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Celebrating Vehicles for Inclusive Innovation at the White House

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The Millennial Trains Project repurposes trains as platforms for inclusive innovation. (Photo: Millennial Trains Project)

Today, in Washington, DC, the White House is hosting its first-ever White House Demo Day to spotlight entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and platforms for inclusive innovation designed to help them move forward.

The Millennial Trains Project, which leads transcontinental train journeys for diverse groups of young innovators to explore America’s new frontiers, is one of those platforms, and I am pleased to announce that, thanks to generous support from NBCUniversal, we will be both doubling the size of our program in 2016 and doubling the amount of grant funding available to support the projects that our participants develop on these transformative journeys.

Our train is a vehicle and a symbol for people coming together to move their ideas and communities forward. It’s a simple idea, but one that has often felt like an uphill climb to communicate.

When I started MTP three years ago, not many people knew what the word “Millennial” meant, and the idea of orchestrating just one transcontinental train journey for a group of young innovators seemed almost impossibly difficult.

Now, having completed three journeys and engaged with 20 communities nationwide, we have established the foundation for what I hope will become a civic-entrepreneurial right of passage for future generations.

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MTP participants engage in small group leadership development workshops called the “Pioneer’s Journey” (Photo: Millennial Trains Project)

Our journeys have reminded us that there is perhaps no better way to experience America than by train, in the company of other people that want to make the country better. And yet, the same could be said of any other country and any other vehicle that enables motivated groups of individuals to explore geographies of innovation and opportunity. The model works because journeys break down barriers, build leaders, and foster connections.

This process of coming together, which trains facilitate so well, is one of the main goals of democratic societies.

In India, for instance, where the idea for MTP originated, the national motto is Anekta Mein Ekta (“Unity in Diversity”). Similarly, in the United States, we say E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”).

These democratic ideals, though often elusive, are also the foundation of successful teams and essential ingredients for innovation in the 21st century.

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MTP participant Maritza Alarcon leads an interactive discussion on the pursuit and meaning of happiness (Photo: Millennial Trains Project)

Over the past three years, I have seen these ideals come to life through the open application process we run for each MTP journey, as would-be participants from all around the country propose projects that they want to crowdfund to get on board our journeys.

We’ve had poets, activists, entrepreneurs, policy analysts, conservationists, urban planners, singers, futurists, and data scientists – most of them women and people of color – step up and say: “this train is the perfect place for me to do my thing in more places, on a bigger scale, with other people that will inspire me to keep going.” And thanks to our partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Program, we have been able to welcome participants from every major region of the world.

The diversity of applicants never ceases to amaze me, and it has taught me something important: every person yearns for a vehicle that will take them from a place of frustration, give them space to self-actualize, and help them grow their ideas as part of a community that inspires them.

Just as powerful as the diversity of our applicants’ backgrounds is the breadth of the ideas they generate when given the space to collaborate as they travel across America. For instance, with this year’s journey, which traveled across the southern United States, one of our participants, Marzena Zukowska, developed an idea for a freelance network for undocumented immigrants. This was one of several ideas that received funding for continued development post-journey.

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MTP participant Marzena Zukowska, who has since launched a freelance network for undocumented immigrants, converses with fellow participants in Austin, TX (Photo: Millennial Trains Project)

As much as I appreciate the opportunity to spend a week every year traveling across America on a caravan of beautiful vintage rail cars, our journeys are not about the train. They are about the mentorship, fellowship of creative individuals, exposure, and encouragement that participants find on that train and in the communities we visit.

These resources are the real vehicles people need to move forward, and making them accessible to people of all backgrounds is what inclusive innovation is all about.

The demand and the need for such vehicles far exceeds the number of spaces that we have on our train, which is indicative of why the White House is making inclusive innovation a national priority with today’s event.

As has been the case with the Millennial Trains Project’s implausible journey to the White House, the greatest journeys of next-generation innovators will begin on the margins and end in the mainstream.

The more we can do as individuals and communities to accelerate the pace and scope of those journeys, the better.