The Unfiltered Truth About Entrepreneurship with Adam Braun
Hey everybody, how's it going, I'm Chase Jarvis. Welcome to another episode of the Chase Jarvis Live Show here on CreativeLive. This is where I sit down with the world's top creatives, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders, and do my very best to unpack actionable and valuable insights with the goal, the big goal, of helping you live your dreams in career, in hobby, and in your life. My guest today is the Adam Braun. (aspirational rock music) ♪ Whoa ♪ (audience applauding) They love you.
Good to be here.
It is good. It's been a while.
I know, it's been too long.
I was remarking to these guys, like, I think it's been almost two years since I was actually in your flesh.
Not, in your flesh? No, since we were in the flesh.
Yeah, you were not in my flesh.
That would be awkward. Welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.
Congratulations. I was remarking before we started rolling the cameras that like two weeks ago, I mean, I see your stuff occasionally, just because ...
we're in the same friend circle. But all of a sudden, Adam was everywhere.
Yeah, that was by design.
And it was because you, yeah, you launched a new thing. Tell us about your thing.
Yeah so, recently launched is MissionU. MissionU is a college alternative for the 21st century. And the real aim, the goal of MissionU is to prepare students for the jobs of today and tomorrow, debt free. We have a fundamentally broken college system. And seeing it through my wife's eyes, it really gave me a pretty firsthand exposure to the other side of what has happened to so many young people in this country, that bought into college as the pathway to their dreams and ended up being actually harmed much more than they were helped, and so after eight years of Pencils of Promise, I really wanted to focus on education here at home, and MissionU was the creation.
Sweet, we're gonna put a pin in that because you mentioned Pencils of Promise. And for those of you who don't know at home, I'm assuming you do, but Adam is the founder and CEO of a nonprofit called Pencils of Promise, which brings education to underserved populations.
Yeah, all across the developing world. So I was the CEO for, I guess six, seven years. At the time I was 24, turning 25. I had spent a lot of my early 20s backpacking and traveling through the developing world, and that was really my greatest love at that point in time. And I just had a habit of asking one child in every country that I went through a very simple question. It was, "If you could have anything in the world, "what would you want most," and they'd write it down on a piece of paper. And I figured I'd have this maybe collage of global interests of children when I got home to my dorm room. And in India, this young street beggar said if he could have anything in the world, he'd want a pencil. And so I gave him my pencil, he was so excited about it, and I learned he had never been to school before. And all these other kids start running up, like, pen, you know, pencil. After that, as somebody who backpacked through 50, 60 countries in that probably five to seven year period, the one thing I always brought with me was pens and pencils 'cause I'm naturally actually relatively introverted, but if you go into a rural village or into a market in Ecuador, and you just sit down with a pen and a pencil, and you offer it to a child, not only are they gonna engage, but their family is gonna engage, their siblings, their parents. And so it was really my way to kind of understand all these local cultures. And then eventually my grandmother was turning 80, she's a Holocaust survivor, and I really wanted to honor her in her lifetime. At the time my grandfathers had all passed away. And I wanted ma, my grandmother, to know how much she meant to myself and all of us. And I just thought the most powerful way that I could honor her would be to build a school. And I wasn't sure how I would do it, but I had spent all the time in the communities, I was like, I know that very little money goes a very long way. And I'd had all this training from a background in finance, and I was working at Bain at the time. Right now the number one rated firm in the world to work by the employees. And so I put $25 in a bank account and I asked friends to give donations for my birthday to help build one school. 20 bucks for a Halloween party was the start. And, you know, we crowdsourced, now this was late 2008.
There was no such thing.
There was no word. I mean, I remember going around. So you gotta keep in mind, it's October of in New York City, right. So Lehman Brother declared bankruptcy three weeks before I founded Pencils of Promise. And so everybody's like, wait, you're gonna start a charitable organization that's gonna help kids on the other side of the world that nobody here has ever met, and you think that's gonna work in New York right now? But I'm sure you feel the same way, you know, I find oftentimes the things that people tell you are going to be impossible are the most worthwhile to pursue.
There's a great quote, the person who is unable to do something should stay out of the way of the person who's doing it.
Yeah, I like that.
Or something like that. It's probably better than that. My butchered version.
It sounded pretty good.
Yeah, but it's so true, I love that.
And so, I remember explaining to people, we're gonna use social media. And at the time Facebook was still a college kid thing. And I just knew that there was gonna be the ability to generate large amounts of small donations, and that we could say yes to young people that they could participate in great philanthropic pursuits. And so I remember explaining it to people, and everyone said to me, like wait, small amount, that's that Obama thing, right? Because there was so word, crowdsourcing, like we hadn't actually formed it in our language. It was just an Obama thing 'cause he had just done it in the election and that was the first time that it was done in mass. And so fortunately we crowdsourced the money for our first school and then eventually that became five schools. And I obviously left Bain to work on it full time and lead it as CEO. And as of today we've built more than 400 schools around the world, and we have about 35,000 students in our programs, we do teacher training, we do technology and e-readers and classroom curriculum development, and it's been incredible.
You still on the board, you still involved?
So I'm Founder and Board Emeritus. You know, one of the things that I also co-led was the search for our new CEO and that took a year. A full year long search with a firm, 700 candidates before we made an offer. And our new CEO is not so new anymore, he's been there for almost two years, Michael, has been extraordinary. But one of the things that, and I've kind of coached a lot of other people through executive transition, you can't be on that person's shoulder, right? You kind of have to give them the freedom and flexibility to operate. And so the structure that we realized would be best is for me to be board emeritus, which means I can go to any board meeting that I want, but I'm not sitting there voting. And I think it was really good for Michael and the leadership to have the space to not have me kind of hover. And the other thing is I really wanted to work on MissionU. And so it gives me the opportunity to really be deeply involved in the organization but not in a day to day capacity. And, you know, as somebody who was the original blood, sweat and tears, it's such a nice feeling to not have it on your shoulders. And instead be so proud of this incredible team, you know, 100 plus people in five countries, that guide our work every day.
Man, I was... We were trying to reconnect around the last time we spent time together, and I think it was South by Southwest. And at that time I remember you were still I think in the, like deeply involved in Pencils of Promise.
Oh yeah, I was still the active CEO, and it was right as the book was coming out.
Yeah, oh that's right, the book was coming out. Many of you probably, who are paying attention to this today saw me pushing Adam's book, an incredible book. So, yeah, entrepreneur, best selling author, now tech, would you call yourself tech?
No, not necessarily, I would just say I'm an entrepreneur. You know, people have tried to describe MissionU as EdTech, and we're not EdTech, we're an education model. I mean, there's a certain paradigm of what college is, and we're trying to shift that paradigm to include other models. And so I just think of myself as an entrepreneur.
Yeah, it's a strange, we have so many friends in common, and friends were saying, oh, you know Adam, and Scooter, and you know, we had a lot of crossover and, but I had no idea that our lives and backgrounds were so similar. A, you know, graduate or pre-graduation world travel. Student debt was a thing. You mentioned your wife, my wife was a teacher. You know, I've got CreativeLive, which is where we're sitting today. Very, very aligned with disrupting, that college isn't for everybody, and that that model is outdated, and if we have one job, or sorry, if our parents had one job, we'll have five, the next generation will have five at the same time, and so how are they gonna be equipped because the current four year model doesn't. There's just a lot of overlap, and for the folks at home, can you give us the overview. I think I understand the vision really crisply, but--
Yeah, but how does it work.
Yeah, but tell us how it works. Yeah, I'll just let you, that's the intro.
Yeah, so for anyone at home that is curious about MissionU, obviously you can just go to missionu.com and see it all on the website. But to get into more detail, I'll start with what's broken about college, right. People are pretty familiar with it, but they don't know how dark the numbers actually are.
Can I just say I'm so excited that you're doing this. This is normally like, someone says like, tell us now broke the system is, and then I'm the one who's naming the, I'm gonna borrow some of your statistics here, this is great, I'm almost literally gonna be taking notes.
I'm following your lead, you've carved a path for people like me to now step into as well.
Help me with the narrative, keep going.
So there's two major things that are broken with college. The first is that the actual curriculum that young people are learning in their undergraduate experience is completely disconnected from what employers actually value. So, you know, 60% of all hiring managers say that college doesn't prepare young people with any of the critical thinking skills necessary to get a job. You and I have probably spoken to hundreds of people that are on the front lines of hiring and even if you have a degree, it's one signal. You know, 10, 15 years ago, that was the signal, right? It was like, if you wanted to hire somebody for your finance department, you looked up what they majored in and then what grades did they get in stats and microeconomics and macroeconomics, and that's how you learned about them. Now I don't know anybody that's looked at a college transcript at all in the last five years.
I've not even looked at, I've--
I don't even know if anyone's graduated from college that's ever applied for any job that's worked at a company--
Yeah, I literally have no idea. I've never looked at where a single person I hired went to school and that's over maybe 200 hires.
Yeah, yeah. So we have this system that's been telling all these young people for decades, this is the guaranteed pathway to a better job and a better life ahead. And 91% of all freshman, it's the number one answer given when asked why are you going to college, the answer is to get a better job. So young people are seeing college as the path to employment, but colleges see their responsibility in the traditional liberal arts vein to prepare young people for meaning and fulfilling lives, and to learn how to learn. And those are all really noble pursuits, but the problem is that's not what employers are actually demanding out of the skillsets necessary to get that first job, and then ultimately to upskill along the way. The second, even bigger issue, is that whether or not you finish college, young people are leaving school with insurmountable, absolutely crippling debt. So here's the number that is most shocking to me, and I learned this probably two months ago. But what percentage of students that enter a four year bachelor's degree program would you believe complete in four years.
So it's 18.
I just go low that you--
Yeah, yeah, well I had practiced it. I had maybe led it too heavily. So, you know, and you're also way more educated on this space than most, and most people I ask that to--
Yeah, I know $32,900 in student debt, or what the average is, all this stuff.
Yeah most people it's like oh 50, like we just assume that the four year system actually works, and it doesn't. So, you know, we should stop calling a bachelor's degree a four year degree, it's a six year degree. So it's about 59% will graduate in six years, which is still not great at all, right? So that said, I mean, as you pointed to, like this year... Well let's just look forward, so we've actually projected it out at MissionU, and the freshman class that's just started right now, that will graduate in 2020, they will graduate with, on average seven in 10 are borrowers, the average borrower will have more than $50,000 of debt. And these are on really high interest rates, as I saw with my wife's situation; she got decimated. So to make a very long story short, what they're learning is broken and not connected to employers, and then the actual cost of it doesn't connect to the value. So at MissionU we try and solve for these two things. So I'll start with the debt piece. The way our model actually works is that we think institutions of higher education should invest in their students rather than vice versa. And so we charge no upfront tuition at all. When you get into MissionU, there's zero tuition. We only recuperate any type of kind of payment from a student if and when they are successful. So the way our program works is we invest in you for a full year, it's a one year program. And then at the end of that year, only when you're making $50,000 or more, you contribute 15% of income back to MissionU for three years. So it's really essentially on our shoulders to work with you side by side, it has to be collaborative, as all education must be, to get you to a place where you're making a great wage. And if you don't then you end up not owing us anything. So we're changing that piece of the model. And then the second is the actual curriculum. We start with employers first. And so we've have hundreds of employer conversations and we say, what are the skills that you value, what are the jobs that you're looking to fill in the next three to five years, and we build what we call employer partners. So they deeply advise us on curriculum, we make sure that we're calibrating our needs to them. And then on the back end we give them early access to our top graduates to consider for hiring. And so right now, we have employer partners like Spotify, Lyft, Warby Parker, Uber, Casper, Harry's, I mean, on down the line.
Yeah great tech companies that are progressive, or forward thinking.
I spend a lot of time with 19 to 25 year olds and I say, what are the companies that you want to work for most, and then we went out and said, okay what do you look for in hiring. So it's a one year program, about 90% of it happens online, but it's not prerecorded lectures, these are live synchronous virtual classrooms essentially with industry practitioners. Much like you guys are broadcasting all over the place right now. But we think it's really important to essentially replace that college experience, that you're close enough that you can meet with your cohort. So you're in a 25 student cohort and you come together for a three day orientation in every month, either on company campuses, college campuses, or coworking spaces. And our first major that we launched with right now is data analytics and business intelligence. But the whole year is kind of crafted around hard skills, soft skills, a little bit of the coming of age of college.
Sure; well if you need content we've built a lot of it from the ground by the same industry practitioners. We'll be happy to collaborate with you on that.
For sure, I mean, that's part of our vision is to recognize that you don't need to reinvent the wheel, that there are people like you guys that have created incredible content, and we want our students learning from that content. So my guess is, by the time that somebody listens to this, and sees an actual student starting at MissionU, and we opened up admissions in March of 2017, our first cohort starts in September and then continues basically on trimesters after that, my gut tells me that they'll be taking some CreativeLive courses.
By all means, open door policy. So I want to go down a few different angles. So one is the, and I think this will probably appeal to a couple different cross section of our listeners or watchers. One is the, sort of the mission in vision and how'd you figure out what you want to do. Because there are so many people who are watching or sitting in jobs they don't love, or, you know, what I've talked a lot about is my own personal experience with the cultural pressure of doing X, Y, and Z to be considered successful so that--
And so how you made that jump. Another angle that I'd like to pursue is the startup, solopreneur, entrepreneur, solopreneur turning into an entrepreneur, where you're out here in Silicon Valley now, you're in the major leagues. So presumably you raised some money.
And so that'll maybe tap into the entrepreneurial side of the audience. And then there's the one that is actually sort of the learning, like what are some of the things that you stand behind, what are some of the, you know, what values does MissionU and you personally stand for. Is it creativity, is it innovation. Is it the soft skills that you mentioned. All those things are really intriguing to me given that we have, you know, I was told, oh my God you're gonna build all your own content from the ground up, you're stupid. You know, five years ago that was stupid, today genius.
Focusing on creativity and innovation and you know, the commingling of IQ and EQ. Oh that's so stupid, that's outdated. It needs to be, you know, just super smart and everybody wants to be a programmer. Now again, it's genius, so I want--
Yeah, why aren't we doing software engineering? Which we're not doing.
Right, so I want to explore each of those three tangents and we'll go back to the first one first. So how did you, I mean, you were in Pencils of Promise, arguably something you built from the ground up that was, you know, filled a certain part of your soul, that was very enriching. And yet at some point there was a voice inside, and I think, I feel like we crossed paths and maybe over a beer you--
Yeah, it was right, it was--
It was right in that time frame where--
The seed was being planted right around the time that we were together, so, you know, I think part of it was writing a book. So after writing The Promise of a Pencil, the book did really well and it became really big and so it's been used on a lot of college campuses as the common read. So oftentimes when that happens I'll go to that college and I'll speak at that college. I mean, it's crazy the... There's not a lot of stuff that really like emotionally moves me when I, 'cause there's been so much emotional, you know, like, greatness in the work of Pencils of Promise. And I've certainly cried my eyes out many a time in the field at a school opening or meeting a family. But domestically it's a little bit tougher, but I'll tell you, going to some of these colleges. I remember going to St. Bonaventure or Arizona State where they were using the book as the common read and every kid basically created like an art piece around the book, you know, and one girl literally did basically a piece of art that was an image of one of our first students, a girl named Nut who I know very well, but it was done out of pencil etchings. Right, and she gave it to me framed, like it was so moving and just powerful. And so I really came to love spending time on college campuses 'cause like that's why I started Pencils of Promise was the college version of me didn't have an organization that said, yes, you should be involved. And so spending time on college campuses and I was trying to really get these students excited and involved in Pencils of Promise. But there was always one question that they would ask me that I would dread, you know, 'cause, you know I'm sure you've spoken in front of audiences many times, and there's like the same five questions come up, right. And you're like all right, ask me something different besides these same five. And for Pencils of Promise it was, how do you choose your schools, how do you find your teachers, how do you ensure that the schools continue to operated and you know, right now 400 plus schools, 100% are open and operational. But there was one question in there that was, what about our problems here at home? That was the one question that I never had a good answer for. You know, it was oh it's great what you're doing internationally but you know, I'm getting crushed with student debt right now. Is there anything you can do here? And you know, my answer was always, not really because an organization should focus on where it can be most effective and we focus on international rural poverty in the developing world. And then I met my wife and everything really changed 'cause it was suddenly it wasn't just about my journey, it was about the shared journey of this person who I was creating a life with. And my wife came to this country when she was nine from South Africa. You know, loving family but without much financial means. And they really bought into that belief that college is the way to the American dream and a better future. She went to college for about two and a half years and in those two and a half years racked up so much debt, had so much financial hardship that she needed to leave early. She's one of 31 million Americans with some credit and no bachelor's degree. But that stays with you, and hers continued to grow 'cause her interest rates are so high. Even though she was paying somewhere between 300 and $700 a month every month.
A month, and most people don't know that that is not forgivable through bankruptcy either.
Well that's what I didn't know.
Yeah, that's crazy.
So she had $110,000 of student debt when we met, with no bachelor's degree. And, you know, we're moving towards marriage, and I said look, I'm gonna marry you. You should declare bankruptcy and be absolved of this decision you made when you were 17. And at least when we get married, you know, I have clean credit so you can start fresh. And she said, Adam, it doesn't work like that.
And I was like, I have a finance background, let me figure this out, you don't know anything, right. And that's when I learned that she was right. I mean, it's the only debt in the United States you cannot declare bankruptcy on and it's with you for life. Not only that, if she left the country, or if she, you know, something bad happened to her, they would go after her family, 'cause usually if you come from low income or working class family, your family needs to cosign on your student loans, so they'll go after them. So when I learned that it was so infuriating to me and such a massive societal injustice that I literally could not process that I was spending all this time internationally and I wasn't able to help create an impact on the person who was literally sitting next to me on the couch.
And there's the gross part, which is that the country makes a ton of money.
Oh yeah, yeah, huge amounts of money.
There's this sort of the overt outwardly facing script of supporting education, make it easy to get a Pell grant and to this grant, this sort of student loan--
But we make so much money on the interest that it funds other programs, that there's not a real political incentive to change the system.
Right, there is zero. The incentives are not aligned at all to renovate the system.
Yeah, so I was really seeing the world through my wife's eyes and realizing that my situation was actually the exception and hers was closer to the norm, rather than what I believed it was vice versa. Once I just started looking up the data and it was like, oh my God, this system is really broken. And thinking about having kids in the future and building a family, college is supposed to be the one thing that creates less divide between the haves and have nots and allows for social mobility, and it's actually making our society more fractured. And you have things like the recent election where it was like regardless of where you stood, you were the opposite of everybody else on the other side of the country. And college should be the thing that allows for gray in between, right. So that was really the impetus. I think the other thing was just, it's important for every person, in particular entrepreneurs, to just know who and what you are. And recognize with a growth mindset that you can evolve but there are certain parts of you that you just know where you thrive. And I like starting stuff. You know, I thrive in the chaos and the ambiguity of the early stages.
We were just talking about, before he came to the interview, about picking up a rug for the floor of the new office. Like you got to go screw desk's legs to tables.
I mean, we had somebody start about a month ago and he came to us from Bain, right. I mean, world class employer, incredible talent guy, and I sent him an email on Sunday and I said, just so you know, when you get to the office on Monday the first thing you need to do is build your desk. And I said, it's a right of passage. 'Cause it's what we had to do not all that long ago, and I like that he's got to roll up his sleeves and get his hands a little dirty. And once you've done something like that, you realize okay this is startup mode, right? And fortunately we have a lot of stuff that immediately accelerates us past the traditional kind of startup phase, but I wanted to build something again. And that's just where I thrive. And I wanted to do something that also was gonna potentially impact my children. Because right after I moved to the Bay Area about a year ago, and this is maybe where we can kind of segue into that second topic, my wife became pregnant and now we have newborn twins.
You look great for newborn twins. I don't know how you're doing it, but you look great.
Yeah, I was telling you beforehand what, my friend recently reached out after watching this video that we used in our launch, right. It's this really great video with founders of a ton of incredible companies really talking about how they're struggling to find great talent and how MissionU is a really great pipeline that they would want to hire out of. And my friend who did the musical score looked at it and called me and was like, we need to talk about this video, you don't come off very well. And I was so concerned, like oh my God, did I say the wrong thing, do I sound like a jerk. I don't want to go in and re-shoot this, we didn't have time, we were launching in a day. And he was like, no, you don't look your best, like you look like a dad of twins who hasn't slept in a few months. And I was like, oh of course, man, that is how I am, this is real, this is real. So, you know, I mean one other important like data point that really hit me hard, Forbes put out a study where they projected out what the expected cost of college will be in 2030. And my children will go to college in the 2030s. But in 2030 the expected cost of one year at a private college is projected to be just over $130,000 for the year. And that's post-tax money, right, for a family. I mean, when we're moving towards that place there's no chance that college is going to be able to be that great equalizer that we want it to be. And now with two kids, and like anybody who has kids realizes if you have multiple, they're not the same at all, they're total opposites already, just in a few months. And if one of my kids wants to go down the traditional path and they can get into a school where the overall return on investment's probably gonna be there, I'd encourage them. But I want other choices for the other one who might say, I don't buy into this traditional. And I'm gonna of course encourage them to really always challenge the norms. So in a lot of ways MissionU is ultimately being built for kind of the institution I would want one of my kids to attend.
How hardcore are you about throwing rocks at the existing system? Because I find, this is me asking you, like without the cameras rolling at all. Like because I'm a product of that. My wife has several degrees, we both had student debt despite, I was on a soccer scholarship and still came out with some student debt. So I have a little bit of a personal bone to pick. I felt a bunch of societal pressure to live up to the false narrative that if you go to this school then you're gonna get a good job. And that the data is unequivocal that if you went to these 13 or 16 schools you're disproportionally likely to get hired into one of these very discrete professions. Otherwise if you're get into that second tier of colleges, like the middle 50%, it's basically all the same. And I tend to try and be a positive person because I'd rather put good energy into the world, but it's very hard when I'm standing either on the show or in front of stages, or on stages in front of a lot of people. I'm keynoting at the ASU education--
Oh, ASU GSV?
Yeah, so I'm trying to decide how many rocks to throw. And you're a great barometer. So what's your POV on that?
I think we're similar in that we would much rather put out a message of positivity and aspiration to any room that we're in rather than one of like doomsday scenario, right, it's just not how either one of us thrives. But there comes a moment where you recognize that if there isn't some shock applied to this system the amount of negativity that's going to result from that silence is something that I can't bear to stand.
It is, it's almost the complicince. Like if you are not vocally against it then you're for it. And that there's so much, it is the data that, that's how I try and live that truth for myself. Just like, here are the facts. You know, a couple years ago it was 32, and you're saying by 2020 it's gonna be 50,000. Like, it's clearly going. It's growing faster than inflation, faster than any other sort of cost of living metric that we have. So I try and lead with stats, but what are some of the--
I mean, I would say one of the things that's just very true for me is I came out of the system really benefiting. So, you know, I went to Brown, had a great college education. Fortunately my parents worked themselves out of their debt, paid down college, and so in their 40s and 50s were a dentist and an orthodontist and saved up enough for me to be able to go to four years of undergrad. And then basically said, you're gonna be on your own. You're gonna have four years of college. You go to grad school, you take, like you'll be on your own but we'll save up for four years. And so I can't say that all college is bad. What I can say is that the bachelor's degree in my mind is a harmful construct of society. The notion that it's a one size fits all system and that everyone has to go get this thing as a mark of validation to get a job, is wrong. And that we need more choices, some students should just take courses on CreativeLive because they need certain skills in complement to the work experience they're gonna have, to the traveling, the life experience. You know, other students, they want that coming of age, and maybe they have a family that can help support them through it, or they can get grants and financial aid, but I'm not willing to say that all college is bad, 'cause I think a lot of college is great. But college, especially a bachelor's degree, I think a bachelor's degree in particular does not work for most people, and most people should be looking at other alternatives.
Yeah, and there's another, like the construct of school. Both like K-12, and higher education, the constructs that people are not aware of that those are based on is the factory, which is literally putting raw material--
The Prussian model.
Yeah, it's Prussian factory. You put it in at one end, things need to move through the factory at the same pace.
Ring the bell, get 'em on the next one.
Yeah, ring the bell at the right time. And then they come out and they should have a similar body of knowledge that they can all be tested against. And obviously that may have worked for the industrial revolution where you were gonna get a job and have a job for 40 years and then you're gonna get the gold watch and sail on into your retirement. The fact that that's not true anymore, the fact that we're still building the system on something that was from the 1800s. And the other paradigm is the farm. Like the reason we had summers off is so you could literally harvest the food. And I don't know about your friends but I don't have that many farmer friends anymore.
No, just a couple.
Yeah, just a couple, and bless them, they're amazing, but--
Yeah, yeah, like guys from Iowa.
Yeah, exactly, but by and large we're living in this model that is still mired in that old thinking, it's horrible.
Keep going on my one two three questions, I don't know if you--
Okay, so the second one was really about kind of transitioning probably from non-profit over to, I mean, we're a public benefit corporation, so, you know, allows us to raise traditional venture capital, serve our social mission. And it's been interesting and great so far. I mean, as much as I love the work of Pencils of Promise, there was this feeling of at times being limited because we had to fit into the expectations of everybody else. Right, like there's just this perception that when you're building a non-profit, you just can't do certain things, right. I mean I was talking to somebody this morning and I was talking to them about just how much I think of myself as like a marketer in general, right. But then you start to build a venture backed company, and you realize okay well there's brand marketing and there's growth marketing. And I'm a brand marketer because I could never spend donor dollars on like paid acquisition channels. Even though it might actually yield more donations and more social good that we could put in the world. But we could never optimize, we had to get a Google AdWords grant and then use whatever we could with the free kind of AdWords we had. So I think building a company out of New York where I was for the last almost decade, and then now doing it in the Bay Area, is incredibly different, the cultures are super different. And I think of myself as like a New Yorker with probably the interests of a Bay Area person, right. Like I'm interested in how do I really improve the world and New York tends to be obviously very driven by how do you make more money than the person next to you.
How do I improve myself.
Yeah, yeah. But I move at the pace of a New Yorker, right. And I've just come to see like there's a directness about me that I don't mind telling somebody to their face the truth if it's gonna improve their wellbeing. I mean, I'm not ever gonna be mean to somebody, you know, just to be mean to them, but I was excited about kind of coming out to the west coast with my sharp kind of knives in my pockets. And being able to build something with people that I find out here are really interested in how do you improve the wellbeing of the world. And kind of that intersection that you also live in, which is that kind of space between technology and education, is super exciting. And the team that we've built already is extraordinary, my co-founder is just an incredible both educator as well as software engineer and also an entrepreneur himself in his own right, and it's been super exciting just kind of creating something from the ground up in a new culture entirely.
Yeah, are you at all trepidatious around the term entrepreneur? I identified as an artist my whole life and then when I started a company that would support creatives in entrepreneurial endeavors, but to call myself an entrepreneur felt like, it felt a little bit anachronistic or antithetical to my true soul because that felt trendy. And now I can't really escape, I'm just right in the middle of the trend of, you know, every talented person that I know. Not everyone, but a lot of them are running off and starting companies because. How do you sort of fit in, and or escape. How do you identify or disidentify with that?
I mean, I identify with it 'cause it's just who I am.
Yeah, I'm a builder too.
Yeah, but I would say like you got to the place that you thought I'm gonna build it, 'cause like you had this incredible gift and talent around photography, right. I don't really possess that. I have great ear for music, I'm an incredible appreciator, I have no skill at all when you throw a guitar in my hands. I can play four chords and then I'm done.
Well you got three chords on me though.
But for as long as I can I remember I've just been starting businesses. I mean, I was the kid who in seventh grade was organizing the NCAA March Madness bracket in every school that I ever attended. I was the one who was organizing like poker games at my camp and taking a rake before that was acceptable, right. You know, collecting basketball cards and realizing that I wanted Jordan cards, but they were the most expensive and Beckett's magazine was this magazine that every month put out the value of every card that came out. And you could literally watch like the appreciation and depreciation of cards and so I started collecting cards. And soon I probably had 50 plus Michael Jordans because I just knew how to trade better than my friends could. So I always started things. I started a basketball camp in college that became the largest one in my county and paid for all of my backpacking travels. That's how I paid for everything, is lessons that became a camp and a business. And so I think--
So the DNA is there without the label.
Right, I mean, I wish that I identified more as a writer because I love it so much. When people were like, oh you're gonna write a book. Anyone who knew me had been asking me for a decade, 'cause they had been reading my writings that I had been doing as I'd traveled through my early 20s. But for me it almost feels like I don't want to say disingenuous but it feels hard like when I go to a dinner and people are like tell me what you do, to be like, oh I'm an author. Right, like I really identify as an entrepreneur. I'm just somebody who likes to build stuff. I think what got really trendy and probably felt similar to how you felt was when social entrepreneur became this kind of bubble in call it 2010, 11, 12. And it was around Blake and TOMS Shoes really blowing up and suddenly everybody wanted to be like, I'm gonna create good and double bottom line, and Pencils of Promise was blowing up and so all the time I was kind of like bucketed with this. You know, there was a group of us. You know, Scott Harrison at Charity Water, Neil Blumenthal at Warby.
These are all mutual friends of ours.
Yeah, all close friends, and all extraordinary people but I think we were all aware that like this is a hot trendy thing. And I don't think any one of us, if you said, what are you, would say I'm a social entrepreneur. It's just like, we're an entrepreneur and what we're interested in happens to have a mission behind it that improves the world, as well as for some the businesses, returns capital.
For all those people, my experience of knowing them and other folks that were caught up in that bubble the conversations that we would have over dinner were, we're scratching our own itches. These are things that we actually care about and if someone else is labeling then that's just a manifestation of their own label.
Yeah, but it has been interesting. I mean, another mutual friend of ours, Gary V, you know, he talks a lot about it, and it's the truth, like when I see the clips he puts out, I'm like it's true there are a lot of people who want to be an entrepreneur, it's just not in their DNA, it's just not who they are. And it's one of those things where I see people talking about being an entrepreneur and then they just, they don't put in the work, they don't like have these sleepless nights that I'm sure you and I have where I was interviewing somebody to work at MissionU last week and I started talking to her about culture. And was like, I'm very deliberate about culture and she said, no I want to be at an early stage company. And I was like, do you? Do you know what that means? Do you know what it means to eat stress for a living? Like, do you know what it means to literally risk it every single day. When you wake up in the morning you feel like this thing could live or die based on the effort that you're willing to put into it. And that it doesn't leave when you turn off your email or when you leave the office, that it's just a part of who and what you are. And there are people who are like, oh I want to get an article written about me as an entrepreneur of some company, and they just don't have the work ethic and they don't have the drive that creates the work ethic, right. And that's what I worry about sometimes is the notion that a lot of people have seen individuals in particular in the Bay Area make so much money so quickly because they start a mobile app and that mobile app blew up. It never generated any revenue or did, you know, any real, like I would meet people all the time and they'd be like, oh what do you do? And I'd say, you know, years ago, I'm running Pencils of Promise. And they'd be like, cool, I have a mobile app. And I was like, oh okay, do you guys charge anything? No, and I'd be like oh, so you're a non-profit. And they'd be like, what do you mean? And I'd be like, well we generate millions of dollars a year and we're called a non-profit, but you're actually a non-profit 'cause like you have no ambition to make dollars. And, you know, every time they'd kind of look at me a little bit confused, but over time what I saw is there were certain people who really just like, there's a cadence, to just the conversation with them. And it wasn't what they were trying to be, it was just who they are. You know, one of my mentors is a guy, Dan Rosensweig, who's the CEO of Chegg.
Of course I know Dan.
Yeah, so Dan gives a talk every year that I've referenced to a lot of people. When he gives it I think at the New School, or one of the colleges in New York. And he basically says, look, there's three types of people. There's founders who like love the early stage, all ideas, chaos, et cetera. There's entrepreneurs who build through that kind of like rapid growth part. And then there's executives who are really important to optimizing once you're at a certain point. And it's okay to be one of those three and recognize that sometimes you might play a different part. But I think there's definitely a lot of people right now who like want to be the founder entrepreneur, but it's just not necessarily who they are, and that's okay.
Well that's what I'm trying to caution against is the same thing that we were told that you have to go to school to get a great, go to a great school, then you get a great job. The new sort of paradigm that I'm trying to keep people aware of is hey, you don't want to start a business unless you want to eat, breathe, sleep, this thing. We have two really senior positions open here on CreativeLive, analogous to what you were just saying, I was interviewing someone not too long ago, within the last two weeks. Same story, I really want to leave this, fill in Fortune 100 company where, you know, they're a senior director with I don't know, I can't even fathom their salary. And like I really want to come get my hands dirty. I'm like, you actually understand what get your hands dirty is at a startup, where you're like less than 200 people versus you're at a company that has 150,000 people in it. The get your hands dirty at Apple or Microsoft or Yahoo or any of these giant companies is so different. I mean, you're telling your guy to put his desk together. That's entirely different. So we have to, let's continue to protect that narrative. I don't want people to stumble into this thing. It's not for the light of heart.
One thing that I think is really cool though is--
Mixed metaphor, sorry.
We'll blend them all. I think one thing that's cool though is, there's been so much talked about, written about the millennial generation, right, which I'm a part of. We were basically the first. So I was class of '06 in college, I was Zuckerberg's year, I was at Brown, he was at Harvard. Sophomore year, Facebook starts and it's like our class, their class, one of the first 10 schools. So we were like the first ones to be called this millennial thing and took a lot of pride in like we're different, right? And now you have we'll call it a 15 year band, it goes down to about 18 year olds. But what I'm excited about is actually the generation behind, right, the five to 18 year olds. They are so dynamic. I mean, they're a create, like first of all they're obviously digital natives, they know nothing but the internet. And they're makers, like they really build stuff, and so--
They want to do all of the pieces themselves. Or at least know enough to be able to talk to--
And they kind of question everything, right. It's like, you know, when somebody just kind of asks them to do this, there's almost this inherent like, why? Right, and a lot of times that kind of leaves us when we're five or six years old, you know. Like I haven't entered that phase with my newborns but I'm sure very soon like everything I say it's just gonna be like, why, why, why, why? But there's a curiosity there, right, and we kind of lose that, and oftentimes school is the thing that kind of takes it away. You know, 'cause it's like, sit still, pay attention. And that's obviously not particular healthy for a child's development. But I think this generation, I'm just super excited about it. Like, you know, I feel like a lot of people with age you become skeptical of the generation behind you. I couldn't be more excited about five to 18 year olds. And it's also why things like CreativeLive and MissionU make so much sense because they're questioning that traditional path and they need new opportunities to learn.
And let's just say, we owe then that explanation because we're proceeding without the consistent reminder of why we're doing something and we talk about why a lot around here. You know, Simon Sinek's speech. We talk about the, you need to be able to connect with the work you do so that you find it meaningful, 'cause if you don't find it meaningful you're gonna give half, two-thirds of your person to the work that you want to do. So I think it, there's also this, while we're talking about that generation, there is this built in empathy that I've never seen before and I think for all of the bad rap that the internet gets the connection, to be able to see, you know, Scott Harrison build wells in Africa and watch that live in real time and see what the work that you do, what impact it can have, like there's this empathy layer that I don't see in the millennial generation that this group, I have a bunch of friends who have like 10, 12, 14, 16 year olds, just have it in spades, it's beautiful.
Well I'll tell you the other interesting thing, which is kind of hopefully an indication of kind of the wind being at our backs in the work that we're taking on. Is there's was a big Fast Company article recently about this 4000 student survey that was done. It's the first major survey of gen Z or centennials or whatever people are gonna call them. And one of the questions that was asked is what are you most concerned about? Like what's the number one concern? And in particular it was high school students, right? And I think back to high school and like, it was maybe you don't get into the right college, or you're bullied by somebody or like your sports team doesn't do well, or someone's not interested in like dating you. Or like maybe they want to date you and like that's scary, you know, in general. But the number one answer that was given amongst that generation of what they were most concerned about, I think it was like 66%, was drowning in college debt. That was the number one answer. And it was because they've seen their siblings. Right, they've seen millennials go out with the belief that we were fed around college and then end up coming home and living with mom and dad. It's like some insane number, like a third of all millennials live at home right now. I mean, it shouldn't be that way, right? But I think that this generation that's coming up is really wise to the fact that college doesn't have to be the only way that you can get ahead in life. And I think the work that you guys have done and continue to do is a large reason for that, so I commend you.
Well, this is about you. We're gonna try and do what we can to focus on you. I appreciate the kind words, but I think we are all in this together and that's the thing that I guess another piece of that debt is that what folks at home who are listening to this and thinking that we're throwing rocks at a system that you still believe strongly in, again, we're not disparaging it or the sake of disparaging it, it's just that there A, are many other paths, and that the path that you were sold, it's a different bill of goods than it was some time ago.
Yeah I think that's hard for, I mean, you know, even my sister in law, she's 26, so she went to college relatively recently. You know, she went for a year and racked up a bunch of debt and financial hardship and had to leave, right. And pay that down for the next eight years or so, right.
If she's lucky, eight years probably.
Yeah, I think she had like 15 grand of debt from like one semester and a half or something like that. But I won't name the school, but it's not an elite school. It's not a bad school, it's just like that big kind of middle bucket of several thousand schools that are names, but not a name that an employer is gonna look at and say, oh my gosh I have to hire that person. And I asked her, what do you think the cost of your school is today? And she said, I don't know, I mean it was probably like $32,000 when I went, so maybe 36 or 38 now. And I looked it up, and that same school today is $56,000 a year. And so I think it's hard for, especially parents, right, like baby boomers and whatnot, to understand how out of control it's got.
Yeah, how it's outpacing every other growth metric. I think, God I wanted to say something also about...
Oh, you were asking me, the third one was like what we stand for at MissionU.
Yeah, yeah, so why don't you layer your values into, I mean, we've been picking them up all along, but layer your values into MissionU, just...
Yeah I mean, I think the first one is purely the notion that education should be a tool for individual advancement. Right, that inherently, when you commit to your education that it should somehow improve your opportunities in life. And that at all times is like our kind of true north, if you want to call it that, as an institution. Is if we're not ultimately serving student interests and we're focused on something like institutional preservation or just making sure that we're keeping the lights on, then we should be frankly closed down, right. And there's probably a lot of colleges that I feel that way about right now. I think at our core, the purpose of MissionU is to ensure that learning transforms into livelihood. That's something that I really believe in. Having spent a decade focused on education in the developing world, the other kind of hand that fits interlocked with that hand of kind of core education is opportunity for dignified work. Because you can give somebody great educational opportunities but it's almost cruel to have somebody who's educated and then can't transfer that into some dignified work and livelihood. And you see it all the time in the developing world, where people get better education opportunities but then there's not a work opportunity for them there. And then you also are starting to see it now in like the charter school movement here in the US where if you speak to any leader of a charter school the one metric they constantly point to of success, is we have 99% college placement, right. 97% of our kids from really tough backgrounds get into college. And that's this huge accomplishment, right, and you can't expect them to do all things. But if you sit with them and you say, hey how do those kids do in college? How many of them finish college? How many of them leave with more debt than they entered? The numbers are bleak, right, I mean it's not great, you know. And so that connection that we really want to make is to enable any person regardless of their background or kind of the financial status that they come from to have that opportunity to ensure that their learning really transfers into livelihood.
This is a pain point for me, and I don't know if you've experienced it, so I'll share it. There's a little bit of name dropping in here, so just bear with me, for the folks at home who are listening to this, and it is, I, same thing, very passionate about the non-traditional path. I think it's the first time in the history of the world that it's more risky to do the traditional thing. And I've said that proudly. And then through the last four years I got involved with the Obama administration and got to work closely at the White House. Education's a huge thing for the former first lady. What was painful for me is there is this sort of acknowledgment, yeah, yeah, we need to recognize that, you know, lifelong learning or continued learning is great, but they kept pointing back to this stat, which is the best identifier that we have, the best metric for an improved life or a life where you make above the average household income is a college degree. And so there's this, it's because it is a thing that you can hang some data on...
One thing that's important there is it's historic data.
It's past, right. And I would agree with it.
Up and until probably two, three years ago maybe even. Maybe you can make an argument five years ago, whenever it was. Yeah, it was the best thing you could do. Going forward, the cost structure and then the way that employers look at it, I would challenge that. The other thing that anybody can call out is like, how much of that is kind of the person who would go out and is gonna do well in life is obviously the same family that encourages their kid to go to college, so. It's so hard to pull out some of the difference between the kind of signal and the noise there. And it has been something that's been harped on a lot.
It's my fear that you and I are then now competing with these voices and, the former first lady, she tells a great story about that's what got her out of the south side of Chicago, into a position where--
And there are great places where it happens.
It's incredible, but there's this, because it's something you can point to that's very, it's very well formed, it's very obvious, it's not murky or fudgy or whatever, that we still as a culture continue to point to. So if you're a parent or you're yourself thinking about going back to school or what should you do for your kids, you have to I think listen to Adam and others like him when... There's more behind the numbers than just the numbers. And it's sort of like the difference between Vegas, and Vegas takes into consideration all of the odds as opposed to Nate Silver for example just looking at the polls. And you got to take all these signals into consideration. And this one that you're talking about, about employability, going to employers like the Lyfts and the Airbnbs and the Spotifys, the folks where you know folks at the company. That is an indication of what the future's gonna bring.
All right, switching gears, you're a father.
Thank you, thank you.
Double the fun, half the sleep. I don't think I've ever even used that phrase--
That's a good one.
But it feels so true.
Well you really do look great. I know some people that have kids and you look better with--
They've been very kind the last month, they've been sleeping through the night.
So we get them down around 7:30ish and then usually my son Dylan starts screaming, this morning he was screaming around five or so, but usually he gives us 'til about six before he starts making some noise.
Oh man, that's luxurious.
Oh, yeah, yeah, it is. I mean, it's one of those things where you hear so much about it and you think, ah whatever. They're describing it this way, and I'm sure it'll feel that way, and you just, you can't describe, obviously, the love that you have for your children. But I think the unexpected piece was just how much it changes your view on the world in general. Not just like this relationship that I have with this thing that I would do absolutely anything for, but I mean, the two things that have changed most for me are my priorities, like the way I treat my time is now very different, and my sense of purpose. 'Cause my purpose up and until Dylan and Bayla, our twins, were born, was very much like how could impact as many people as I could in a meaningful positive way. That was my main driver of call it self-worth, of success, was how to I make this really meaningful impact on the world by virtue of impacting as many people as I can in a--
It's a very simple way of measuring it, yeah.
Yeah. And then, you know, probably the two weeks after they were born and they were in the NICU 'cause they came early and my wife had some challenges as well. And then I finally brought everybody home from the hospital and I was like, I don't care about anything except for being in that room just the four of us. And I don't care if I impact another person for as long as I live as long as us four are happy and healthy together. And suddenly this desire to live very big became a desire to live as small as possible. And it was really a couple weeks of reconciling that before I started to see them mature and evolve and start to recognize their hands and start to observe objects, and I was like, oh no, they're gonna go out into the world. And now these two things intersect in that I have this responsibility to still impact as many people as positive as I can but the core motivation for that is to enable the best world possible for these two to live in. And that shift in thinking was really unexpected.
That small thinking is a very powerful vehicle. When you realize that this is the thing that you want to impact, this thing that you can touch and feel and see. And I think that's part of why those big narratives are, or college as a something that you can point at is very tricky because you can still point at it and touch it but when you go back to your child, that your child's going to have to go into that world without, well I guess with a bunch of different disadvantages that we don't, that we didn't experience because it's gonna be such a different ecosystem in 3030, wait 2030.
I just skipped a thousand years there. Bad math. I have not excuse, I don't have twins.
That'll be really different.
I got plenty of sleep.
I think the other things that was really unexpected for me was just in that shift in priorities, was for a long time I kind of thought like, you need to make money to support your family, right. And, you know, in the town that I grew up in, where again my dad's a dentist, my mom's an orthodontist, but it was where a lot of like hedge fund managers and stuff lived, about an hour outside of New York. I had a lot of friends whose parents weren't very present but they were incredibly successful by every mark that society would deem. And now I look at that and I'm like, look the one thing, there's only one thing you can't buy with money, and that's time, right, like you can buy freedom, you can buy great medical health, you can't buy back the time that you have in your life. And in particular that time that you have with your friends, with your family, with perhaps your children. And so that's one thing that's hit me really hard lately is like, I don't care about X, Y, or Z if it is not somehow going to... If it's gonna take me away from my children it has to be worth so much to me at this stage. Because the dollars and cents I recognize can't buy back that time. And that's been a recognition that I, I wish more people saw. 'Cause I see so many people like, oh I just need to make more money 'cause then I could like buy my kids this nicer car. And it's like yeah, but your kid just wants you around. Again, I have like four and a half months of experience with twins, so, you know--
You sound wise.
So I'm like nobody to give a parent advice, but I think it's just something for, you know, friends of mine that I've had these deep conversations with that aren't parents yet, where I'm like, look just know that when they come, yes you'll be motivated to financially do well enough to take care of them, but you also won't want to be away from them.
I'm gonna see if you can reconcile something for me because I get asked a lot about balance and I don't... First of all, defining success, a very nebulous thing, to each his or her own.
And it's affected by relativity.
Yeah, for sure.
It's essentially who do you consider your peers. And if you're ahead of them you feel successful and if you're not then you feel like a failure.
Yeah, regardless of--
Yeah, it's just about how you define your peer set.
What the bank account is. So let's put a pin in that for a second. And I have advocated for the idea that we, that balance is impossible. And I don't know if it's controversial or not. I think Gary has also said the same thing before. And you go back to our friends who were at big tech companies living a very secure life, thinking oh I want to come and, you know, be an entrepreneur or build a startup, work on a company with less than a hundred people, make some great impact. But the sacrifice is massive. And I don't feel oriented towards balance with respect to my family, my personal life. I have actually had a different approach where I'm trying to blend the things that I care about into something where when I'm feeding one I'm feeding the other. Or I can at least step out and sip some air. And it doesn't feel like balance. You just, something that, it was in the way that you said it, made me feel like that when you can think of your kids in the way that you do, and you want to be in that room, but is that balance, do you feel like you have it? Or will you ever have it, or--
Are you out of whack just like the rest of us?
I think the pursuit of balance is one in which you will never ultimately be successful if you're actually pursuing something really, really difficult and or extraordinary. If you want to stay in like that kind of like that ordinary, and I don't mean extraordinary in like special, it's just not ordinary, beyond ordinary. Ordinary you can maintain balance. You can say, like all right, I'm gonna go to my job nine to five and I'm gonna be with my kids before and after and that's totally fine for a lot of people. And I have no criticism of those who want that. I want something very different. It's just like how I was raised, it's kind of how I operate, right. And so because of that it pulls time away from the opportunity to have balance. And a friend of mine years ago said something that really stuck with me in that he doesn't try and achieve balance, he tries to achieve harmony instead. And I think when you think about it in that framing of like harmony is where the notes are all happening but maybe one of them has more prominence for a period of time and the other ones kind of play, you know, still in synchronicity, but a little bit less prominent and then others kind of move forward, but they're all always there. That feels more achievable for me. And so I have small practices that I put in place. When I go to sleep, I sleep with my phone in a different room on airplane mode. So that's how I have my peace--
Nice job, Ariana Huffington.
Yeah, I mean otherwise I'm gonna grab my phone and come up with an idea and work on it. And I do a lot of times, but as long as I'm home my phone is separate, and then I get up and feed the babies first thing in the morning and I try everything in my power to not have my phone in my hand. It's hard because I want to be getting through emails but I'm thinking, you know, like this is the one hour in the morning that I have with my child. And then when I go to work, like I'm focused, I mean, I'm real focused. And then I come home, I'm exclusively with them for a few hours and then I get back on the computer and I do some email and work and whatnot, usually late at night. And, you know, time with my wife obviously in between.
But it's not balanced, it's like, it's...
No, it's not.
That's the thing that I keep coming back to.
And it's hard, but I think the key is to make sure that the notes that you want to experience most in your life are at the highest end of that harmonic frequency.
Yeah, and you can be good at one thing and you can have something else playing in the background. You can be really great at something and then step away from that thing and be great at something else, but you just can't be great at all the things all the time.
Yeah, and you just have to decide. Yeah, I mean, mine right now there's three things that I really would like to prioritize. It's time with my family, it's building MissionU, and it's personal health. And the truth is, I think in the last six months, I've done a really good job at optimizing for the first two and my health isn't as great. Like I don't work out as consistently as I would like. And, you know, it's because literally tonight I have to decide between a 7:30 p.m. pickup basketball game or time with my kids. And the same thing, Friday mornings there's an 8:00 a.m. game and there's on Wednesday mornings a 7 a.m. run at UCSF and it's like, I haven't played in those games in months because I'm gonna prioritize being with my kids. And I hate that I'm not treating my health as the top priority and I know that's the wrong thing to do, but if it's taking away from time with my kids, and I have such limited time with them, I need to make that decision knowing at some point I'll be able to get to better allocation.
Well that's what I love because you just highlighted all the competing ideas and people talk about balance and there's, I don't know anyone who does anything as hard as you do what you do, or anyone who's been on this show who sat in that chair has done it, that feels content with the relationships that they have relative to the professional ambition, relative to--
I think the only time that you feel that way is when you've really hit that kind of plateau where like things are going fine and you're frankly not all that needed in the business. Like it's moving and the operators, the executives are really maintaining it. And right around that time is when you, if you have the DNA that we have, go I want to work on something new. So that you get back in that flow. I had great balance the kind of last year that I was running Pencils of Promise, but I was itching for--
Six years of crazy grind and then you caught a year's worth of balance.
For sure, for sure.
Actually that was an interesting transition that you made without my prompting to some of the things that you do day to day. I like habits, I'm a habit freak because if I don't set some boundaries... It's like my roadmap. What are some of yours?
So that one, phone on airplane mode when I sleep is really, really critical for me. It's like a big game changer, and I've done it for probably four or five years now. I would say second is when I wake up in the morning, before I ever grab my phone I lean in the opposite direction and I acknowledge my wife in some capacity. Whether it's just like an arm on the shoulder or something small, I focus my energy, my time, my well-being, is gonna be connected to her before I connect to the flood of emails and technology. And it just changes the dynamic of my day. 'Cause if I go straight to the phone it's like all right this is gonna be stress, and that's fine, but if I start with her it's like okay, here's the foundation. And then, I mean certainly time focused with the kids in the morning. Then I tend to do like either phone calls or whatnot from home first thing, like starting around 8:00, 8:30. And then I head into the city for work and whatnot. And then another one for me is that when the weekend comes, this was a family tradition I've always had, but like we light candles on Friday nights and we have a dinner as a family. And we're Jewish so it's Shabbat, but just that moment to just stop and kind of be grateful for the week that you've had, all the ups and downs, and then be present with your family and friends and loved ones, is a really important ritual. And then the last one for me is I write. I have a journal in my bag at all times and anywhere between let's say every other day and maybe once a month I'll find time and I just write. And I don't write for anybody to ever read it. My expectation is no one will ever read any of the dozens of journals that I've filled up, but it's my opportunity to get out my essential truth. And there's just a lot of personal realizations and breakthroughs and honesty.
What's the mechanism, like do you give yourself five minutes, do you write whenever you're inspired? Because sometimes when you're busy as shit you don't get quite so inspired. What are some of the rules, guardrails?
If I was to look at most of the journal entries, I'd say more than 50% that I've written in the last five years were written on airplanes. So I don't connect to Wi-Fi on flights is another big thing for me. I mean, probably like you I travel all the time.
I was on a flight this morning.
So I don't connect to Wi-Fi on flights unless it's like absolutely essential, I mean, you know, when we were launching MissionU and I was flying around the week leading up to it, probably three times I connected, one of them was a flight to Singapore so it was like 20 hours or whatever or 16 hours.
This is some valuable time.
But in general I don't connect to Wi-Fi on flights. It's the time for me to decompress a little bit and I usually create content then. So if it's some materials for the organization, a presentation, but I usually end up writing. And I write until I feel like my cup is full. So I reflect on usually there's family related stuff. But I also really try not to write the, like here's what I did and here's what I experienced. It's not the what, it's really the kind of inner, personal depth of experience and emotions and feelings. And getting to what do I actually really believe right now. And what do I want to do to improve the next whatever week, or month or years. And that's usually what I write and it can be anywhere from three pages to like seven to eight pages. But these are kind of like leather bound journals like that big.
Yeah, they're not big.
So is one of the things that you write about some of the things that are challenging you?
All right, let's figure that out. Like what's, you know, we've talked a lot about great opportunity, you've been able to follow your dreams on a couple different paths. You're around people that you love. If you're sitting at home right now, you're like wow Adam's really got his shit together, this looks great. It looks great from the outside. But we all know that the stories we tell when we sit down here in interviews, and you've done enough of them, I've done millions just like you, that you're highlight reel, people are at home comparing them to their day to day lives. So what are some things that you're struggling with that you could share with us.
Sure. I think this question of am I willing to miss anything in my kids' lives is a big one for me right now. You know, very personal anecdote, but about two weeks ago, so first of all maybe two months ago, my son Dylan rolled over for the first time. Which doesn't sound like a big deal but like as a parent each of these milestones are a really big deal. You know, like they're not talking yet, so like rolling, literally pushing themselves and flipping over is like a big deal, and usually babies do it around three, four months. And my son Dylan is just a little tank and he did it at two months. And I was away and I missed it and I was really like a little heartbroken, right, like I wish I was there for it. And my daughter Bayla, I got a text from my wife about two weeks ago and she was like, Bayla rolled over, and she sent me basically the tail end of the video where like she had just kind of flipped over. And I had the biggest smile on my face, but there was genuinely a part of me that wanted to cry. I really felt so sad that I had missed this moment in not just one but both, and with twins it's like double in so many ways on the emotional spectrum that there was this part of me that was like, I can't miss these other things, right. So that's one thing I'm really struggling with is how do I craft the career that I want, which includes public speaking. I mean, like you I do a lot of it, and probably like you, it's not just 'cause it moves things in a positive way for your business but, I hope I say this humbly, but you put me on a stage and I know I can change people's lives in that room. Not in a small way, like the whole trajectory of their life can and will change, and it's not everybody--
Yeah, with a couple of ideas. Handful of people, handful of ideas.
If it's a three to 400 person room, somewhere between three and 12 people in that room, they're life will change, and I get the emails every day. You know, like somewhere between three and seven or eight emails, 'cause firstname.lastname@example.org is in the back of my book and most talks I give it's like, just reach out and contact me. And I value that, right. But that also means I need to be away from my family. And I have this creeping up desire right now to write a second book, which I haven't felt in years. You know, I just wanted to write the story of Pencils of Promise and the lessons learned. But now just seeing what's happening in this higher education space, like I want to write this book about essentially the reinvention of the American dream, 'cause the American dream stood for something for a long time. It was created in 1931 by a guy named James Truslow Adams in a book called the Epic of America, which I own two copies of.
And it's really hard to find. But it's this one volume history of the United States. Like literally back to when most of the continent was covered by trees. And, you know, he codified this idea of the American dream. And it's shifted recently and I want to write about that. But as you know, you put out content and like you need to travel to go spread the word around it oftentimes. So that's a big one for me is how do I reconcile my professional ambitions with my desire to be present, physically present with my family. And it will continue, I mean, I've told my wife, like I plan on coaching all their sports teams. I want to be that dad, right. Like my dad coached a lot of my sports teams and my wife's like, pick one sport, you can't coach them all. And I'm like, it's like sixth grade, nobody is that good anyway. You know, it's not like you have to be some--
You're not gonna jeopardize someone's college career in sixth grade.
There's not like pro soccer players coaching fifth grade soccer in Umbro shorts and orange peels. So you have to build your business to a certain place where you can be present for those type of things. And so that's a big one that I'm I would say definitely challenged by. And then a second one is really just this idea that the system that I really want to challenge is one that's so incredibly complex. And you know it so well, like education is not transactional.
It's really just such a human experience. And inevitably there'll be challenges ahead, there'll be blow back, there'll be stuff that doesn't work out perfectly because you can't just inject somebody and they're educated, right, like, you need to really foster that experience. And that's a daunting prospect, but it's one that certainly I want to take on.
Something where the problem is so big that it's hard to figure out where to start.
And then you just, it's like just, probably you got to just start digging the ditch. Wherever you're at right now, just start digging 'cause it's all gonna go to the good side of the story. So before we wrap up, just a couple random--
I like to finish with some randoms. What are you doing culturally right now? You have some music that you're excited about? Do you have some films you're excited about? Or is it, and all focus on the home is actually totally fair, you're four months into being a dad. But this ends up being a great, you know, we've hosted amazing musicians on the show before and I like to keep a pulse on culture, some of my friends are listening to or--
Yeah, I mean, honestly lately, 'cause I have about a 30 minute commute every day, I've been listening to a lot of podcasts. So right now I'm in the midst of S Town.
Which is really good. It's the number one podcast in the podcast store, it's by the Serial creators. I just wrapped up Missing Richard Simmons, which was also wildly entertaining and fascinating.
Wild, right? I haven't listened or watched.
Yeah, that was really good.
I saw some press around it, it was crazy.
It was great. So that's kind of on the podcast front. Let's see, on the music side I'm still kind of cycling through a lot of my classic, like a lot of Radiohead, lot of Jack White. But I just went to see this guy named Davy Knowles, really good rock and roll blues musician, who was great.
Here in the city? We're in San Francisco for--
Out in Marin.
Yeah, played my local venue.
Wow, that's right, you're in Marin, you came in for the, thanks for coming all the way in here.
Oh no, our office is in the city, so I'm here every day.
Where are you guys, roughly?
We're about a block and a half from Union Square.
So yeah, not too far.
You like to talk about 'em, don't like to talk about 'em?
I'm fine with it.
We raised our seed round back in October 2016. First Round Capital is our lead investor, so, you know, by all accounts, you know, premier investor to have--
At this stage.
You know, four of the top education investment funds and then a whole bunch of just really incredible angels, you know, people who have built great businesses. People who kind of saw what we were creating and believed in it long term.
What about the, I have a tough time, this is personally motivated question, I have a tough time identifying with EdTech. People that say, you know, CreativeLive, and then I'm always the black sheep at any education conference.
Yeah I can see that.
Or if I'm on a panel. If I'm on a panel I'm sitting next to these, and there it's all about measurement and how do you process outcomes and what's, you know, and I'm like people watch our stuff for three hours at a time. 22 minutes is the average time you spend on CreativeLive on a mobile device per session. So we focused on engagement and helping people tap into their passions, and it's so out of whack with all of the other stuff. So how do you reconcile, do you try and reconcile those, or are you just Adam from MissionU and do you, I guess, or is it too new for you?
You know, I've been in the education space for a while now, and I never considered myself, like I would never self-identify as like I'm an education...
Wonk, or whatever. And I am also not an educator personally. And I'm very up front about that. I'm an entrepreneur who believes in the value of education. And so I try and build organizations and companies that can have transformative impact there. I mean, in general there's usually kind of three audiences that are gonna interact with your company or your service. There's the kind of consumers, in our case it's like parents and students and teachers in high schools and guidance counselors and whatever else. Then there's like the other side, the businesses, right. And then there's like your industry people. And the two that I really value and, you know, it's important to like acknowledge the importance of all three. But I can tell you like this past week, you know, this article came out in Inside Higher Ed that was titled, Here's Why This Traditional Academic Welcomes MissionU. Because a different article was written about us in a different publication that was a really great profile but in it they interviewed some traditional academics and one of them said, "I can tell you "that traditional academics will hate this with a passion." So this was this guy's counter saying I'm a traditional academic and I actually believe in it. And this whole like Twitter war started and all these traditional academics were kind of like challenging basically what we were building and I just decided to kind of you know, poke my head in the ring and basically shared where I stand, right. And my gut tells me there's so much that's being done in K through 12 that tends to be I think the type of folks you're talking about. Right now the higher education space kind of feels like the wild west, from what I'm gathering. And it's a really exciting place to be. Like I wouldn't want to be focused in K 12 right now, 'cause it's a lot of like former teachers that are building products but they're not, again, entrepreneurs at heart. And they have the best of intentions, that's one thing that's really cool, everybody in this space has the best of intentions--
And they do know what needs to be built but they don't know how to build it well. I don't know, there's like a weird conundrum happening.
But the higher ed space, most of the people that I've met thus far, I like them, you know. I mean, it's definitely a little bit feels like the wild west and that's 'cause everybody acknowledges that it needs to shift, and so there's a lot of people with a lot of backgrounds coming into it. And I'm just happy to be a part of it.
Especially when there's that much money at play.
Right, right, yeah.
There's so much money, so much opportunity for disruption. There's not gonna be a one winner take all situation, it's gonna be so many different flavors. Awesome. So last question. Is there anything that people would surprised to know about you, that if you like, this is something that most people wouldn't know that if you told them they would be surprised. Like, no way. That would need to be the moment that people were sitting, I'm like no way, I would have never guessed that.
Um. Man, I'm trying to think of what people would be absolutely shocked with. I mean, here's the truth, I'm naturally very introverted. When people learn that, they're like, nah, that's not true. 'Cause they've either seen me--
You stand on stages, you write books, you--
Yeah, yeah, they see me speaking at an event, right. And they're like, oh, like you seemed really natural on stage, and oh here's a perfect one. I was so nervous about public speaking for so many years that my family physician had to prescribe a beta blocker for me, which is basically like a pill that allows your nerves not to become overcome by the adrenaline that it can't handle. For basically call it 2007 to 2009, if I had to give a presentation in front of four people I worked with at Bain I wouldn't sleep for weeks in advance. And so anyone that believes that public speaking is something that you have to be born with, it's not true at all. Like I'm case in point of somebody who could not have been more nervous about the notion of public speaking probably the first dozen times I did it. And now I'm like, ah like, give me 2000 people--
Bring it on.
Great, let's go. And it's actually part of the core curriculum at MissionU is the first quarter is eight hard skills and one of them is public speaking, 'cause I really believe it can be taught.
I'm gonna pull on that a little bit more 'cause that's just too good, 'cause it is such a big fear for, so what's your mindset when you in to public speak?
You know, the mindset has to be that--
Do you memorize, do you have slides, do you memorize, is it all from the heart and you have like three main points?
I have slides, I don't memorize anything. I mean, I've given some college commencement addresses and they were like, the president would like to see your remarks, and I was like well, there are no remarks. I mean, I'm gonna create notes on a note card literally in the hour leading up and then I'll put it on the, and I'll talk from there. So my advice for people is one, speak about something that you know. You know, you get really nervous when you're speaking about stuff that you don't know that well, 'cause you feel like the imposter syndrome. And when I was at Bain and I had to speak about industries where I wasn't necessarily an expert but I had learned a lot in three weeks, I was always worried they're gonna see through the holes. But if you have to give a presentation about what you did on Friday night, that's a lot easier 'cause you know it. And so, you know, one, speak about content that you actually know and particularly if you've lived it it's even easier. I think the mindset needs to be that you are just telling a story to a friend. And I really focus on eye contact when I talk in front of rooms. You can kind of tell the person that's like kind of wandering around and not actually making eye contact with anybody. In the first five or 10 minutes of any talk, it's pretty clear, there'll be someone that's really locked in and jazzed about what I'm saying. And I try and speak to them. I mean, I'll look around at different people, but if you can basically before you get up on that stage, or that podium or whatever it is, not think about oh my God have to address 200 people, and instead be like, I'm just gonna tell a story to a friend of mine, I find that it makes it much easier. And then the last thing is, basically know exactly what you're going to say in your opening, and know exactly what you're gonna say in your closing line, and everything else can meander. But I've seen people give great speeches and then they kind of fumble the finish and they leave feeling disappointed, and the audience--
We've seen it in a movie and it never goes well when you're fumbling.
Exactly. So especially when I used to be super nervous, I'd get up there and the first thing I'd say is, "Hi, my name is Adam Braun and I'm the founder "of Pencils of Promise," nowadays, "Hi, I'm Adam Braun, "I'm the founder of MissionU," and it just kind of allows me to feel like I'm introducing myself the same way that I would to someone that I would meet at a cafe or restaurant. And then it's a familiar talk and then I know my closing line, and everything in between you can figure your way out through.
Yeah, it was a pleasure.
You guys, Adam Braun, check it out, MissionU. What are your coordinates, at missionu?
So just missionu.com is the website.
Anybody can email me at any point in time adam@i, just the letter I, promise.org. And then we're on social media for everything just @missionu, M-I-S-S-I-O-N-U.
Good luck getting one of those 25 spots if you're one of the thousands of applicants. And we'll see you next week for another show. (intense music)