Up until the year of my 23rd birthday, I spent every single Christmas at home with my family. Because my dad is a religious Coke drinker, I – like so many other young Americans – looked forward to Coke’s annual Christmas-themed television ads featuring polar bears on a magical snow train.

My first Christmas away from home came in 2010. At the time, I was conducting research on electronic waste recycling in India as a U.S. Department of State Fulbright Scholar. Rather than returning home for the holidays, I chose to accept an intriguing invitation to serve as a mentor on board a real-life train full of young social entrepreneurs and innovators that was about to embark on a 14-day circumnavigation of India.

I will never forget how, while waiting to depart from the train station in Mumbai that Christmas Eve, my extreme homesickness was washed away when the 400 Indian Millennials with whom I was about to share an epic journey put a mic in my hand and invited me to sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

As we traveled across the geographical breadth of the world’s largest democracy, I was exposed to the idea of “nation-building through enterprise” – that the small and sustained efforts of young changemakers like those on the train were a recipe for a rising country like India to pursue and achieve greatness. I also took time to reflect on my own research, and the connection that I was exploring between innovation and sustainability amidst India’s toxic e-waste dumps, where obsolete electronics were being recycled in ways hazardous to the environment and human health.

Millennial Train Stats

Two-and-a-half years later, I am gearing up to launch the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), a series of crowd-funded transcontinental train journeys focused on innovation, sustainability, and opportunity. MTP’s inaugural journey, which will travel from San Francisco, CA to Washington, DC this August, provides a platform for young entrepreneurs, artists, and changemakers to advance self-designed projects across the localities where our train stops, learn from distinguished mentors, and build trans-regional perspectives as they travel from state to state. The initiative combines the lessons I learned in India about the power of trains to connect young changemakers with local opportunities with my personal convictions about the importance of striking a mindful balance between innovation and sustainability.

The Millennial Trains Project from Millennial Trains Project on Vimeo.

As I have grown up and become more conscious about issues such as innovation and sustainability, so has Coca-Cola. You can see this in Coke’s business practices and in creative new initiatives like EKOCYCLE™, a collaboration with pop-artist and futurist will.i.am to inspire new things made from recycled materials.

The EKOCYCLE battle cry of “Let’s Make More with What We Have” is an inspiring and pragmatic mantra that, from consumer electronics to vintage trains to plastic bottles, can actually help us build a more just and sustainable world.

In many ways recycling and repurposing old, obsolete, and discarded materials requires more imagination than creating something from scratch because it forces us to innovate within the boundaries of very real resource constraints and think deeply about the consequences of consumption.

Patrick Dowd

As EKOCYCLE shows, caring about sustainability and innovation can be cool. Even cooler, I would argue, than polar bears on a magical snow train.

Applications for the Millennial Trains Project's inaugural journey (SF-DC; Aug. 8-17) are still open. To get on board, applicants pitch a project they want to advance across the localities where our train stops and race to raise $5k on MTP's custom crowdfunding platform by July 1st. Apply today at www.crowdhitch.millennialtrain.co

Read more about MTP: ABC News; National Geographic Traveler.

Patrick Dowd is Founder and CEO of the Millennial Trains Project.