Young people have the opportunity to create the future we all want by engaging directly and consistently with those in power. A movement focused on political participation for young people would change the world. I believe young people can solve the greatest problems of our time, from climate change to the burden of student debt. I believe that movement has already begun to take shape.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Brown. Ben is the founder of the Association of Young Americans (AYA), a non-partisan association that was created to increase political engagement among young Americans and give a seat at the political decision-making table to the 80 million young Americans between the ages of 18–35 around the issues they care about most: student debt and higher education, climate change, criminal justice, and political equality. Ben has grown AYA from the ground-up to thousands of members across the country and has created partnerships with Lyft, Brandless, AMC Theaters, MegaBus, and many others.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My background is actually in energy. I studied Physics in college and spent six years investing in clean energy startup companies and consulting for Fortune 500s. Much of the work was helping big companies set up energy-focused venture capital groups, developing innovation strategies, investing in cleantech startups, and evaluating market entry opportunities.
In 2012 I came across an op-ed in The Washington Post that struck me. It recounted a conversation that took place back in 1995 between political advisor Matt Miller and then-Senator Alan Simpson. Miller asked Simpson what could be done to solve the laundry list of issues facing young people. It was Simpson’s response that really turned the lightbulb on. He replied, “Nothing would change until someone…could walk into his office and say, ‘I‘m from the American Association of Young People. We have 30 million members, and we‘re watching you, Simpson. You [mess with] us and we‘ll take you out.”
I thought to myself, if a lobbyist could walk into a room supported by millions of young people, it would change the game. Four years later, in 2016, I founded the Association of Young Americans (AYA) in my apartment in order to help insert the voices of the 80 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 into everyday politics — a place where young people’s interests and issues have too often been ignored.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
AYA is a non-partisan membership organization that was created to give young people a seatvoice at the political decision making table and increase political engagement among young Americans. AYA offers young people their politics on-demand — and without the bulls**t. We’ve created a go-to information hub for fact-based information about the issues young people care about the most including reducing student debt, lowering the cost of higher education, reforming a broken criminal justice system, and fighting climate change. AYA also lobbies on these issues on behalf of young Americans.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is taking to tackle climate change? Can you give an example for each?
The first way we are tackling this issue is making sure young Americans are educated and equipped with reliable information about key climate change issues. Knowing this generation is characterized by their passionate drive to affect positive change, AYA informs and engages this impactful group, confident their action will lead to the change all Americans are hoping to see. We send our community a weekly email with everything you need to know about climate change news, and have developed tools so members can easily email, tweet, or call their legislators. Our resources are available to members and non-members alike. We regularly post content on our blog where you will see there is a whole section dedicated to climate change.
AYA is also calling on young people to support the Green New Deal, a new plan put together by a youth-led climate group, the Sunrise Movement. It establishes a committee with the authority to create a “detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan” allowing the U.S. to swiftly become carbon-neutral–all in under a decade.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your company/organization? Can you share how you overcame that. This might give insight to founders who face a similar situation.
The political system has created an underlying distrust among young people — addressing this is the entire premise our organization was founded on. It is challenging to dismantle existing biases and barriers, and cut through the noise in a way that appeals to everyone, while also trying to reach young Americans who are willing to listen and be responsibly engaged members of the democratic process. AYA is trying to normalize political engagement, but when everything seems abnormal, it is increasingly difficult.
Many people want to start a company to tackle environmental issues, but they face challenges when it comes to raising enough money to actually make it happen. Can you share how were you able to raise the funding necessary to start your organization? Do you have any advice?
Across the board, no matter the type of organization, fundraising is hard. I think it is vital to not only have a big vision and a plan to get there, but it is also imperative to show some type of traction or movement. Even if you are launching a non-profit, think of it as a startup and develop a beta version of the idea or program. This allows you to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and also shows potential investors/funders you are serious.
Do you think entrepreneurs/businesses can do a better job than governments to solve the climate change and global warming issues? Please explain why or why not.
I think everyone has a role to play in solving climate change, including individuals, businesses and governments. Individuals can use their power of the purse to reject products from companies that contribute dramatically to climate change, pressuring the company the reduce their carbon emissions. Businesses can invest in cleaner manufacturing and follow laws designed to protect our air, water and land. I believe that government is in the best position for comprehensive solutions that can adjust boundaries for industry and hold bad actors accountable.
What are some practical things that both people and governments can do help you address the climate change and global warming problem?
Educate yourself with reliable information. Get engaged, however possible — any action, big or small, can make a real difference. At AYA, we work with lobbyists dedicated to championing issues like climate change to bring real change in government, and we also aim to educate our members on climate change regularly with newsletters and content, so that they’re armed with knowledge to go out and make a difference in their own community.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Early in AYA’s life I connected with an executive at AARP. He had read an article about us where I said “AYA is the AARP for young people,” and tweeted at me. I fully expected him to tell me not to use AARP’s name, but it was the opposite. He was extremely supportive and become not just a supporter but also a cheerleader and mentor. As a result of our connection, AYA and AARP jointly published a survey in the Fall of 2018 exploring differences and similarities between different generations.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Getting attention is hard: I’ve been excited to see AYA featured in amazing outlets like Vice, NBC and others, but being seen is not trivial. It’s a well known fact in the startup world but nevertheless important to remember that a great idea or product isn’t enough, people need to know about it.
- Be prepared to be unprepared: AYA was planning a launch of a microsite focused on the student debt crisis in November 2016. We, like many others, were surprised by the results of the 2016 Presidential election, and after months of planning a launch redid everything in two weeks.
- You are going to have bad days: Not every day can be a big win. Starting a company is hard and there are going to be set backs, but you only need to have more good days than bad days. Plus those bad days can serve as key learning opportunities.
- Don’t forget the wins: It is easy, as a leader of an organization, to focus on what isn’t working. It is, after all, my job to fix what isn’t working. But don’t forget all those roadblocks you’ve already conquered.
- “Me time” is important: As a startup founder or leader, your idea and company will consume you — as it should, but only to an extent. My belief in AYA was (and is) so strong that it kept me up at night. Especially in the early stage of launching, I woke up in the middle of the night with ideas on how to tweak the website or change some communications. I felt guilty when I wasn’t working or even thinking about AYA because I knew that in that early stage, if I wasn’t at that moment pushing AYA forward, it wasn’t moving. Over the years I’ve learned I work best when I am well rested, can think clearly, and look at old problems with fresh eyes. Long nights happen, but I am sure to take some ”me time,” and refill the tanks.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the world, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Honestly, I would be doing exactly what I’m doing now. Young people have the opportunity to create the future we all want by engaging directly and consistently with those in power. A movement focused on political participation for young people would change the world. I believe young people can solve the greatest problems of our time, from climate change to the burden of student debt. I believe that movement has already begun to take shape.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
Personal Twitter: @Ben10Brown
AYA Twitter: @AYAmericans
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!