Millennial Trains Project: America's New Pioneers

Speaking of transformational youth, my second conversation was with Jessica Straus, a spokesperson for the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), whose inaugural journey took place in August. The group traveled on a refurbished train, described as a “retro piece of industrial hardware,”  from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. This was the first of three planned trips, with the next one scheduled to travel from Los Angeles to Miami in March 2014.

 

 MTP was founded by Patrick Dowd, a Fulbright scholar who co-led a Jagriti Yatra journey in 2010-11. Similar to Jagriti Yatra, MTP has a pioneering sensibility and seeks to engage Millennials who are interested in exploring new frontiers.

MTP also has some additional, unique attributes. For example, to help instill a sense of personal commitment, and to demonstrate an ability to build a community around an issue, participants were each required to raise $5,000 to help fund the journey. Crowdfunding also produced a greater sense of accountability, because the funders (each initiative had about 100 of them) would likely monitor the progress of the projects they helped fund.

MTP founder, Patrick Dowd.

MTP founder, Patrick Dowd.

MTP participants on the train, reflecting and collaborating.

MTP participants on the train, reflecting and collaborating.

Like Jagriti Yatra, MTP’s participants were a collection of young people who possessed a unique quality that all Millennial leaders seem to share:  Aspirational pragmatism. That is, the ability to craft a lofty vision that is grounded in common sense.

The MTP participants, Jessica explained, “saw possibilities for disruption everywhere. They imagined how to design a preferred future. What systems of scale would look like. For an entire government. Or a school.”

“There was very much a sense of leaving the west and going towards the rising sun,” she added.

Like Jagriti Yatra, the MTP organizers believe smaller towns and cities offer greater potential for change than big urban centers, because there is often no entrenched bureaucracy.

“There are big opportunities to design your future in these small-sized cities,” Jessica said. “And that was a huge learning. GenY can move there and move the needle.”

It was while visiting smaller towns that the MTP participants developed an important insight:  Transportation was a problem in virtually every community they visited. It was obvious that the existing infrastructures were not built to support the needs of contemporary society, which was having a direct impact on local economies.

 

The good news is that in addition to identifying the problem, the team encountered a potential solution, in a very unexpected location. During a stop in Omaha, Nebraska, they were introduced to Anne Trumble, a visionary landscape architect,  and founder of Emerging Terrain, a non-profit that collaborates with governments, citizens and artists to “re-shape the built environment.”

Emerging Terrain has taken on the challenge of helping Omaha solve its transportation-related challenges by thinking about its needs and existing resources holistically and creatively. The group believes, for example, that “transport can include networks linking people, goods, ideas, information, economic growth, urban development, cultures, resources, and technology.”

Stored Potential

Stored Potential

As one of its first efforts, Emerging Terrain launched Stored Potential, a project to revitalize a grain elevator by painting murals on it that would provide an aesthetic improvement to the area while initiating a public conversation about how to transform shared spaces. (Re-imaging existing spaces, beliefs and institutions seems to be a Millennial theme, and it certainly characterizes both Jagriti Yatra and MTP.)

It would have been difficult to launch a project like Stored Potential in New York or L.A., due to inflexible bureaucracies, but Omaha embraced the initiative, and Emerging Terrain’s success has been so profound that other communities throughout the U.S. and the world are seeking to emulate it.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Jessica whether she had learned anything new about Millennials during the MTP journey. She said yes, that she had been surprised by the degree to which the group made an effort to support one another.

“There were twenty-four different Millennials working on twenty-four different projects. There were projects on open government and clean energy. On poetry. Art. Higher education. And even though each member had their own unique focus, they were willing to think outside the parameters of their own projects to help solve the problems of others. There was a willingness to come together.”

Yes, something is going on. As Jessica put it, we are in the “throes of revitalization.” The world’s youth, the Millennials, are in motion. They are in active pursuit of a preferred future, and although this shift is in its infancy, initiatives like Jagriti Yatra and the Millennial Trains Project are an exciting indication of the drive, focus and selflessness that Millennials can bring to problem-solving.

We should all get on board.

Jagriti Yatra: India's Millennial Entrepreneurs

I launched this blog by stating my belief that some sort of universal shift is underway. In other words, the world’s equilibrium has been disturbed. And according to the laws of physics, when equilibrium is disturbed, something gets set in motion. In this case, it’s Millennials. Literally.

Picture this:

Teams of motivated, insightful young people decide to solve the world’s biggest problems. They work individually to develop ideas. Then, they meet up in a city and board a train that has been outfitted with everything from sleeping and dining facilities to spaces equipped with presentation technology.

The train makes its way across the country for a week or two, during which the collaborators share ideas, enhance each other’s thinking, and reflect. Periodically, the train stops so they can visit local communities and engage with entrepreneurs and visionaries.

Finally, they arrive at a destination on the other side of the country and head back to their homes with a clearer vision of what they can do to improve their communities.

These journeys are starting to happen all over the world. In fact, two took place recently, one in India and one in the United States. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with organizers from both, and I came away inspired and even more convinced that civilization (or, as Millennial author David Burstein calls it, the “human operating system”) is experiencing a massive re-boot.

My first conversation was with Ashutosh Kumar, the Executive Director of Jagriti Yatra, a transcontinental train journey that takes “hundreds of India’s highly motivated youth on a fifteen-day national odyssey and introduces them to the unsung heroes of India.”

 

The group’s first journey took place in 1997, which was the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. The purpose was to travel across the country and observe the changes that had taken place over the 50 years.

The focus changed in 2007, Ashutosh explained, because “the organizers realized that India had 704 million people below the age of 30, meaning it would soon become the world’s most youthful country.” (Even surpassing China!)

“They also realized that India was producing 10 million college graduates each year, but only adding about 3.5 million jobs.”

That meant millions of motivated, educated youth were entering the job market every year unable to find employment. So the Jagriti leaders decided to focus on empowering India’s youth to become entrepreneurs, hoping they would, in turn, invent new economic engines that would reduce the employment gap, create a sustainable middle class, and help end India’s crippling cycle of poverty.

Realizing that the majority of India’s youth are concentrated outside urban centers, the Jagriti team crafted a train route that would connect India’s college-educated Millennial youth with their peers around the country – especially those in the remotest areas - to learn about their real needs and challenges and to create business opportunities.

Some of India's Millennial entrepreneurs.

Some of India's Millennial entrepreneurs.

It’s working! Since 2007, over 200 new businesses have been launched! In addition, Jagriti Yatra's success has caught the attention of international corporations like Google, which has led to plans for more journeys. In fact, the next one departs in December.

The future looks very bright for India, thanks to initiatives like Jagriti Yatra. If its youth are given access to education and technology, receive continued support from government and business leaders, and are empowered to identify solutions, they can create new engines of prosperity for their country.

Consulting and collaborating on the train.

Consulting and collaborating on the train.

That’s good news for everyone, because with 700+ million youth actively working to create a new middle class, the momentum of India will extend far beyond its borders. The result? India’s Millennials can play a leading role in transforming the global economy, and more importantly, the world itself.