What A Cross-Country Train Trip Taught Me About Entrepreneurship
Comcast's Danielle Cohn hopped aboard the Millennial Trains Project last month. Here's what she learned about the importance of making new connections.
There is no wrong place to meet the right people.
That’s the idea behind the Millennial Trains Project, a nonprofit dreamed up by Fulbright Scholar Patrick Dowd while traveling through India. Over a ten-day train journey across this great continent, the Millennial Trains Project helps young changemakers to identify and explore new opportunities in the communities where the train stops. The goal is to advance a social project that benefits, serves and inspires others.
The project grew legs very quickly with impressive sponsorship support and media coverage. In late May, I had the pleasure of serving as a mentor on the latest adventure, which took 25 young social entrepreneurs across the country. The crowdfunded train journey explored America’s new frontiers from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and served as a platform for the next generation of innovators to hone leadership skills, work on real projects, have honest dialogues with a diverse group of peers and mentors, and share in community engagement and discovery.
It was the ultimate coworking experience, but on tracks.
I hopped on the beautiful glass-top train from New Orleans to Atlanta, representing Comcast NBCUniversal with support from our Open Possibilities project, which celebrates what’s possible when media, tech and community connect to help solve social issues. I spent nearly 20 years in the travel industry, and am now leading Entrepreneurial Engagement for Comcast, so this project intersected many professional and personal passions.
As a startup in the Philadelphia region more than 50 years ago, Comcast knows how important it is to get involved in opportunities to directly connect with and support future entrepreneurs and their ambitions. The Millennial Trains Project reminded me how important it is — whether for work or fun — to take every opportunity to explore new places, innovate with peers and meet diverse groups of people. These same people help you along your path and make invaluable connections.
People are remembered by their interactions. It turns out that Patrick’s mentor is Keith Bellows (former editor of National Geographic Traveler). Keith and I worked on the Philadelphia’s makers project, which has generated millions of positive media impressions for Philadelphia. One of the 10 other mentors on the train — Amy Wilkinson, author of The Creator’s Code — and I met through an entrepreneur, Alex Kapur, the founder of Opportunity Space and one of the greatest connectors in the Boston startup scene. Alex and I met at Benjamin’s Desk during a pitch competition.
Comcast Chief Business Development Officer Sam Schwartz and I met Katlyn Grasso, the youngest entrepreneur on the train, a month before the train departed at Wharton’s pitch day. We were very impressed with her young women’s leadership startup GenHERation. Her fledgling company received one of the first Penn President’s scholarships. So when the opportunity came to have a Philadelphia-based startup on the journey, we connected the organizers with Katlyn, one of the most focused innovators on the trip.
Young veterans, Fulbright scholars, artists, urban entrepreneurs, women looking to empower other young women, up-and-coming authors, filmmakers, journalists and others brought their own diverse voices to the train.
At least eight nations with many diverse backgrounds were represented. The next generation of pioneers learned from each other and built lifelong relationships. Now they’re able to call, text or tweet each other with ideas and information to help their businesses or lives take shape.
Each person on the train, pioneers and mentors, are now extensions of each other’s teams.
A team is not the people you work with, hire or report to. A team is a web of everyone surrounding you who makes an impression on you. Consider family, friends, colleagues, students, teachers and peers as part of your team. People you meet in your travels, on trains, planes, at conventions or in your dorm are all part of your team. Everyone on your team helps create your personal story and sparks your spirit.
The train journey stressed how important it is to have a true appreciation of diversity and inclusion. Differences and new experiences keep you curious and nourish your work and network. As a connector, I’m convinced that serendipity can be sparked. It’s not always a happy accident. You create your work/life path. You create experiences. By selflessly helping others along the way, you create your journey. You just have to be open to it and, as Patrick Dowd did, you have to work hard to make your ideas happen.
The train leaves again next August. Will you be on board?
This post was originally featured as a guest column on Technically Philly.