How a Vintage Train Ride Could Spark Innovation

PHOTO: A group of millennials will embark on a cross-country train journey in August 2013. They will pursue innovative projects at cities along the way.

Courtesy of The Millennial Trains Project

Going retro just might be the way forward.

That's what a group of young entrepreneurs is banking on. They're about to embark on a cross-country train journey to turn innovative ideas into world-changing projects.

Forty men and women between the ages of 18 and 34 will board a vintage train made of cars from the 1950s and 60s in San Francisco this August.

Each participant will climb aboard with an idea for a project, something with the potential for national impact but that can be implemented at the local level. With the help of on-board mentors and each other, they will attempt to bring their ideas to life in a week and a half as they chug across America's heartland toward their destination, Washington, D.C.

It's a tall order. But Patrick Dowd, the brains behind the project, says that a trip like this is the best way to affect real change at the national level. You can touch down in the fly-over states and attempt to bring entrepreneurial ideas to life in the real world. And for something so old, he added, trains can be a great vehicle for innovation.

Dowd knows that from personal experience. He completed a similar train journey in India several years ago as a Fulbright scholar. That journey is called the Jagriti Yatra, which means "journey of awakening." And for Dowd, that proved to be true.

"It was like getting hooked up to an IV of young entrepreneurs," he recalled.

He focused during that trip on electronic waste management (read: what a country does with a bunch of old cell phones and other outdated electronics it no longer wants), and the trip allowed him to see the real-world challenges and opportunities for a project like this.

Why not bring the train travel idea to the United States, he thought later. So a year and a half ago, he quit his job, gathered a team and launched an effort to bring what had been a personally transformational experience to other young people.

The basic concept is that people develop a project idea that will have national meaning but that can be implemented at the local level before they embark on the train journey. The projects can be techy, but that's not a requirement.

People apply online and begin fundraising. Each participant must drum up enough support to raise the $5,000 required to participate. Crowdsourcing is encouraged, not only to make funding easier but to spread the word about the different projects. Up to 40 millennials can go on the journey. So far, about 20 people have completed the application.

It's high-impact, short-term change, Dowd said. A teenage nerd sitting behind his laptop can create apps until he keels over from sunlight deprivation, but he's not necessarily connecting with the people using those apps and seeing how they impact different communities.

The trip gives young people a chance to do that. They will pile into a confined space with other like-minded young entrepreneurs and actually talk face-to-face with each other. Trekking across the country will offer participants a "visceral sense of what it feel like to do something on a big scale," Dowd said.

The train trip is not only a way to reaffirm the idea that millennials can bring about change, but it's also an opportunity to let young people meet with mentors who have already walked the proverbial path to entrepreneurial success.

Daniela Arredondo will serve as one of the mentors on the first half of the trip. The Mexican-born New York mother-of-two is particularly suited to the job because she was one of the first to complete the Jagriti Yatra in India. She's also weeks away from launching a bilingual app aimed at helping kids connect with other cultures and languages.

Arredondo has been through the sometimes painful growing process of launching a new venture and can help the young participants navigate everything from assembling a team to securing funding. She drew great inspiration from her compatriots on the India journey and said it facilitated the idea of iterating quickly and constantly.

"It fosters a spirit of doing," she said.

The passengers will be young people with similarly big ideas, but in fields that range from how municipalities use big data to how food goes from the farm to the grocery store.

Cameron Hardesty's day job is as digital director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, for example. But her love of poetry and desire to bring it to other young people compelled her to apply for the train project.

She thinks poetry gets an unfair rap as an overly academic literary form for the AARP set. So Hardesty plans to create art installations in each city that feature the work of a modern, fun poet that millennials like her can relate to. She's thinking about collaborating with local artists and choosing poetry that would appeal to millennials in each city. Hardesty is also mulling over the idea of launching a Kickstarter campaign in each city to help fund the venture. She thinks it would be neat to leave a poetry organization in each city with a social media toolkit they could use to spread the art form even further. And she wants to get photos of each installation to put on a Tumblr page. Nothing is certain yet, but she's excited about the possibility of spreading poetry to a wider audience.

And that's exactly what Dowd likes to hear.

"Great ideas are going to come from this intersection of passionate people from very different disciplines," Dowd said.

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