass, as well as what we call essential knowledge, so things like how do you pay your taxes, which nobody ever teaches us in college.

Andrew: Right.

Adam: The third quarter is what we call specialization. It’s a 12-week deep dive on your major. Then in the fourth quarter, you’re broken up into teams and you work as small agencies for real businesses. And so there are plenty of nonprofits and businesses out there. If any of your listeners are thinking, “Jeez, my business could use a killer data analytics team to help us do some predictive modeling,” then go to MissionU and on the partners page, you can sign up and we’ll have a team come in and work for free so that our students can actually build real experience and a robust–

Andrew: That’s what you mean. So, at the end of the year, they didn’t just learn all this, but they can say, “Here’s a project that I worked on for a company like Casper. Here are the results of it.” Got it. I see.

Adam: And then we have graduation. Then we spend six weeks after graduation–we don’t think graduation should be at the end of the year and then you’re kind of kicked on your way to go search for a job, our graduation is actually six weeks before you complete the program and then for those last six weeks, we have something we call a career launch and that’s where we work with you from everything that starts with interview navigation all the way through to salary negotiation.

Andrew: You’re actually going to teach them how to negotiate salary?

Adam: Correct.

Andrew: So what about that accreditation, the fact that you want someone to say, “He went to Brown or he went to MissionU?” You don’t get that and that’s a really big part of going to school.

Adam: Yeah. Well, my belief is that you will have that. I think that as people look back–at the end of the day, you need to have early adopters. You need to have those innovators that look at the model we put together and say, “You know something? This makes a lot more sense for me in my life and career aspirations than betting on the brand of a college that I’m currently at as well as betting on the set of learnings they’re giving me ultimately leading me to the job I want.” I think that we will have an incredible caliber of diverse students.

Our admissions project looks nothing like a traditional college. So we don’t look at SAT. We don’t look at GPA, and you don’t have to have completed high school to start because we think talent is universal. Standardized tests don’t do a great job of identifying who are going to be great contributors to companies, and then we take you through a four-step process that I won’t go into full detail but anybody can see it on our website on the how to apply section.

We believe that we are going to really be able to train an incredible crop of students that are going to demonstrate that this program really works, that this model works. My cofounder Mike ran outcomes at the leading boot camp in the country for the last three years called Hack Reactor and here were the results–they went through a three-month program. At the end of that three months, 98% of people got jobs and the average starting salary was $104,000.

Andrew: Yeah. Hack Reactor really is a great model for what education could be. They end up taking people who have limited programming knowledge, not none, often, I think, but they turn them into people–

Adam: They usually don’t have CS degrees. They’re not actually coders.

Andrew: They put them through this cult-like experience where at the end of it, they come out really being sharp and get great jobs. The thing I think a lot of people would say though is at the end of that kind of program, you don’t get a liberal arts education. You don’t get an understanding of the intellectual side of the world, the kind of thing you get a semester at sea for you don’t experience in this kind of higher education, right?

Adam: That’s correct. I wouldn’t say that you are absent of it. It’s a full quarter for us. It’s that discovery quarter. But my belief is that the notion of the liberal arts is a great idea and it’s an idea that was really effective for a period of time in which college was $22,000 a year and you could work your way through college and have minimal debt at the end of it.

But to ask students, in particular students who come from backgrounds that are either incredibly focused on getting a job–there are just certain young people that don’t need four years to have that whole coming of age and as the stats show, they actually don’t take four years, they take more like six, but to ask them to take on the incredible financial burden that will cripple them for life because of the desire to become a more intellectual thinker I think is a really false promise.

And the other beautiful thing that we have is because of the internet and the growth of things like Coursera and Udacity, you have access to the world’s greatest professors. You can watch those lectures. I think we’re moving from an era in which you were a full-time student from the age of 5 to 22 and then a full-time professional from 23 afterwards to an era of lifelong learnership, where you don’t need to spend four years up front in order to be qualified to then be a contributor to a company, but as you navigate your career, it’s going to be essential that you go back to school for short bursts of time and that everybody commits to lifelong learning.

Andrew: What about the idea that–first of all, I’m really in favor of this. I love seeing this. I feel like this has to be done. One of my frustrations with school was that I knew that when I paid, I wasn’t paying for stuff that I used. Like I didn’t go to the gym back then. I was too serious about work, but I was paying for the gym.

Adam: Yeah.

Andrew: There was a circus class that at NYU you needed to fill some obligation to get credit. So circus was what one of my friends, a smart guy, ended up spending hours doing. Yeah. I get where you’re going with this. I feel like it’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s going to be for a certain group of people.

Adam: That’s exactly how I feel. We’ve positioned the Bachelor’s degree as a one-size fits all model, that every student should go pursue a Bachelor’s degree and it’s just not the truth anymore. So I certainly don’t say every student should come to MissionU, that our model of one year and the zero tuition–certain students, it’s just not for them. If you’re interested and studying biology for four years and looking in microscopes and pursuing that kind of academic orientation, then there are plenty of great schools for you.

But if you’re a student right now who says, “I want to get to work. I want to get to work fast. I want to work for great companies and I want to be a great contributor and I have that desire that passion and a certain set of skills, but it’s never really reflected on my SATs. I don’t understand why I have this massive core curriculum and why I’m supposed to spend $50,000 to $200,000 for the validation to get a job somewhere.” If that’s in the back of your mind as a 19 to 25-year old, then MissionU is for you.

Andrew: I get that. I think there are some people that just go through college trying to figure things out. This is not the place to go try to figure things out. The people who want to get serious about their lives early on don’t have an outlet. I get it. I love what you’re doing with this.

Adam: Thank you.

Andrew: I wish that this was around when I was going to school. I don’t know that this would have been the program for me, but I do know–

Adam: I’ve told you this. I have newborn twins at home. I’m already seeing how different they are from one another. When I think about their educational journeys, if one of them gets into a school like Brown, 100%, I hope they go. I’m petrified of what the costs will be. The projected costs in a recent Forbes study for one year of private school in the year 2030 is $130,000.

Andrew: You know what? I hope–I’d love for my kids to get accepted into Brown. I hope they don’t go. I hope I don’t sound like a monster when I say that, but think about that, $100,000. I can actually work out an agreement with the teachers, with the professors of those universities to pay them $5,000 for three months to do training with my son.

The only thing that I wonder is this. I signed up with I interviewed the founder of a therapy company. I signed up for online therapy. I thought, “Great, therapy on my schedule.” I didn’t live up to it because there’s no external pressure. You’re doing 90% of your program online. There isn’t that physical pressure to show up for class. There isn’t the camaraderie, right? What do you do about that?

Adam: I’ll give you an example of our inspiration here. I know a lot of people who I’ve exclusively engaged with online–Skype, Hangout, Zoom, whatever it is. For years, we’ve had these online conversations. I definitely know them. I feel like friendly with them. There are others who I’ve literally meant once in my life for coffee for an hour and then I maintained an online relationship with them after that and I genuinely feel like I know that person.

There’s an entire depth of interaction that is achieved by even one or two or three short engagements with an individual and that’s part of our model. We really believe it’s essential for group dynamics, for accountability, for social cohesion that you come together, also that you’re close to the employers who are going to be applying and interviewing for jobs.

So our model is all students have to live within 50 miles of the cohort city in which they’re based. They’re in 25 student cohorts, no larger. These are small group-based dynamics and there’s no back row, which is a phrase from a company 2U, when you’re in these environments. You can’t sit in the back of the lecture hall. If you’re typing away on your computer and surfing Facebook, it’s going to be very obvious to yourself and the other students because it’s a lot of team-based projects.

Andrew: They can tell? I see. Okay, because of the team-based projects.

Adam: Right. We have a three-day orientation upfront. Every month you’re coming together in person either on a company campus, a college campus or a collaborative working space. You have your graduation in person and also think about it, when you’re in small groups with people and you live within 50 miles of each other, you’re 19 to 25, you’re going to meet up a lot just socially on top of this. Our expectation is really facilitate self-organized events on top. I think they’re going to be together very frequently. We just don’t have to build a huge infrastructure of a campus that then they have to bear the costs of.

Andrew: That makes sense. Man, I’m so into what you’re doing here. I’m more excited about this, frankly, than Pencils of Promise. I think Pencils of Promise is one of those things that I admire that you did, but I don’t feel as connected, maybe because I didn’t travel around the world and experience the pain you’re solving.

I do live in the U.S, where I experience the pain of college education all the time and if you suggest otherwise that it doesn’t make sense, you’re considered a monster. I don’t think it has to be, “Go there or you’re an idiot.” I’d like to see new approaches. I really dig what you’re doing. All right. MissionU is available right now. You’re accepting applications right now. I’m guessing that it’s going to be–

Adam: We’re accepting applications–anybody can go on, actually, if they refer us a student that we accept and they complete the year, we give you and the student $500 on top of it too.

Andrew: What do you mean, $500 cash you’re sending them?

Adam: Yeah, after they complete the program and they start their income share agreement, the first $1,000 goes to–

Andrew: Oh, the $500 you guys make. The first $500 that you get from them, from the student, will go to. . .

Adam: $500 will go back to the student and then $500 will go to the person that referred them.

Andrew: Got it. I see. There’s an incentive for both people. Your investors must be so patient. You’re saying, “Trust us not only that we’re going to get paid, but it’s going to be three years from now, and of course we’re a startup, so the money is going to keep going back into the company.”

Adam: I think anybody who looks at what we’re building understands that education is a long gain play. These become really, really large businesses when they’re successful, but they have to start really by serving students. Ultimately the success is going to be based on whether we can bring value into these students’ lives.

I think they’ve seen I put eight years into Pencils of Promise, now starting MissionU and there were several years before that of preparation. The last two years for me have been laying the groundwork of MissionU and we launched officially today, but this is how I plan to spend the next decade of my life.

Andrew: So exciting. Frankly it’s exciting because you got Mike Adams from Hack Reactor. I think the world of the program they built over there because I’ve talked to students of their program to make sure. I like Mike a lot. I don’t know him nearly as well as you do. But I freaking love this mission.

Adam: He’s an incredible man and I feel very fortunate that our paths crossed where both of us have young kids. We both think about their futures just as much as our own and this is something that we believe needs to exist and he’s just an absolute guru not only as a software engineer but as a creator of curriculum and programmatic design. He’s our chief product officer.

Andrew: What a great idea. I’m so glad that I was introduced to you. MissionU.com is the URL. Thanks so much.

Adam: Thank you.

Andrew: Anyone who applies, please let me know. I want to stay in touch with you. Just like with the early days of Hack Reactor, it was just too good to be true, I wanted to stay in touch with people who got through it. Please, if you go through MissionU, let me know. I’m not being critical about it. I just want to understand how this evolves because I think this has to be the future. I’d rather my kids went to a program like this than to a program like Brown. Adam, I’m proud to know you.

Adam: Thank you so much, likewise.

Andrew: All right. Thank you all for being a part of this. Remember, the two sponsors also are the company that will help get your email done right. Send the email to the right person the right way so you look intelligent, close more sales and actually send emails that people want to get–ActiveCampaign.com/Mixergy and the second is the company that hires the best developers, it’s called Toptal, top as in top of the mountain, tal as in talent, Toptal.com/Mixergy. Recommend them to someone and I’m telling you they’re going to love you for doing it. All right. Thanks, Adam.

Adam: Thank you.

Andrew: Bye, everyone.


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