Millennial Entrepreneurs Harness Power of Vintage Train Travel

PHOTO: Patrick Dowd, founder and CEO of the Millennial Trains Project, stands with participant Autumn Carter and media liaison Jessica Straus outside a train at Union Station in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 17, 2013. PlayEmily DeRuy/Fusion
WATCH Vintage Train Inspires Modern Day Solutions

Two dozen young entrepreneurs spilled off a train exhausted after their journey and dragged their luggage toward Washington, D.C.’s bustling Union Station.

The Millennial Trains Project participants had just spent a week and a half chugging cross-country in vintage train cars as part of what amounted to a moving start-up incubator.

Each young entrepreneur had an idea for a project that could have broad impact but be implemented at the local level and they helped each other breath life into those ideas as they rolled across the country.

The group disembarked from the train on Saturday as if coming off an incomprehensible high.

It might sound new-agey or random, but it’s not entirely novel. Patrick Dowd, the driving force behind the project, completed a similar journey in India as a Fulbright Scholar and found it so transformational he wanted to bring a version of the trip to his peers in the United States.

"It was like getting hooked up to an IV of young entrepreneurs," he told Fusion in June.

And the inaugural U.S. trip proved to be the same.

“It went as well as I hoped it would and in a lot of cases, better,” Dowd said Saturday as he sat bleary-eyed but amped in the sweltering glass-top viewing car parked at Union Station’s Platform 16.

It had been “surreal,” he said, after so many months of planning to finally sit back and watch his brainchild come to life.

The participants gained admission through crowdfunding. Those who could raise the $5000 for the trip - convince enough people their project was worth pursuing - got a ticket. Dowd said it was a good way to avoid using traditional measures of success like GPA and to ensure that all participants started the trip on an equal playing field.

One of the unforeseen benefits turned out to be the self-motivating factor.

Autumn Carter, a participant looking into how people and organizations can use public data to improve their communities, promised her donors she’d write a book, for instance, and knew that if she didn’t work hard gathering research during the trip, she’d let them down. So she rose at 6 a.m. each morning, watched the sun rise above the country’s heartland and buckled down.

The trip started in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved through the middle of the country with stops in Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, and Pittsburgh before it ended in D.C. Many of the participants had never touched down in the “fly-over states” and doing so gave them a chance to meet the real people their projects were designed to impact.

Dowd likened each stop to sending two dozen lenses into each location with a six-hour exposure and having them return with a diverse composite picture. In other words, participants viewed each leg of the trip differently because they approached them through different backgrounds and interests.

And being physically crammed together day in and day out allowed the participants to share those diverse viewpoints with each other.

Even aspects of the trip that initially seemed like drawbacks turned out to be productive. Long stretches without reception forced people to put down their cell phones and engage with each other.

Lindsea Wilbur, a professional futurist interested in how we will govern ourselves in the coming decades, said she and Carter jived particularly well and were able to provide each other with valuable project feedback. The born-and-raised Hawai’ian wanted to engage in a dialogue with people and communities across the country about the beliefs and assumptions that influence governance.

“Through examining our beliefs and exploring ideas in an intellectually safe environment,” she wrote on her crowdfunding page, “we will move down paths of untried thought and begin to co-create our preferred future.”

With wavy long hair, vintage glasses, and a harmonica in her pocket, Wilbur looks like she’d be more at home at a San Francisco music festival than in Omaha, but she found people in the Midwest particularly endearing. They’re not so individualistic, she said, the way that a New Yorker or an Angeleno might be. They take care of each other and that influences how they think government should be structured.

Meeting people not caught up in Apple-worship proved valuable for Carter, too. The Silicon Valley resident is used to existing in a space where everyone knows their way around a computer algorithm, but she knew she had to talk to people for whom that wasn’t the case if she wanted to understand how to help people use and access open data.

“Technical tools only go so far if they’re not accessible and reaching the people you want to reach,” she said. “We need to be looking forward, but we tend to ignore people who don’t use technology and that’s not ok.”

Cameron Hardesty works as digital director in the Office of National Drug Control Policy but her passion is poetry. Her project aimed to meld her love of poetry with her digital background “to bring poems back into the millennial bloodstream,” as she put it.

The Dallas native took photographs featuring lines from poems in iconic and not-so-iconic places along the way (the Rockies’ Stadium in Denver, an abandoned grain elevator in Omaha) and is curating them into a portfolio, along with some of the most compelling stories behind the photographs, that she hopes to display at an art gallery this fall.

She and the other participants viewed the train as a “third space,” somewhere you go because you want to, like a coffee shop, that’s different from the daily grind of work and home, where creativity and collaboration can flourish, she said.

“It really was like stepping off a spaceship,” Hardesty said of arriving in D.C. “A cross between summer camp, grad school and time travel.”

It’s too soon to tell the long-term impact of the projects that were born and advanced on the journey. But the Millennial Train Project participants Fusion spoke with said without exception that it had been a time of growth and discovery.

Dowd is planning another trip in March, from Los Angeles to Miami and another next summer that will take participants from Portland to New York. The trips are already generating interest.

“I just feel so transformed,” Hardesty said without even a hint of irony. “The transient experience of the train is gone, but what’s left in me is enduring.”