MEET: Patrick Dowd, Founder Millennial Trains Project

Just a few years ago, Patrick Dowd was a Fulbright Scholar in India where he produced a documentary on informal sector e-waste recycling. That project enabled him to participate in the Jagriti Yatra, a right of passage for India’s most promising young entrepreneurs; that being the circumnavigation of India by train to awaken the entrepreneurial spirit. After returning stateside, it did not take long for Patrick to leave his job at JP Morgan to begin his venture in founding The Millennial Trains Project, drawing inspiration from his Jagriti Yatra experience to enable young Americans to participate in crowd-funded transcontinental journeys, exposing them to America’s newest and most exciting frontiers. Through working with collaborators including the likes of City Year, National Geographic Traveler, Bombardier, the UN Foundation, and the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (amongst others)...The Millennial Trains Project intends to tackle America’s biggest problems through empowering the generation that will be running the country for decades to come. CATALYST got that chance to chat with Patrick Dowd, Founder and CEO as they just completed their first journey, trekking from San Francisco to Washington D.C. in a matter of 10 days.

Can you describe your journey on the Jagriti Yatra in India and how it impacted your own founding of The Millennial Trains Project? 

I was a camp counselor for this journey which essentially is the circumnavigation of India by rail that has been going on for several years now that has about 20,000 Indian Millennials applying for 400 open spots on the train. Jagriti Yatra has really become a sensation there, something that is sort of a totem to the aspirations of young creatives and entrepreneurs in that country. I think the journey in India is much more of an endurance challenge than what we have put together in the States, which is much more of a comfortable experience. This benefits our mission because when people are not on the edge of there comfort level they are more free to engage openly and have imaginative interactions.

The biggest difference between the India trip and our journey here in the United States though is that we used crowd funding and that really shaped the whole experience on multiple levels. Also, our journey was much smaller with a total of 40 people on the train, enabling everyone to get to know each other whereas in India there are ten times as many participants. This caused our train to become a ‘classroom on wheels’ of sorts.

You quit your job at JP Morgan after seeing Occupy Wall Street outside your window and thinking there was a more effective way of channeling energy the millennial generation is displaying. How is MTP working to channel that energy?

I would not say that I am anti-Occupy, but it was something that got me thinking though about how we are organizing ourselves and how we are responding to the status quo. Our real focus with The Millennial Trains Project is on what the new frontiers are, what is actually happening in communities across the country, how we can work with people across regions and how we can build insights throughout those regions.

While there is always a time and place for protest, our project is focused on moving forward and identifying what points on the horizon we want to be moving toward. That is why we are learning by interacting with individuals in the communities where we are stopping and also have mentors who are distinguished within different professional realms come onto the train to lecture about the new frontiers in journalism, architecture, technology and so on, to give us a sense of how we can continue to move forward.

How does the element of traveling solely by train affect the project, and its participants as a whole?

The use of trains is essential. One of the ideas that was critical for me on this journey was the idea of a creating transitory environment and a ‘third space’ that can foster creativity and be used in very productive ways. The idea of ‘third space’ is that you have one space as your home, another space for your work, and then that ‘third space’ is that place where people just want to go to, it might be a basketball court, a library, start-up incubator, or shared workspace. Third spaces are where culture gets created and that culture ends up shaping the first and second spaces of home and workplace. We see the train as a mobile third space which is truly exceptional in the way that it is confined but also open to different ideas that we interact with along the way that are inspired by the landscape through which we are moving.

The purpose of travel is not just to get from point A to point B as fast as you possibly can. There is a huge amount of potential in that interim time between A and B where some of the most productive and inspiring interactions that we are capable of having can actually happen in these kinds of transitory environments. That’s what these train cars that we use are designed to create.

When considering our generation, I think what happened was the construction of interstate highways under Eisenhower along with the popularity long-haul jet travel taking off caused everything to be simply about speed, speed, speed. That kind of philosophy has seeped into our transitory environments, so they started designing trains and buses to simply go fast, be efficient, and move as many people as possible. We have lost the sense of possibility and potential for what we can do with these transitory environments. On this train we are not just in transit, we are actually in a place that is moving. That is a very important distinction. We put a lot of effort into designing what kind of community exists in that third space that we created in between the (A) starting point of San Francisco and the (B) ending point of Washington D.C.

What were the highlights of the trip when considering the variety of places (San Francisco, Denver, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington D.C.) visited along the journey?

Personally Denver, Omaha, and Pittsburgh impressed me because they aren’t cities that I frequently hear of friends and peers moving to, but are somewhere I think that people should consider. I would say there is vastly more opportunity in those types of cities than maybe even in New York. If you really want to be doing something big and driving social change I would suggest moving to a city like Denver, Omaha, or Pittsburgh because in those places, you could move there next weekend and be sitting down with the Mayor within a week and have your ideas taken seriously. They want to support and make these stories of Millennial progress real.

There is a somewhat pervasive refrain in the media of Millennials as being lazy, narcissistic and screwed, but that’s not at all the message you get from these three cities. They’re more like ‘we want you guys here and we want to create things with you.’

I really think that what we need now is not necessarily five more New Yorks or San Franciscos but ten more Denvers, twenty more Omahas and thirty more Pittsburghs. That’s what is going to make us a really strong country. They have the aspiration and commitment to growing. I think that everyone should want to be part of a growth story of someplace that has so much room to grow as opposed to flocking to hubs like New York or San Francisco.

Can you provide five words that best describe the journey that was just completed?

Smooth, moving, imaginative, fun, magical

Is there anything you have observed that can be improved upon as the project continues to evolve and grow?

We definitely recognize some incredible opportunities for some very interactive, innovative story-telling to come out of this so that we can share what the experience Is like on the train for virtual audiences. There are just so many ideas, content and really honest interactions taking place on the train and to bring that into the digital space is essential for us.

For instance, at the end of everyday we bring together the entire group of participants and everyone shares what they discovered and experienced and observed that day. We go into each one of these cities with 24 different lenses and each person’s lens takes a ‘picture’ of the city with a 6-hour exposure period and then we combine all those different ‘photos’ and end up with a very rich impression of the city that is much richer than anyone could see with their own one lens.

However, we do not want to over correct for anything because part of the magic is the opportunity for spontaneity that comes with setting out on something that might be structured but not already written or completely choreographed. The train is just a platform for other people to bring their ideas and creativity to so each train is going to be unique because it’s ultimately a user generated journey all the way through the application process, experience and the story telling afterwards.





Andrew is a global enthusiast with a passion for the road less traveled. As a frequent collaborator with World Hip Hop Market and Nomadic Wax, Andrew has worked with numerous socially conscious artists from around the world in the pursuit of inspiring cultural understanding and exchange through entertainment. This fascination with the world at large has taken him to over 20 countries (so far) through studying, volunteering, and writing about his travels, with no signs of slowing his globetrotting nature down.