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Wheels of change

An Indian initiative that takes young entrepreneurs around the country by train, to interact with mentors and community leaders and gain vital exposure, is now being replicated in the US. Aarefa Johari reports.

business Updated: Aug 25, 2013 02:00 IST
Aarefa Johari
Aarefa Johari
Hindustan Times
vintage trains,leadership,Uttar Pradesh

This August, a vintage, bright orange, 11-coach train will embark on a 10-day journey across the US, from San Francisco to Washington DC. On board, a group of 40 young students and professionals will get an opportunity to be leaders, thinkers and change makers.

This is the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), the brainchild of 25-year-old Patrick Dowd, who was inspired by a similar initiative in India and decided to replicate it back home as an attempt to inspire young men and women to bring about change.

In 2010, Dowd visited India as an exchange student, part of the prestigious American Fulbright scholar programme, to research e-waste recycling in Hyderabad for a year.

During his stay, he was invited to join the Jagriti Yatra (Hindi for Journey of Awakening), an annual event organised by Uttar Pradesh-based non-profit organisation Jagriti Sewa Sansthan, which works to realise the potential of India’s rural youth.

Founded in 2008, the Jagriti Yatra takes 450 young, aspiring entrepreneurs on a two-week train ride across India, during which they participate in workshops, lectures and discussions with successful entrepreneurs who drop in to talk to them at various stops across the country.

Dowd joined the Yatra as a mentor, leading discussions on innovation, social enterprise and sustainability. A few months later, he returned home and began working as a financial analyst for an American multinational company.

But his mind kept returning to the Yatra.

“There I was working in investment banking in New York just as the Occupy Wall Street protests [against financial greed and corruption] were reaching their peak,” says Dowd.

“I began comparing the protests with the Jagriti Yatra, a completely different means of bringing young people together. It occurred to me there was a more positive way to channel the dissatisfaction that many people felt about the country.”

Accordingly, in 2012, Dowd quit his job and got to work on his MTP initiative.

Targeted at ‘millennials’ — youngsters aged 18 to 34, a group also known as Generation Y — MTP will also have experts from various professions on board as mentors, and participants will interact with local community leaders at each destination along the route.

Unlike the Yatra, where participants are picked via an online questionnaire or fairly basic admission form, MTP will have a stringent screening process.

All applicants must first submit an idea for a high-impact project in their field of interest; when it is approved, they must raise $5,000 — the cost of the trip — through online crowd-funding.

“Applicants are stepping up to explore many of the key challenges and opportunities facing our generation, and have proposed projects on topics such as local governance systems, sustainable transportation, gender stereotypes and poetry in public places,” says Dowd.

While most of the 46 applicants so far are American, MTP is open to youngsters around the world. One candidate, for instance, is Bangalore-based public health student Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan, who has been a Fulbright scholar in North Carolina for the past year.

Her project, The Other Half, focuses on the problems of economically disadvantaged Indian immigrants in America. It has raised $2,880 in the two weeks since she floated it online.

“While the stereotype is that Americans of Indian origin are wealthy, I have seen many leading miserable lives, struggling to make a living, and many immigrant women facing domestic violence,” says Gopalakrishnan, who is hopeful of raising her $5,000 before the July 15 deadline.

“Through the train journey, I will meet such Indians across America, identify their problems and eventually develop micro-finance models and community groups to help them.”

For organisers of the Jagriti Yatra, who have already seen their project inspire similar initiatives across India, Dowd’s project is a welcome step towards inspiring young people around the world.

“Even as a mentor on the Yatra in India, Dowd had decided that he would do something similar in his country,” says Jagriti Yatra executive director Ashutosh Kumar.

“We are glad that our project has inspired him.”

First Published: Aug 24, 2013 22:11 IST