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Millennial train hopes to inspire a 'nation of tinkerers'

Saturday, 6 Jul 2013 | 11:00 AM ET
Malcom Kenton, a longtime train traveler, is crowdfunding $5,000 to participate in the inaugural Millennial Trains Project for young American innovators.
Malcolm Kenton
Malcom Kenton, a longtime train traveler, is crowdfunding $5,000 to participate in the inaugural Millennial Trains Project for young American innovators.

When it comes to experiencing America, there's something alluring about a cross-country train ride.

That's why a group of entrepreneurial millennials have to decided to hit the rails in August. Inspired by a entrepreneur-themed train ride in India—which encourages community interaction and small enterprises—a young American, who participated in that ride, is creating a similar journey in the U.S.

Called the Millennial Trains Project, the inaugural 10-city, 10-day trip will depart from the San Francisco Bay Area Aug. 8. It will end Aug. 18 in Washington.

(Read more: Millennials want to donate to charities, Save the world. Really)

Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, with Charnita Arora on the Jagriti Yatra ride in India
Charnita Arora
Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, with Charnita Arora on the Jagriti Yatra ride in India

How the Millennial Trains Project works

The train ride will help enterprising and civic-minded millennials—those between 18 and 34—grow new ventures. The proposed projects range from improving computer science curriculums to creating so-called "Happiness Labs," which aim to bring together communities with sustainable development and good governance.

"Train travel has a meditative, transformative power," said Malcolm Kenton, director of outreach and engagement at the National Association of Railroad Passengers who is one of the train ride's confirmed participants. "It's a unique way to experience the landscape," he said. Kenton is planning on documenting the cross-country journey through photography and film.

Spots on the train—with a total of 40—are still available. The application deadline is July 15.

Kenton and the other participants are raising $5,000 each through an internal crowdfunding platform to cover the rail travel costs. An Amtrak locomotive will pull private rail cars, chartered for the journey. There will be mentors and discussions on the train, as well as interaction at the city pit stops.

"There's an appetite for experiential learning among millennials," said Patrick Dowd, the project's founder and CEO. "It's something that they're craving, and you sometimes can't even get it at a university."

Dowd, 26, an avid traveler who has journeyed to more than 40 countries, participated in an India train trip called the Jagriti Yatra in 2010 and 2011. As context, train travel is an integral part of India's infrastructure and culture. It's a natural fit to put motivated young people on a train around that country. Thousands of young Indians apply annually for some 400 spots, and the journey is televised nationally.

As a Fulbright scholar, Dowd was invited to participate in what turned into a life-changing experience. Train passengers including mentors and young job seekers emerge from the journey as job creators.

Dowd, among the few international students who have participated, witnessed first-hand "how young people used the spectacle of the train as a medium to spark and sustain conversations about what was working and wasn't working; and what their aspirations were," he said.

From Wall Street to social enterprise

After the India journey, Dowd returned to the States for a job at JPMorgan. It was late 2011, and the Occupy Wall Street movement was brewing outside his lower Manhattan office. Meanwhile, his inbox was brimming with messages from friends he had made on the India trip. Dowd got to thinking.

Maybe there were other ways, beyond Occupy, to respond to the general dissatisfaction with America's trajectory, which the movement was unearthing. Dowd quit job at the end of the year, and the train project was founded soon afterwards.

So what was it like giving notice to an investment banking manager, and explaining you wanted to start a feel-good train project? "You can probably imagine their reaction," he said with a laugh. "I'm not going to comment."

And, yes, for all your naysayers, the project can sound like an earnest social experiment. Let's board a train and save the world! But Dowd said his India experience is evidence that individuals through small projects can create expansive results. India's cost of living is much lower than many Americans.

"But you wouldn't know that talking to a young person in India," Dowd said. "They have a commitment to a rising country. Everything is contributing to the rise of the country."

(Read more: Economy stinks for many, but it's crushing millennials)

How millennials use technology
José Maria Alvarez-Pallete, chief operating officer of Telefonica, comments on a survey on the millennial generation, how they use technology and their concerns about the economy.

Dowd hopes to plant the seeds of the India trip on American soil. And to be clear, the train project isn't just about supporting the clever 40 participants.

"That's 180 degrees from the point of this," said Philip Auerswald, founding board chair of the National Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. The journey will be documented through digital platforms so other entrepreneurial-minded people can follow along and be motivated. "The trip should inspire others, and create an open, virtual experience that carries other people along," said Auerswald, among the advisors for the Millennial Trains Project.

Purposeful work—at any age

And it's not just millennials who can be inspired by the rail journey. "We all need to create purpose of work for ourselves. That's not age-specific," Auerswald said.

Of course, socially minded entrepreneurship is nothing new. President John Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. More than 50 years later, millennials are rediscovering social enterprises—in part because they broadly distrust the ability of corporations and institutions to solve society's problems. "This generation has less confidence in institutions," Auerswald said.

Millennials' ethos, instead, is rooted in independent entrepreneurship and technology, which has made interacting with peers and influencers much easier. They broadly believe with the right inspiration, technology platform and passion, social enterprises and solutions will emerge. And if a train ride doesn't suit you, you can consider a sea journey for entrepreneurs.

Engaged millennials realize this cocktail of technology and globalization places them at a unique fork in the road. "Millennials have a distinct and heightened sense of their role in the possibilities, and the challenges, of their historical moment," Auerswald said.

Auerswald argues scrappy entrepreneurs, in part due to global networks, will create community-based solutions to some of our greatest challenges such as water scarcity, climate change and rapid urbanization. He explores those themes in a new book, "The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the Global Economy."

(Read more: The Return of the Opportunity Entrepreneur)

Cynthia Yeung wants to create Happiness Labs for communities through the Millennial Trains Project.
Source: The Millenial Train Project
Cynthia Yeung wants to create Happiness Labs for communities through the Millennial Trains Project.

Happiness Labs

And if hammering out infrastructure solutions doesn't suit you, how about some happiness?

Cynthia Yeung left her Google job last year to travel and to foster community vitality that she measures as gross national happiness. Through Happiness Labs, Yeung hopes to fuel environmental conservation and promote local cultures. She's fundraising to participate in the trains project.

Other proposed projects—many small yet ambitious—range from improving education to reviving the newspaper industry. The point is to try. Said Dowd: "I think that we are and always have been a nation of tinkerers."

By CNBC's Heesun Wee. Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee.

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