Millennial Trains Project is on track as an incubator powered by ideas

(Joshua Yospyn/ For The Washington Post ) - Patrick Dowd, founder and CEO of the Millennial Trains Project, at Union Station in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 9, 2013.

(Joshua Yospyn/ For The Washington Post ) - Patrick Dowd, founder and CEO of the Millennial Trains Project, at Union Station in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 9, 2013.

“It’s an outer journey and an inner journey,” says Patrick Dowd, 26. ¶ “Patrick and I connected completely on the power of an abstract idea,” says Sacha Simmons, 26. ¶ “At work I just said, ‘I’m going on a train and I’m going to think about some things,’ ” says Travis Korte, 25. “It kind of takes a paragraph to explain.” ¶ Actually, to explain the Millennial Trains Project it will take several. First, perhaps you’ve noticed that these people are all in their mid-20s. That’s the millennial part; they’re members of a generation often deemed whiny, shiftless and self-obsessed. (“Me me me,” Time taunted them.) ¶ But that is a caricature that doesn’t hold up, at least not in the case of Simmons, Korte and the 22 other millennials who rode with Dowd — the project’s founder and CEO — on a 3,000-mile journey aboard three chartered, mid-century cars, pulled by Amtrak locomotives. That’s the train part. ¶ It was meant to be a rolling business and leadership incubator — and a space for self-discovery. To earn their berths, each of them pitched entrepreneurial and social-improvement projects and raised $5,000 apiece through crowd­sourcing on the Internet.

The young travelers, several from Washington, came aboard with innovative ideas about energy, education, data, contraception, food, finance, even happiness — some well-focused, some gauzy.

“The new pioneers,” Dowd called those who joined him for a 10-city, 10-day ride that began in San Francisco and ended at Washington’s Union Station in mid-August — the first of three such journeys he has planned.

“Three thousand miles to blast a hole in the theory that America is in decline,” goes a video promo for the project. “It’s the ghost of Jack Kerouac staying up all night with the spirit of Steve Jobs.”

Minus Jack’s Benzedrine jags and Steve’s LSD excursions, but full of that anything-is-possible sense of moment felt by the Beats, the Hippies, the searchers of any given generation. The rush of simply being young and alive, hopes yet undimmed.

The millennials — generally categorized as 18 to 31 in age — certainly need optimism. Their lives have been shaped by terrorist horrors, economic collapse and political stalemate, as Dowd points out. Many are crushed by student-loan debt; many can’t find jobs; many live at home with their parents.

If nothing else, Dowd offers his peers an aspirational narrative. “The purpose of these trains is to get America back on track, both literally and figuratively,” he said in one videotaped pitch session, “by reimagining what we can do as a country over the next 10 years.”

His manner is earnest and practiced, as you would expect from a former student body leader at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is also a product of boarding school at Georgetown Prep. His father is in maritime shipping, and his mother is a financial journalist.

So, a straight-laced character? Yes and no.

After a visit with his family in Boston (by train), Dowd sat down for breakfast at Union Station last week. He explained how this all got started a year and a half ago. He was working as a trainee analyst at JP Morgan in New York, spending 15 hours a day assaying “the equity capital markets for diversified industrials,” he says.

It was during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Young people were demonstrating outside his office, many feeling robbed by the Man. And he was the Man!

Dowd quit. He was only seven months into the two-year program.

He wondered about those young people: Could their dissatisfaction be positively channeled? His mind was tugged back in time, to his travels in India as a Fulbright scholar in 2010-11.

“There is no happiness for him who does not travel. . . . The fortune of him who is sitting, sits; it rises when he rises; it sleeps when he sleeps; it moves when he moves. Therefore, wander!”

It’s a proverb in the Rigveda, a sacred Indian text, and Dowd, between bites of a bagel, cites it as one of his favorite quotes.

Turns out he got the inspiration for his nonprofit project from taking a train journey for aspiring young entrepreneurs in India called Jagriti Yatra. Upward of 20,000 apply for 450 spots on what is billed as a “transformative” journey. Dowd was one of three Westerners on his particular trip.

It has a spiritual bent. There’s yoga, singing, dancing. You eat and sleep in very close quarters. Dowd’s third-class berth was a padded plank.

Months later, sitting behind his desk at the investment bank examining spreadsheets, he asked himself: Why not a train for millennial entrepreneurs in America?

He had no experience running such a project. But innovators, when they blue-sky an idea, don’t dwell on words like “equity” and “business plan,” he says. Instead it’s about “vision and passion” and daring to fail.

He needed backers, train cars and passengers. He needed to think creatively, he said, so he wanted to talk to someone with experience in art. (Art = Creativity, in his mind.)

This turned out to be Betsy Broun, longtime director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He knew her glancingly, he says, but Broun said she was surprised to find him at her office. In any event, she was impressed with his spiel.

“I have had a long line of kids show up in my office asking, ‘How can I get a job?’ ” Broun says. “And Patrick comes along with this inspiring idea” to create entrepreneurs and jobs.

“He inspired me,” she says. “I thought he was a natural-born leader.”

She was happy to provide connections. One of them was the then-director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which became a supporter of what came to be called the Millennial Trains Project.

Dowd enlisted a mix of nonprofit and corporate sponsors, including the Covington & Burling law firm, the Bombardier aircraft company and the Norfolk Southern rail line. He used word of mouth and social media to sell his counter­intuitive idea: A patient, retro mode of travel for an over-caffeinated cohort that dwells in an always-on digital cloud.

But invoking rail-splitters from America’s Westward-ho era, as well as early industrial expansion, made sense. It reinforced his “new pioneers” theme and offered an intriguing anachronism: Who travels 3,000 miles by train nowadays?

“Train travel is an incomparable way to experience our country,” Dowd said to a small group gathered on a punishingly humid evening last month in Georgetown. He spoke at a salon — yes, they still exist — at the august Evermay estate, owned by the wealthy Japanese scientist-inventors Sachiko Kuno and Ryuji Ueno.

Their nonprofit foundation is among the train’s backers. Through a salon series called “Illuminate,” they aim to encourage forward-thinkers and give confidence to budding business leaders such as Dowd.

He clearly has pep and moxie: He could have fit into those jittery old newsreels he stitches into his train promos. But Dowd also has New Agey, guru-like traits. Your belief flows from his belief.

“Where does faith come from?” he asked his listeners, referencing the faith to pursue an idea. “A lot of good opportunities have already been set into motion. . . . There are things whose time will have come, but in a moment. And you need to sometimes just have faith that what the situation is today is not going be what the situation is tomorrow because the whole mechanics of the universe are just shifting all the time.”

Okay, then.

Afterward at a coffee-and-cookie reception, Dowd told me, “I think of this project as a campaign that is not trying to elect anyone.”

A whistle-stop-style train pulling into Washington with no candidate on board was perfect symbolism, he said.

It was impressive at first and then slightly confusing. But I ended the evening thinking: Here is a young man who is Onto Something. He might not save America, but at least he’s trying instead of tweeting drunken #YOLO pictures.

The millennial riders didn’t have to rough it. The inaugural train had two 1953 sleepers and a 1948 domed observation car, and excellent onboard chefs who donated their talents, preparing fresh, locavore fare.

A typical day included “Idea Mornings” with local entrepreneurs and civic leaders at stops along the way; onboard mentoring with noted professionals; and six hours of free time for participants to spread and sharpen their ideas in meetings with business and community leaders.

Travis Korte, who works at a D.C. technology innovation think tank, looked at harnessing the massive data streams that course through modern life.

He came away with better ideas for moving from last-generation information technologies to newer ones — such as convincing the IT guy to put data in the cloud instead of “under his desk,” as he put it.

Sacha Simmons, a Booz Allen project manager turned fitness evangelist, looked for ways to expand her D.C. exercise business into a global “active and balanced lifestyle brand.” She made connections and picked up techniques in various cities, including Omaha, where she visited a healing arts and meditation center.

“I learned there what a sacred space should feel like,” Simmons said. She also shot a workout video on the train.

Others pitched plans to improve higher-education access for the disadvantaged and sustain the market for innovative energy sources.

Will anything materialize?

“I think Patrick and his leadership team will be asked about the point of it all, about whether it did serve a greater purpose,” says passenger Monica Gray, 27, a D.C. video journalist who shot a series about people who serve their communities.

You won’t see success data points on spreadsheets, she says, “but I have no doubt that the participants will be able to show tangible takeaways.”

Returning to Washington, where he will live, Dowd looked tapped out but glowing: 18 months of hustling had paid off; he knew for certain he could replicate the project. The next millennial train is planned for March, departing from Los Angeles and ending in Miami. Then there’s another scheduled for August, from Portland, Ore., to New York City.

Over breakfast, Dowd mentioned that I could find another favorite quote of his just outside the station, chiseled on its magnificent main facade. It was put there with other epigrams 100 years ago when the station symbolized the glory days of rail travel.

“He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him,” it goes. “So it is in traveling. A man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.”

The quote has that stentorian tone that makes you think you might be stupid if you don’t get it. The point is taken: Travel isn’t just about going somewhere. It’s as much about imparting wisdom as it is bringing it back. (I think.)

After the third train journey, Dowd has no plan, he says, except this, suitably vague: “What I want to be doing for the rest of my life is taking ideas from the periphery and bringing them to the center.”

He went to India, he says, having no clue that he would discover the inspiration for the train. He intends to visit other countries, in search of another idea. “I know it will be there,” he says.

 
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