Project founder and CEO Patrick Dowd's philosophy is, "The future is ours to shape, and new frontiers await." (Photo: Millennial Trains Project)
Ten cities, 10 days, 20 bright young minds on a transcontinental train trip sharing ideas for solving real-world problems — that’s the concept behind The Millennial Trains Project, a sort of mobile think tank that brings together socially minded entrepreneurs to address the challenges of the present and future. Departing Aug. 8 from San Francisco, the train will stop in Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington on its journey of discovery. Patrick Dowd, the project’s founder and CEO, explains its genesis and objectives.
MNN: Explain the idea behind, and the mission of, The Millennial Trains Project. When and how did you come to it, and how did you make it a reality?
Dowd: The idea comes from India, where I helped lead a similar trains project, the Jagriti Yatra, as a Fulbright scholar. In India, the Jagriti Yatra (graphic below) has been going on for at least a decade and has become a totem to the aspirations of young and enterprising people in that country. Last year, 20,000 millennials applied for 400 spots. When I came back from India, I was working in investment banking at J.P. Morgan in New York, right as Occupy Wall Street was coming to its height. I felt there was a more positive way to respond to the dissatisfaction that many people felt with where their country was, and I thought it would look more like this trains project from India than the protests that were going on outside our offices.
The process of building the project involved building a team and coalition of supporting organizations. While we knew that the project was a good opportunity for like-minded philanthropic organizations and corporate sponsors, the smartest move we made was incorporating crowd funding into the project, which made participants and the people that support them our biggest sponsor and made the project user-generated in a way that I think is really fun and interesting. We look at the first journey this August as an experiment that we will learn from and build upon in the future. We are collaborating with a diverse number of leading institutions including National Geographic Traveler, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, among many others. In addition, the American Sustainable Business Council is working with us to identify leaders from the sustainable business community in each city where the train stops to come lead discussions on the train.
What do you hope to accomplish?
One of the most valuable things that the Jagriti Yatra has created is a distributed network of young change makers all around India and the world that are committed to the idea of “nation-building through enterprise.” As I see it, the future is ours to shape, and new frontiers await. Our train is a platform for emerging pioneers of the next generation to explore these new frontiers on a national scale. In essence, we are taking a radically analog approach to contemplating and exploring the possibilities of our Digital Age.
How many applicants did you get, and how do you select those that ultimately will be on the journey? Explain how the fundraising works.
For our inaugural journey, we had 60 applicants raise over $140,000 from over 1,110 individual supporters. The first 20 applicants that reached their fundraising goals earned a spot on the train. Since ours is an all-or-nothing crowd-funding platform, the funds pledged to applicants who did not reach their goal in time have been returned to their contributors. I think the fact that we have had over 1,000 individuals invest in making this project a reality demonstrates a groundswell of support for this idea of using trains to explore American’s new frontiers in the company of other people from diverse backgrounds who similarly care about the future of our country.
Can you talk about some of the most interesting people/projects that are taking part, especially sustainable proposals?
One of the reasons we are so excited to be taking this journey on a train — not a bus, not a plane — is the fact that trains are one of the most sustainable ways to get around. On that note, I want to highlight Malcolm Kenton's project. Malcolm's project, Trains Revitalizing America, unites his passion for trains and his interest in sustainability and ecology. Through a documentary film, Malcolm will shine a light on the various reasons that makes train travel a sustainable, efficient and ecologically sound mode of transportation.
Daniella Uslan (pictured at right) is focusing on preventing food waste by finding out how stakeholders across the country are dealing with this problem in new, inventive ways.
Participant Matthew Stepp, a senior policy analyst at a D.C. think tank, will chronicle clean energy innovations across the country. Through daily posts on his discoveries, and a final white paper, Matthew hopes to bring energy innovations happening across the country into the policy debate.
What activities will take place while on the train and at the 10 stops?
We travel by night, stopping each day in a different locality. Three things happen each day: a “local innovation showcase” where we see what interesting new things are starting to crop up in each community, followed by six hours of free time where participants advance their own projects. The third part happens back on the train where we have seminars from distinguished guest speakers responding to the prompt, “Where are the new frontiers?”
How are you using social media to raise awareness and support for the project?
We are highlighting our applicants and their stories on traditional social channels, like Facebook and Twitter. Beyond that, the crowd-funding platform we built has been an incredible way to grow our community and give applicants the ability to create highly engaging, sharable proposals. Unlike traditional application processes, which are closed and opaque, we wanted to develop something that was inherently transparent and collaborative from the start. The crowd-funding platform is built on the notion of community and shared discovery. Our applicants have fundraised by building communities of support, not only through their friends, family and colleagues, but well beyond their immediate network. They are reaching out to the people and organizations that inspire them and gaining their support.
It's also been incredibly exciting to watch the crowd-funding platform bringing the applicants together. They are learning about other projects, donating to each other and starting to build the connections they will forge on the train. One of the more interesting things we observed was one applicant just went total overdrive with her Twitter outreach. Over the course of one week, she probably tweeted 1,000 people, including more than a few celebrities and heads of state. By the end of the week, she had raised $5,000. I think she was actually the very last person to get on board, which is pretty cool.
Why do it on trains vs. other form of transport?
Traveling on a train has a very unique ability to connect travelers to the landscape in a way you can't get from any other form of transportation. As Americans, trains connect us to the history of our pioneering past — a dynamic time when our country was very much "on the rise." We want to revive and remix that energy in the present day. Beyond providing one of the most sustainable forms of transportation, trains provide an ideal space for contemplation and collaboration with other travelers.
Why did you target young people 18-34 in particular? What's different and most promising about this generation?
Millennials have come of age during a disruptive, challenging time in our nation's history, and economy. By and large, millennials feel comfortable eschewing traditional paths toward success and harnessing the unprecedented access technology that engenders innovation, connection and collaboration. The millennials who take ownership of this incredible opportunity will drive our future, and our nation, forward. The train is meant to provide an opportunity for millennials to take on national challenges and enact change at the local level. The Millennial Trains Project emphasizes action and connection to landscape with the goal of having the ideas of our participants contribute to the welfare of communities across the country.
You quit a job at JP Morgan to do this. Was that scary, did you have any second thoughts or regrets?
Yes, it was scary. But it was also liberating, and it is not a decision that I in any way regret looking back. The opportunity to work with the many passionate people and amazing organizations that have contributed to building this project has been the most rewarding experience of my life.
Do you plan to reenter the corporate sector or is this a full-time job now? What are your plans going forward for other trains, here in the U.S. and elsewhere?
Maybe one day, but for now, this is my full-time hustle. We have another train in the works for early 2014.
I hear there's a film documentary being made about the journey — details?
We have an incredibly talented on-train documentarian, Andrew Hinton (winner of the 2012 Vimeo Award for Best Documentary) and we are working with local PBS affiliates to capture the action in the cities where our train stops. At a minimum, we’re going to mash-up this footage into some short videos and share them for free online. (Fun fact: Andrew and I met on the Jagriti Yatra in India in 2010-11).
What are your dreams and plans for the future?
So, yes, let’s just take step back and add this all up, kind of answering the question of: “What’s the macro point here?” It’s about a connection between imagination, technology and landscape. It’s about these journeys building leaders who really appreciate that connection, and inspiring others to have faith in America’s future. We are using technology (both digital and industrial) to explore and manifest the very diverse aspirations of our generation on a national scale. What that all adds up to remains to be seen, because ultimately this is a very user-generated project, and the participants play a big role in shaping the outcomes.
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Click for photo credits
Daniella Uslan's project focuses on food waste. (Photo: Millennial Trains Project)
The cross-country trip will utilize a caravan of refurbished 20th century train cars. (Photo: Millennial Trains Project)
Patrick Dowd sits with railroad workers at Union Station in Washington. (Photo: Nick Barbato)