All Aboard the Millennial Train to Everywhere•
Laura Baverman, Contributing Writer
Patrick Dowd was studying progressive India when he went on a journey that reminded him of its pioneering past.
The Fulbright Scholar and Georgetown University graduate visited the country in 2010 to study and film a documentary about electronic waste recycling, an industry of growing importance as technology advances and devices become obsolete faster.
But it was a cross-country Google and Dell-sponsored journey with hundreds of inspired young Indians, aboard a timeless technology—a passenger train— that inspired his true mission. He wanted Millennials in the U.S. to rediscover their country and learn of exciting and innovative things happening around it.
“What I saw in India was that the experience of going across the geographic breadth of the country in the company of people that want to build it up with their own talents and passions is very powerful,” said Dowd.
“There was a sense that India has a lot of opportunity, the country is rising and growing. People were talking about India the way I thought people should be talking about America.”
When he came back to the U.S. in 2011 to an investment banking job at J.P. Morgan Chase in New York, Occupy Wall Street protests were in full swing, and unprecedented youth unemployment and overall economic uncertainty were the rule. He began to brainstorm the non-profit Millennial Trains Project, and in 2012, assembled a team of volunteers to make it happen.
In theory, the U.S. journeys would be just like the India ride, called the Jagriti Yatra. There, more than 20,000 young people apply for 450 spots on the train each year. Dowd was impressed by the camaraderie and collaboration that happened when people from around a nation came together during travel.
But his team had some twists in mind.
For the U.S. journeys, passengers would work on their own entrepreneurial projects as they learned of the innovations in cities across the U.S. (There is some precedent. Entrepreneurs annually build startups on a handful or more StartupBuses to Austin’s South By Southwest conference each year). To raise money for the journey and level the playing field, eager participants would earn their spot on the train through online crowdfunding campaigns.
“They can use this platform to be really creative on a national scale,” Dowd said. “We’re not controlling or dictating the projects at all.”
The first journey begins August 8, when an 11-car Amtrak train leaves a San Francisco station and cuts almost straight across the States, from Reno to Salt Lake City to Denver to Omaha to Chicago to Cleveland to Pittsburgh to Martinsburg, W. Va. and ending up in Washington D.C.
A second route could happen still yet this year, traversing the southern part of the country from Los Angeles to Miami. A third, in 2014, will take the northern route, from Portland to Boston. Eventually, journeys could happen in Europe, Japan or China.
“The goal for us is that this is sustainable long-term,” Dowd said. “But like everything in American history, this is an experiment. We see it as something we’ve put a lot of time into designing, but something that is going to be a learning experience that we can build upon in the future.”
Riders will fund two-thirds of the trip through their campaigns. To earn a spot, they must raise $5,000 from 10 or more donors. And they have to move fast. Only the first 10 applicants in each of 10 categories to meet the goal get to ride. Categories range from makers and explorers to “intrapreneurs,” entrepreneurs and performers.
There’s an entrant who hopes to turn American poetry into street art across the country and one who will film a documentary about people with autism.
The applicant with the most donations so far will create a photographic essay and documentary film about the train journey, showing the importance of train transportation in the past, present and future of America.
The remainder of the budget is covered by sponsors like the Startup America Partnership, National Geographic Traveler, McKinsey & Company, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, non-profits Opportunity Nation and City Year (an AmeriCorps program working in inner-city classrooms).
“What’s cool is that our biggest sponsor is the participants of the project and the people who support them,” Dowd said. “Instead of spending our time thinking about selling sponsors, we can focus on making this the best experience possible for the participants.”
The train will arrive at a destination each day around 6 a.m. and leave by 4 p.m. At each stop, there will be a showcase of innovative projects in each community, and Millennial residents and community leaders to meet. The riders will leave the train station mid-morning to make connections or have meetings relevant to their individual projects. That makes the journey “user-generated,” Dowd said.
City Year leaders will host leadership training sessions each evening, and then lectures, seminars or office hours will be given by on-train mentors like Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, Mike Oreskes, a senior managing editor of the Associated Press and Jeff Selingo, editor-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, venture capitalists Jonathon Perrelli of the Washington D.C.-based Fortify VC and Phin Barnes of First Round Capital, architect Travis Price.
Updates on the Project will be broadcast from the train, helping the rest of the nation to experience the energy, excitement and entrepreneurism happening along the route.
Trains are the best mode of transportation for the journey, Dowd believes.
“Trains have a powerful ability to bring people together,” he said. “Technology ties are weak ties compared to the ties you form when you travel with someone else.”