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There Has Never Been a Better Time to Be a Young Person With a Big Idea

What a band of Millennial entrepreneurs on a train can teach us about entrepreneurship in today's America.
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This column is part of an ongoing series, originally published by McKinsey & Company, about how entrepreneurs are making a societal impact around the world.

Last August, two dozen enterprising Millennials put down their cell phones and boarded a train of vintage rail cars. The inaugural journey of the Millennial Trains Project (MTP) took us from San Francisco to Washington, DC. Stopping in a new city each day, the train provided a platform for participants to learn from distinguished mentors, grow as leaders, and advance projects designed to address major challenges facing our generation.

Unlike conventional classrooms and work spaces, our trains connect us to communities in ways that build transregional perspectives and introduce us to the scale of opportunities that exist in our country. Trains move you in a way that allows you to think, listen, and grow as individuals outside the frenetic pace of modern life. Not least, they provide an awe-inspiring window onto America’s physical and cultural diversity.

Based on our first journey, I am convinced that there has never been a better time to be a young person with a big idea. For Millennials, entrepreneurship is about more than making money. It’s about making a difference, or better yet, as Steve Jobs once put it, “a dent in the universe.” As a generation that came of age amidst a global war on terrorism, a global financial crisis, and a global revolution in virtual connectivity, it makes sense that notoriously self-absorbed Millennials would see themselves as part of the bigger picture. That’s a good thing, because the world is in desperate need of idealistic leadership that dares to address its biggest problems.

The Millennials who joined MTP’s inaugural journey crowdfunded their trip expenses by raising $5,000 in small increments. As part of their application to join the trip, they submitted project proposals that presented entrepreneurial solutions to complex challenges. Winning proposals ranged from an investigation into why so many young Americans practice unsafe sex, to using big data for the public good, and reforming inefficient local-government structures. Notably, none of our Millennial travelers received compensation or academic credit for their efforts. The first MTP journey taught us a number of practical lessons about what it takes to launch an entrepreneurial enterprise in America.

Rapid Prototypes

So-called rapid-prototyping equipment is used to produce working models of new designs. Formerly available only to big companies with access to sophisticated manufacturing facilities, rapid-prototyping technology can now be accessed inexpensively at communal manufacturing facilities like Tech Shop, which we visited in Pittsburgh. Tech Shop isn’t your dad’s workshop. Rather, it’s a sleek and tactile industrial arcade populated by young tinkerers who seem to have recently traded in their skateboards for 3-D printers and band saws. In short, this technology has democratized the design and prototyping process.

Once these young Edisons have created their prototypes, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow them to bypass traditional funding mechanisms to raise the capital they need to scale their concepts, gain customer feedback, and iterate changes. A good example is SolePower, a start-up founded just last year by two recent Carnegie Mellon graduates who figured out how to harness enough kinetic energy from a specially designed shoe insert to power a cell phone. Their vision: as wearable technology becomes more prevalent, SolePower could replace wall sockets as the preferred source of energy for mobile devices.

Midsize Magnets

The beginning and end points of our journey (San Francisco and Washington, DC) are well-known meccas for young people who seek to change the world through technological innovation and public service, respectively. But most of the participants came away more intrigued by the opportunities for growth that exist in places like Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, and Pittsburgh.

The Downtown Denver Partnership has embarked on an ambitious effort to transform downtown Denver to attract businesses that want to hire Millennials. For example, Denver is prioritizing transit-oriented development and adding bike lanes on every street because research tells them that’s what Millennials want.

The entrepreneurs and I found astounding creative energy in smaller cities like Omaha, where warehouses that once stored agricultural products have been converted into studio space for artists and shared work spaces where young entrepreneurs can develop business ideas and sell them to venture capitalists. The Omaha space is called KANEKO. It’s not run-of-the-mill gentrification, but rather a comprehensive reimagining of defunct spaces tailored to the aspirations and emerging needs of a new creative generation.

Spaces like KANEKO popped up in cities all across America. These start-up incubators, design studios, hacker spaces, and workshops are becoming hives for creative interaction that can be harder to foster in more corporate and bureaucratic settings. Building reliable feedback loops between these spaces and the strategic nodes of large organizations can accelerate large-scale innovation.

That’s important because now marks a cultural moment where big organizations are open to working with teams of creative young individuals. Despite the persistent negative commentary about Millennials in the media, my experience is that most older people want to see our generation thrive and are excited to support our aspirations. Coupling the Millennial generation’s entrepreneurial idealism with the resources of its most well-established organizations is a powerful force for change.

Patrick Dowd is the founder of the Millennial Trains Project, a nonprofit organization that leadscrowdfunded transcontinental train journeys as a way to empower diverse groups of enterprising and civic-minded Millennials to explore America’s new frontiers.

This article was originally published on McKinsey & Company's Voices, voices.mckinseyonsociety.com. Copyright (c) 2013. 

Last updated: Nov 18, 2013

VOICES FROM MCKINSEY & COMPANY | Columnist

In Voices, McKinsey & Company showcases expert thinking on some of the world's most pressing social problems. The latest series of Voices features on-the-ground stories of how entrepreneurs are making a societal impact across the world. Contributors range from trailblazers in fragile states to founders of multinational companies to forward-thinking millennials.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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