Ben Brown, Founder, Association of Young Americans
Ben Brown started the Association of Young Americans (AYA) in his NYC apartment in 2016 and is responsible for leading its growth and strategy, including inking partnerships with Lyft, CoachUSA and others.
Prior to AYA, Ben was a consultant at Enovation Partners where he worked with Fortune 500 companies to develop innovation strategies, invest in clean-tech startups, and evaluate market entry opportunities. Before working with some of the world’s largest companies, Ben advised clean energy startup companies as a Manager at non-profit Clean Energy Trust (CET). At CET, Ben oversaw the development of a multimillion-dollar public-private investment fund and advised dozens of startups leading to millions of dollars in follow on funding. Ben is a graduate of Middlebury College.
Giving young Americans a political voice
Although you probably heard of the AARP, representing individuals who are 50 plus in age, you may not have heard of the Association of Young Americans. Ben Brown started the Association of Young Americans to insert the voices of 80 million young Americans, ages 18 to 35, into everyday politics. We explore the community being built, along with the key focus issue areas: student debt, climate change, campaign finance, and criminal justice. From hiring a lobbyist to organizing the 80 million young Americans, Ben is building a community that politicians and business leaders cannot ignore.
Listen to more: Activate World
Giving young Americans a political voice
Ben Brown, Founder. Association of Young Americans
Season 3, Episode 6
Jon Mertz: 00:02 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast,a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.
Jon Mertz: 00:18 We’re excited today to have Ben Brown with us. He’s the founder of the Association of Young Americans. Ben, welcome to Activate World.
Ben Brown: 00:26 Thanks, Jon. Thanks for having me.
Jon Mertz: 00:28 Just to begin, give us a snapshot of your background and what led you to start this organization.
Ben Brown: 00:33 Yeah. So I’m the founder of Association of Young Americans (AYA). We are a membership organization working to insert the voices of the 80 million Americans between 18 and 35 into everyday politics and working to reclaim lobbying as a tool that works on behalf of young people. Everyone has lobbyists, and for so long, young people have not.It’s an extremely important part of the political process, and AYA is organizing young Americans to support lobbyists that work on our behalf.
Ben Brown: 01:07 Even though Association of Young Americans is only about two years old, I have been thinking about it for about eight years. My background is in management consulting and energy. I studied physics in undergrad and then went to work at a couple of different places doing management consulting focused on clean tech, startups, often helping very, very big companies, Fortune 500s, Fortune 100s, think about how to access innovation outside of their four walls.
Ben Brown: 01:42 Then about at this point maybe six years ago, I read an article when I was doing management consulting, I read an article by a guy named Matt Miller,and it was a laundry list of issues facing young people; student debt, climate change, social security, the list went on and on. And at the end of the article, Matt Miller relayed an anecdote from when he was in his 20s in the mid ’90s interviewing then Senator Alan Simpson. And he said, “Senator Simpson, how can we solve all of these issues?” The Senator said, “Nothing will happen until you can walk into my office and say, ‘I’m with the American Association of Young People and we have 30 million members.'” And I thought, “Wow, that is powerful.”
Ben Brown: 02:25 For years, I just could not get that idea out of my head. Then 2-1/2 years ago, it was really starting to eat me up inside and keep me up at night, and I launched AYA within a couple months.
Jon Mertz: 02:39 Was there a specific event that led you to start this? Or was it just “if not now, when” kind of thing?
Ben Brown: 02:46 Yeah, it was more of a if not now, when. I always thought of Association of Young Americans as being the opposite of get out the vote programs.Literally hundreds of million of dollars was spent on getting young people to register to vote and ultimately show up and vote. Unfortunately, all of that energy and all of that focus disappears right after the election. Millennials voted in the highest number percentage-wise in mid-terms just about ever. Still quite a far ways to go, but certainly a step in the right direction. But after the election, and historically the same is true, after elections a lot of that energy, a lot of that focus goes away, and that’s when all the work really starts. After the election is when policies and legislation has actually been written about the things that we care about. So it’s so important to be involved in those conversations, and historically young people just have not. So I always thought of Association of Young Americans as the organization working on behalf of young people on the days in between election days.
Jon Mertz: 03:58 Since 2016, walk us through some of the key milestones that you have achieved with the Association of Young Americans.
Ben Brown: 04:05 Yeah, some of the most exciting to me are passing the 10,000 member mark which we did mid this summer, and we’re actually now creeping up to 13,000 members. But even before that, it was hiring our very first lobbyist this spring, which was very exciting. The whole purpose of AYA is to organize young people to support lobbyists that work on our behalf. So we hired a really amazing young woman in D.C. to work on behalf of our members and focus on higher education, affordability, and accessibility issues. Before that, I was actually really excited to announce a couple of the corporate partners that we have offering our members access to discounts last summer, including Lyft and Megabus brand lists and a couple other really amazing companies that I’m really proud to work with.
Jon Mertz: 05:08 What’s the mix of social media presence versus the in-person presence?
Ben Brown: 05:13 Yeah, we have historically been very focused on the digital piece, which as you can imagine is really a great way for us to get our message out and get in front of people who we think will be interested in learning about us. That being said, we are doing more and more in-person stuff by the month and are planning to do much more next year. Actually this past September, we launched our first Ambassador program with about 10 folks all over the country acting as AYA evangelists, if you will, many of whom were on college campuses, but several of them were not. They volunteered. They went through a brief training, and then took the message of AYA, this idea of continuous engagement, and organized young people back into their communities. We plan to actually do another round of recruitment training for that Ambassador program this January.
Jon Mertz: 06:19 Give us an example of one of the lobbyists you are excited to be working with.
Ben Brown: 06:23 We are working with a young woman named Ally Bernstein who works at a very small group called Bernstein Associates, and Allie is an expert. She’s been a lobbyist for many years focused on education in communicating complex legislation and converting it into layman’s terms, what it actually means for a student debt borrower for example. She’s an absolute expert in navigating the politics of The Hill and organizing and being a part of different coalitions. So she was really a home run in terms of the perfect partner to help us get started in the lobbying space.
Jon Mertz: 07:13 On your website, there’s four issues you highlight. I’d like to walk through each and get your insights on what you like either the President or Congress to do around each of those issues. The first one is student debt.
Ben Brown: 07:24 Yeah. First of all, all of these issues, all of the problems facing young people are bipartisan. Association of Young Americans is bipartisan. We don’t support candidates. We support policies that are good for young people. So when we think about student debt in higher education, we have to look at the problem as a whole. $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. It has skyrocketed in the last 15 years for a number of different reasons. But it’s affecting 44 million borrowers, many of whom by the way are not actually young people. And it’s really simple, college costs too much and students get too little. So we need to figure out a way to re-balance the equation, whether it’s increasing investment in higher education at the state and federal level or helping students refinance their loans at lower interest rates. Also, I’ll mention that student loans are virtually impossible to discharge through bankruptcy, which was not the case 20 years ago. I think we need to revisit that option as well.
Jon Mertz: 08:38 Then one that’s been in the news a lot lately, climate change.
Ben Brown: 08:42 Yeah, absolutely. Over the last weeks,we’ve seen the devastating effects of climate change in California in the campfires and the tragedy that happens if we don’t take it seriously. Climate change is not snap your fingers and see the problem. It’s slow, but it’s happening, and the vast majority of young people believe it is happening. It’s because we can see the effects of it. We’re going to be here for another 80 years, and so we need to really think about long-term problems, and climate change is definitely the key long-term problem. Young people are going to have to live on this planet for a while, so Association of Young Americans is fighting to ensure that we have clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, and clean land to live on.
Jon Mertz: 09:39 Campaign finance was another issue listed on your site.
Ben Brown: 09:43 Yeah. We look at what we have dubbed political equality, which has to do with … It’s really a bucket term for anything that has to do with access to democracy. So campaign finance, gerrymandering, voting rights, and at the end of the day, politics shouldn’t be only for those who can afford it. Equality means equal say, and it’s important that everyone has the same access to engaging with democracy as a fundamental rule of how things should work.
Jon Mertz: 10:16 Then the last issue was criminal justice.
Ben Brown: 10:20 Yeah. This is a huge issue. Again, more intergenerational than some might expect. But the U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration. It destroys families, communities. It has an enormous negative economic impact on the U.S.economy, and it disproportionately affects people of color. Frankly, it’s time for reform.
Jon Mertz: 10:48 An issue that seems to be missing is gun control, especially with the Parkland students. Is that something you’re looking at? Or is it already being handled by other groups?
Ben Brown: 10:59 It’s a little bit of both. We actually did do a bit of work on gun safety, and we bucket that within our criminal justice portfolio. The students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas are the most inspirational group of young people I think I’ve ever seen in my life. They have elevated the issue of gun safety to a place where it has not ever been. And for that, I’m very proud and excited for them, and they are owning that conversation, as they should. Association of Young Americans is here to support them however they need it.
Jon Mertz: 11:51 How do you view the emerging trend of employee activism?
Ben Brown: 11:55 Yeah. I love it. I think it’s absolutely amazing. And for all the flack that Millennials get for killing industries, this focus and devotion to values in the workplace is a strictly new millennial, young person concept. I think it is absolutely here to stay, and I’m proud as a young person to take ownership over that. There were hundreds, thousands maybe, of Google employees walked out over how the company handled some sexual assault allegations. They were upset when Google was vying for some Pentagon contracts. And it’s not just Google, it’s all sorts of tech and non-tech companies too.
Ben Brown: 12:46 When right after Trump was inaugurated and he signed his series of immigration executive orders, we were seeing commercials on everything from cars and beer about immigration. So it really is everywhere, and business leaders are taking a stand on issues because they know that consumers and maybe even more importantly employees want to see them take a stand. Because it’s no longer just about working for a company and taking a paycheck home, it’s about working for a company that aligns with your values and vision for the future. And again, I’ll say it again, that is a purely new millennial addition to the corporate world, and I’m very proud to see it.
Jon Mertz: 13:41 Yeah. One of my working theories around that is government has shown their almost inability to solve problems. Business leaders are stepping in to fill that void. How do you see this business versus government tension play out as it relates to solving some of these problems that are very central not only to Millennials, but to many other generations as well?
Ben Brown: 14:00 Yeah. It’s absolutely, it’s right. I think that that theory could 100% be right. People don’t often look to politics or politicians to solve problems,and that’s I think part of the reason why young people have been so disengaged with voting and politics is because it doesn’t feel like they’re listening. And then you look at how business has changed over the last 10, 15 years, even 20 years. It used to be that you go buy a shirt and that’s the end of your transaction. But now with the advent of social media, people, especially young people, are really looking at companies to deliver value beyond just that initial transaction. You’re welcoming brands into your life to be there with you consistently. So as young people I think have maybe started to look away from politics as a place for solutions, business and companies and brands have actually increased their relationship with …
Jon Mertz: 15:15 Is AYA working with business leaders around these issues too?
Ben Brown: 15:19 Yeah. As I mentioned a little bit earlier, we work with companies that align with our values and vision for the future to offer members discount. And we’re very selective about who we work with. One of the partners coming off the heels of the election that I’m really proud to be working with, which offers AYA members discounts, is Lyft. Lyft before the election announced that they were going to give free and reduced rides to the polls, costing them millions of dollars, but they knew that one of the key barriers for people to get to the polls was transportation and making a plan to get to the polls. So I was very proud to see them do that and proud to work with them every day.
Jon Mertz: 16:11 How do you fund your work with lobbyists and grow your presence within this generation?
Ben Brown: 16:16 We have 13,000 members. Many members are free members, but members can also contribute as little as $3 a month, a cup of coffee a month, to support their lobbyists. We have a lot of members who are paying. Some pay as little as $3 a month. Some choose to pay $15 or $20 a month, and that is the money that keeps our lights on and supports our lobbyists. We’ve also been lucky to receive some grant money as well.
Jon Mertz: 16:50 Yeah, I saw that. One of the grants came from the AARP, correct?
Ben Brown: 16:55 That is right. Yeah, exactly. We actually worked with them a little bit more this summer and fall launching what was called the Three Generations Survey, interviewing and surveying Millennials, Boomers, and Gen-Xers about all sorts of things.
Jon Mertz: 17:16 That’s a great example of a cross-generational partnership.
Ben Brown: 17:19 Yeah, exactly.
Jon Mertz: 17:21 To wrap up, what’s your big hope for the new year as it relates to your association?
Ben Brown: 17:28 My biggest hope is that Association of Young Americans … My dream is that and plan is that Association of Young Americans gets millions of young members. I don’t think we’ll get millions of members next year. It’s possible. But my hope for next year is that we can harness the enthusiasm amongst young people that we saw in the election and convert it into consistent engagement when policies are actually being changed.
Jon Mertz: 18:03 For that age group, from 18 to 35, what would you say is the biggest challenge in the new year ahead?
Ben Brown: 18:10 Fighting through the noise and finding the truth and understanding how that truth affects them. One of the reasons actually that Association of Young Americans launched our daily newsletter about different issues is because there is so much news and noise out there and it’s really hard to understand where the things that are affecting your lives are happening, and staying up to date on that news.
Jon Mertz: 18:42 How can people engage with you? What’s the best way to get connected and join?
Ben Brown: 18:46 Go to our website joinaya.com. To learn more about us, signup for our newsletter. Sign up to be a member. Contribute to support your lobbyists. And also, follow us on Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitter, and stay up to date on what we’re up to in the news.
Jon Mertz: 19:06 That’s great. I hope our listeners, if they’re in that age group, definitely do that. As you point out and as Senator Simpson highlighted, numbers matter. The more you can organize and make your voice heard through AYA, the better off you’ll be.
Ben Brown: 19:19 Absolutely.
Jon Mertz: 19:21 Well, Ben, thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to talk with you,and what you’re doing is so essential for our future. I think our young business leaders and leaders in general need to engage and work with you to solve some of these big policy challenges.
Ben Brown: 19:34 Thank you so much.
Jon Mertz: 19:40 Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.
- Which of AYA’s key issues do you think has the most potential for progress?
- If you’re 18 to 35, what are the issues that you think are most important?
Send your perspective to me at jon @ activateworld.com. That’s Jon without an H, J-O-N @ activateworld.com. Write it out or record it. Send it my way. We want to hear and share your thoughts.
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Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean a lot to us. Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.