Editor's Note: Before they were entrepreneurial stars, these founders were regular people with regular jobs. Here, we look at how those early positions helped form today's high-flying entrepreneurs. 

Adam Braun thinks every child should have access to a quality education. As founder of Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that's built more than 250 schools in Africa, Asia and Latin America, he has helped more than 30,000 students gain greater access to knowledge.

Like many entrepreneurs Braun hadn't planned to launch a nonprofit after college. Before that idea materialized, he worked at a hedge fund and the major management consultancy, Bain & Company. Before that, he traded basketball cards, visited more than 50 countries and even did a stint as an improv performer.

It's these early jobs that he credits as his most formative. Here are just a few lessons he learned from those early experiences: 

A Sentimental Lesson

Braun is a fierce competitor with strong drive. This first emerged when he was a 7-year-old growing up in Connecticut. His passion: trading basketball cards. 

"Collecting basketball cards had a huge influence on me," says Braun. "I loved that idea that these things I was passionate about could create value." 

Long before he became a finance guy, Braun's "stock market" was Beckett, a magazine listing the value of every sports card. Braun used it to plan trades with friends and at card shows. Even as a kid, he was focused and employed strategy to obtain a "blue chip" card. 

"I loved Michael Jordan," says Braun. "I was obsessed." So obsessed that he would do almost anything to get his hands on the future Hall-of-Famer's cards--even if this meant trading cards of other top players like Charles Barkley. 

"I was sentimental, but only about the Jordans," Braun says. "I was being selectively sentimental. I would do whatever it took to get as many Jordans [as possible]." This was an early lesson in understanding, he says. "You can't invest your emotions into every single thing." 

Leaving the Comfort Zone 

In 2005, Braun found himself studying abroad on Semester at Sea as an undergraduate at Brown University. It was there he tried something that would change how he operated--improvisational comedy. 

Though Braun had never performed improv or done any public speaking, he embraced the challenge, pouring his heart into it and performing for hundreds of people. 

"The incredible part is that it forced me out of my comfort zone," Braun says. 

The "listen first" approach Braun learned from performing still informs his working style and approach to relationship building. 

"When you're building something of meaning and merit, you have to constantly be able to persuade the person on the other side of the table to believe in your vision," Braun says. "Through improv, I was able to gain comfort walking into a room and [immediately] identifying the key drivers to ultimately succeed in that environment." 

Life, Unscripted 

Another outcrop of improv? The ability to give inspiring speeches--and breeze through media interviews. Though Braun regularly gives speeches, he keeps preparation minimal. "When I give a speech, I never write what I'm going to say," says Braun. He believes it's important to "be comfortable with ambiguity and understand that's what makes the best connection with an audience--authenticity that comes out of being in the moment." 

Indeed, Braun isn't afraid to take risks. The idea for Pencils of Promise came to him spontaneously on a trip to India, when a small boy begging on the streets and asked him for a pencil. 

A nonprofit, or as he calls it, "for purpose" venture was born, and Braun hasn't looked back since. "A lot of people are often afraid to attempt certain things," says Braun. "I've experienced failure, and I know it doesn't kill you." 

Just keep your hands off his Jordans.

Published on: Dec 2, 2014