Brown graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Davidson College with a degree in physics and public policy in 1978. He then spent a year teaching science and math in Kenya before returning to the U.S. to attend Yale School of Management. After his first year at Yale, he and his wife, Linda A. Mason, co-directed Land Bridge, a famine relief program on the Cambodia-Thailand border. Working under the auspices of CARE and UNICEF, the program served as many as 25,000 people a day and was the largest emergency food distribution effort ever attempted. He then returned to Yale, earning a Masters in Public and Private Management in 1982. He and Mason wrote a book about their experiences in Cambodia, Rice, Rivalry, and Politics.
After graduating, Brown took a job with Boston management consulting firm, Bain and Company, but left in January 1985 to co-direct famine relief efforts in Sudan for Save the Children. The innovative program developed by Brown and Mason established many local food distribution centers, rather than a few centralized ones.
Returning to Boston, Brown and Mason co-founded Bright Horizons Family Solutions, which provided on-site child care for client-company employees, in 1986. Under their leadership, the company grew into a publicly traded company which currently employs 24,000 people (2012). Brown served as chief executive officer until January 2002. He is also the founder of the Horizons Initiative, which provide services for homeless children, and the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children, which creates play spaces in homeless shelters. In July, 2012 Brown assumed the role of Chairman of the Board for Boston After School and Beyond. He is the recipient of the White House's Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership and the Ernst & Young/USA Today Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Brown assumed the presidency of Berklee College of Music in 2004. He is the third president of the college and the first non-member of the Berk family. A music enthusiast and avocational drummer, Brown had produced award-winning CDs of children's music featuring Ziggy Marley and Arlo Guthrie, among others, as a fund-raiser for the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children. Under his leadership, Berklee has achieved successive record enrollments and has also grown its online educational offerings through Berklee Online. Since he became president, the college also has initiated an Africana Studies program, the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, and an American Roots Music Program.