Millennials in Power: An Interview with Steven Olikara on 21st Century Political Entrepreneurship

Eugenia Echeverry – Colombia

Steven Olikara is the founder and president of the Millennial Action Project (MAP), a national, non-partisan nonprofit that activates millennial national and state legislators to create bipartisan and innovative policy solutions. Through MAP, Steven organized the Congressional Future Caucus, America’s first and only bipartisan caucus for young members of Congress. Steven has been recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30, the Millennial of the Year, an Aspen Institute Ideas Scholar, and a Truman Scholar.

In this interview, Steven discusses his organization’s work on many of the major issues affecting the millennial generation, including climate change, higher education, and technological change.

What was the inspiration behind founding the Millennial Action Project?

The inspiration behind founding the Millennial Action Project was: 1) recognizing that partisanship in Congress is the worst it’s been since the end of Reconstruction, and 2) seeing the rise of this millennial generation, which is more inclusive, less partisan, and more focused on the future that we are going to inherit. When we saw that challenge and that opportunity, we felt that the Millennial Action Project could answer a fundamental question facing our democracy: How is this next generation going to govern America? Can we create a more constructive, forward-looking political discourse, and can we get over the dysfunction that we are seeing, not only in Congress but in state legislatures across the country? We think the answer is yes, and that is why we are now the largest non-partisan organization of millennial policymakers in the United States.

Can you describe the Congressional Future Caucus and some of its achievements?

At the congressional level, we launched in 2013 on the heel of the government shutdown, which was an interesting time because a lot of people were desperate to find some new leadership in Congress. The Future Caucus is a bipartisan caucus made up of members from both parties roughly under the age of 40. We are about to announce our new leadership team, our new Co-Chairs and Vice-Chairs. The caucus has worked on a variety of issues. For example:

  • Students loans: How can we incentivize employers to provide student loan repayment programs?
  • The sharing economy: How can we let federal employees use sharing economy services on official business and save taxpayers’ money?
  • Impact investing: How can we work with private investors for social programs?
  • Skills training legislation: for veterans coming back from combat, how we can help them enter the technology sector? Right now, they can’t use their GI bill for some of the coding boot camps, and this is a growing area of our economy.

Those are the kinds of issues—very future-oriented and bipartisan.

Now increasingly we are working on more difficult issues, where there is more partisan rancor, less bipartisanship, like the environment, energy, and climate change. We were able to get a group together last year to work on climate change and even pass a clean energy bill on that project. With this new team, we are going to be able to continue working on these pressing challenges facing millennials.

Let’s dive more deeply into the legislative initiatives. Climate change is certainly a highly partisan issue that will affect the millennial generation. What are some areas of potential bipartisan co-operation that you’ve identified in environment and climate-related issues?

There are going to be a lot of opportunities on climate change and clean energy, despite what you’re seeing in the headlines. The reason why is because this is a generational issue, much like the gay rights issue was. A majority of millennial Republicans believe that climate change is real and we need government policy on it.

Now the question becomes: How do we address this problem in a way that partners the best aspects of the public sector with the private sector? How do we unleash entrepreneurship and free enterprise to create new technologies in clean energy, and how do we create policies that can help deploy these new technologies? It’s both a question of technological innovation, as well as of making the market and incentives work right to deploy these technologies.

The good news is that we are seeing more and more young conservatives and Republicans come to the table on this issue. Areas like clean energy innovation funding is one good example of that. You even see more and more Republicans talking about a revenue neutral carbon tax, which means that all the revenue raised from a carbon tax goes directly back to the people, so it doesn’t increase the size of government at all. Another area of bipartisanship right now is the tax credits for the solar, wind, and renewable energy sectors. Those are just some of the areas that we are already seeing.

What we need to focus on right now is building the relationships, building the momentum particularly amongst young policymakers, so that once the focusing moment comes for energy and climate change, we can be ready to act and get a bipartisan bill through Congress.

You mentioned entrepreneurship and free enterprise, including impact investing and ride-share. Can you speak about some of the legislative initiatives or successes that you’ve had in those areas?

Ride-sharing is a great example because Uber and Lyft have disrupted government regulations particularly at the state and local level. A lot of governments were not prepared to deal with them. You know who was prepared? Millennials who were serving in office. They were not only using these services, but they were prepared to create innovative legislation that embraces the future of transportation, the future of hospitality. There were some real challenges, for example: How do we create an even playing field and protect consumers who were using these products, making sure that the companies are required to use insurance and have the necessary safety precautions? In Colorado, California, and other states, they were able to enact the first state-wide bills for the sharing economy.

Another key issue was clean energy. As we’ve talked about earlier, we were able to expand the funding for a widely successful clean energy program at the national level, and we even passed that through a Republican-led appropriations committee, so that was pretty amazing.

On equipping the next generation for the future, what challenges in higher education are being tackled by the Millennial Action Project?

There are two key challenges right now that we need to focus on. One is the worsening student debt crisis, and the second is: How do we make sure that our higher-education institutions are actually preparing our students for the jobs of the future?

On the student loans side, we had a bill last year that incentivized employers to provide student loan repayment programs through tax credits and tax deductions and help families save for college with a tax advantage. Now that we’re potentially getting into tax reform, it has a real shot of being included.

On preparing our next generation workforce for the jobs of the future, we have a lot of ways to go here. One area that we’ve been working on is trying to help veterans access the technology training and technology careers of the future. Previously, the GI Bill prevented them from using non-traditional education training with those funds. The good news is now we’re starting to see some pilot programs, and I think there’s potential for larger legislation that authorizes this post-9/11 generation of GIs to come back and really train up for the skills of the future. The final thing is looking at technical and vocational training. One idea that’s getting more bipartisan traction now is bringing apprenticeships back to our country. We were involved in some of the thinking around providing tax deductions, tax credits for employers who hire apprentices.

Looking to the future political landscape, what is the next frontier for millennials in terms of leadership and political change?

The next frontier for millennials is civic engagement. Since this election last year, we’ve seen millennials engaged in all sorts of ways across the board with a real fire and passion to get involved. Many of my friends back home who weren’t previously involved, they’re asking: What can I do? I have so much energy, how can I channel that towards something that’s constructive?

A new term that will define this era is “political entrepreneurship.” We’re familiar with social entrepreneurship, which is finding ways through markets to solve social and environmental problems. We are going to have a new generation of political entrepreneurs who are trying in various ways to fix our political system because our political system shapes every issue we care about, from the education system to climate change. Now people really get why the system’s broken. They feel it, and they want to be a part of efforts like the Millennial Action Project and others that are part of the solution.