Ben Brown, Founder of Association of Young Americans
Amidst the complex challenges facing millennials today, Ben Brown is on a mission to enable our generation to create real solutions. At 26, he founded Association of Young Americans (AYA), a non-partisan lobbying group that brings together millennials to tackle major issues such as climate change, criminal justice, political equality, and education reform. Aspiring to be "the AARP for millennials", AYA provides members with tools and resources that encourage political activism and civic leadership, as well as exclusive discounts from brand partners like Lyft. As a community built around the power of collective influence, AYA is raising the voice of a generation by empowering millennials to speak up together.
As our Millennial Maker, we talk to Ben about why he started AYA, the importance of addressing political disengagement, and how millennial expectations are influencing the future of companies, organizations, and policy.
What inspired you to start Association of Young Americans?
In 2012, former political advisor Matt Miller recounted a conversation he had in 1995 with then-Senator Alan Simpson. Miller asked what could be done to solve the growing list of issues facing young people. Simpson 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 could not get this idea out of my head. It kept me up at night.
What do you see as the biggest challenges our generation faces and how is AYA leveraging its community to address those issues?
Millennials have largely opted-out of the political process and this disengagement is the biggest challenge I see. But it is important to recognize the difference between lack of engagement and lack of caring. Young people care desperately about issues that affect their lives and future, from student debt and the cost of higher education, to the economy, to criminal and social justice, to prioritizing clean air, water and land. But engaging with politics and politicians has always been challenging: it’s why companies, unions, wealthy individuals and associations hire full time people to do that. They’re called lobbyists. By organizing, empowering and activating members, AYA is creating a community of young Americans to engage consistently with elected officials. Ultimately, AYA will advocate both with them and on their behalf.
How are you ensuring that your members are actively engaged with the initiatives you want to promote?
AYA has a level of engagement for every young American, all of which support AYA’s work and mission. From activists and so called “clicktivists” to those who “hate politics,” AYA has a role for everyone to create the future we want. People can become engaged as they want, and our goal is to get them more engaged over time by continuously lowering the barriers.
What do you believe our generation is seeking from the companies, products, services, and organizations that we promote?
Our relationship with the corporate world has fundamentally changed. Consumers are no longer interested in a simple transaction: we look for organizations that our friends trust, that provide consistent value to our lives, and increasingly and perhaps most importantly, share our vision for the future. To be valued by consumers, companies must share values with their consumers. It is of no surprise that “value” refers to both what something is worth and one’s judgement of what is important in life: they are one in the same and young consumers recognize that.
Consumers are no longer interested in a simple transaction: we look for organizations that our friends trust, that provide consistent value to our lives, and increasingly and perhaps most importantly, share our vision for the future.
What advice would you give to future Millennial Makers?
Think big but do small. Solve real problems real people have. And learn to code.
Most memorable startup moment?
When the Kevin Donnellan, Chief of Staff and EVP at AARP tweeted at me. I thought he was going to send me a “cease and desist” letter. It turned out he loves our approach to engaging young Americans in the political process.
Your personal mission?
To always do the right thing, no matter how big or how small.
Words to live by?
Speeding tickets, not parking tickets.
–My first boss, Amy Francetic