Sam Vaghar started Millennium Campus Network (MCN)
in 2007 when he was a student at Brandeis University. He had read Jeffrey Sachs’
book The End of Poverty and knew he wanted to do something to help address the UN
Millennium Development Goals and tackle global poverty. So Sam convened students from around the country at a series of annual
conferences to inspire, engage, and call young people to action and built a collaborative
network of campus groups. Working closely with leaders like Jeffrey Sachs and Partners
in Health Founder Paul Farmer, as well as celebrities like John Legend, all of whom
serve as advisers to MCN, Sam is giving his generation the tools and asking them to
stand up and be active citizens. Sam, now 24, talked to us about how to affect change and the
urgent need to tackle global poverty.
What’s your big idea?
At the Millennium Campus Network (MCN), we are connecting and supporting
university student organizations across the United States in their efforts to reduce extreme
global poverty and achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
With 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day, our generation has a huge
responsibility and opportunity to impact this crisis. On a grassroots level we provide
opportunities for networking, skill-building workshops, and grants, all aimed at ensuring
that campus organizations have the fundamentals in place. From creating a mission
statement and a strategic plan, to planning for leadership succession and following
metrics to measure impact, we want campus organizations to perform at their best.
Across the sector, it means making it as easy as possible for organizations to share best
practices and learn from each other, online and offline.
If campus organizations are effective, sustainable, and communicating with each
other, we have a much better chance of creating a thriving community and national
movement that will partner with the world’s poorest communities. That’s the big idea:
effective, high-impact student organizing. Our team here at the MCN works with member
organizations on campuses across the nation to make it a reality.
What was the inspiration for Millennium Campus Network?
I read The End of Poverty by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs and learned about the incredible
challenges pinned on one-sixth of humanity. For example, I didn’t know much about
malaria, and I was shocked to learn than over one million people, mostly children, die
from this treatable, preventable disease. But Dr. Sachs also shows us what is possible
if citizens and governments commit fully to pledges that have already been made. A
$10 bed net can protect a family as they sleep from contracting malaria. Furthermore,
if people and governments invest in education, health care, agriculture, and business,
families and communities can lift themselves out of poverty. I began fundraising on
campus at Brandeis University with MCN Co-founder Seth Werfel and other students and
we raised over $5,000 for Dr. Sachs’ non-profit, Millennium Promise. But we wanted to
do more. We realized that other students shared our passion on campuses across Boston.
We thought about the endless possibilities that could emerge from collaboration between
multiple campus organizations.
What problem did Millennium Campus Network first try to address?
The big issue for us was trying to determine what student organizations could accomplish
together. You’ll notice on a campus or in the outside world that there are a lot of egos.
As a result, the market is inefficient and potential is wasted. I conducted an informal
survey in 2008 and found that 88% of 250 campus organizers said they lacked adequate
membership or attendance at events, and 93% lacked adequate funding. But when I asked
organization leaders how many communicated or collaborated with each other, only 12%
said they did. That shocked me. Essentially, that means that if a campus organization succeeds on a
project, few others can learn from that experience. On any given campus, if there are
five globally-focused campus organizations with similar missions, they will each try
to succeed with limited members and inadequate funds instead of teaming up to do
something more effective together. We wanted to cut down on the inefficiencies and
create a collective movement. On the advocacy front, I always envisioned one massive
student movement pressuring politicians to increase accountable foreign aid, change US
trade policy, and ensure we fulfilled our commitments to the UN MDGs.
How did you know it was working?
In April 2008 we teamed up with our MIT member organization Global Poverty Initiative
to co-host our inaugural Millennium Campus Conference. 1,000 students, Jeffrey Sachs,
Paul Farmer, John Legend, Ira Magaziner, Augustine Mahiga, and dozens of other
leading entrepreneurs and advocates showed up to affirm the network and movement we
were building. The event would never have been possible working alone. This was the
first time that I saw the power of a network.
As soon as the event was done, I knew we got one big thing right: when we started
the MCN, we chose not to create campus chapters. By working with existing campus
organizations and helping them succeed in their individual and collective efforts rather
than competing, we had set ourselves apart and gained students’ trust and investment in
the network we could build together.
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
It’s hard to remember! When we started, we wanted to do it all. I remember in 2008, we
promised to offer grants, internship opportunities, networking opportunities, workshops,
an interactive website, and so much more. Essentially, we wanted to be a one-stop shop
and solve all the problems student organizers brought up (and even some they didn’t
bring up!). We were very successful in working together on that first conference in
2008, but the glitz and glamor of such a big event masked some of the inadequacies of
the organization that we knew existed. In many ways, the problem was that we needed
metrics in place to measure our impact and ensure we were really helping student leaders.
Broadly speaking, our goal is to empower college activists in the fight against extreme
global poverty and related crises. More specifically, our goal is to ensure our member
organizations are having positive impact and are learning from each other. We’ve
got some big ideas and ways to measure impact, including an online network, an
online contest to identify case studies for campus organizing, leadership institutes, and
much more. Student leaders will see some of these in action next fall. That said, we
are undergoing an extensive review process with an updated strategic plan and set of
objectives to be shared this September at Millennium Campus Conference 2011. Stay
Where did you grow up?
Newton, Massachusetts. That said, I was born in Birmingham, England. Sadly, I don’t
have the British accent!
What do your parents do?
My dad was a civil engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers. My mom is a realtor
at Hammond Residential. I’m proud to say that I moved back home after college to start
this organization. They welcomed me and have supported my dream since the beginning.
And they make great dinner!
What college did you go to? What was your major?
I attended Brandeis University and majored in International & Global Studies.
What was memorable about your time at Brandeis?
I had dozens of teachers and classes that profoundly shaped who I am, but to be honest,
it was my time outside the classroom on campus that taught me even more. I was the
Student Representative to the Brandeis University Board of Trustees, and I spent Board
meetings learning from the leadership styles of philanthropists Steve Kay, Steve Reiner,
Mal Sherman, Jon Davis, Rena Olshansky, Myra Kraft, Ken Kaiserman, David Squire, and so many
others! This opportunity showed me that there are many leaders who are deeply invested
in students’ success. It also showed me that even the most influential people are willing
to listen and help, as many have supported me in my work to date.
What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow?
Whom do you seek out for advice?
I admire our organization’s Advisors, including Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Dr. Paul Farmer, Dr.
John McArthur, John Legend, Anita Sharma, and Bobby Bailey, among several others.
Each of these leaders has devoted serious time, energy, and resources to the movement to
end extreme global poverty and related injustices.
While I don’t follow any specific leadership model, I spend considerable time learning
from other organizations. I’m often on Facebook and Twitter following outstanding
organizations like Pencils of Promise, Partners in Health, ONE, charity: water, UNICEF,
the Global Poverty Project, Artists for Peace and Justice, Invisible Children, Millennium
Promise, and so many others. Right now I am reading Nancy Lublin’s Zilch to see how
other organizations have succeeded.
I seek out advice from people I know genuinely believe in the power of student
leaders and what we are doing. People like Bill Rigler at Millennium Promise, Fabian
Pfortmuller at Sandbox, PR expert Doris Yaffe, and our Board members Will Herberich
and Alex Alvanos come to mind among so many others. And most importantly, I listen
to our staff and members, who are all students with an accurate feel for the pulse on
How is your life different now than it was before you started this project?
I now know that anything is possible if I’m willing to put myself out there. I’ve learned
that when I can overcome fear, the road is wide open. Last December, I had the courage
to cold call the Jenzabar Foundation in Boston. I initially asked for $20,000 from Bob
Maginn and John Beahm at Jenzabar. Thanks to their generosity, I ended up with a lot
more funding than I asked for and donated office space on the twenty-second floor in
Boston’s Prudential Center. When you have the courage to stand up for what you believe
in, people will respond in extraordinary ways!
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
There are nights where I am up well past 3am, thinking about the future. I’m never
concerned about the capacity of this generation to create profound change. We created
Facebook. We helped elect a President. I’m concerned about whether all of us as citizen
activists can team up to do something even bigger! Can activists worldwide team up and
end extreme global poverty? Can we create sweeping education reform in the United
States? Can we stop genocide? Can we make going green completely mainstream?
Yes we can, but I’m concerned that some people in our generation place so much
responsibility on President Obama, Congress, or high-profile CEOs and philanthropists
to get the job done. When we step up and learn to value each other’s activism we’ll get so
much closer to reaching the big end goals we all desire.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
By 2020, you will see a better connected, more efficient network of campus organizations
who have had unprecedented impact on the ground overseas, in shaping U.S.
development policy, and most importantly, in listening to and understanding the very
real, diverse needs, passions, and ambitions of people living in extreme poverty.
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be…
Initially I was going to say being a publicist in L.A., as they have incredible ability to
connect some of the world’s leading figures with the causes that need their activism. That
would be an intense and potentially very fulfilling experience! That said, I can’t really
imagine doing anything else but this right now. It’s become so much of who I am and
how I live.
Anything else we should know…
I work with an extraordinary staff that rarely gets recognized: Nicole Santomauro, Steve
Fox, Lindsey Purington, Nicole Theobald, Jacob Geller, Ariel Oshinsky, Anya Thomas,
along with all of our district staff in Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Washington
D.C. Without them, this organization wouldn’t exist. The impact we have here at the
MCN is due to all of them. If you are passionate about the role college students can play
in having global impact, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org and my number is 617-
794-4373, please get in touch.
Follow Millennium Campus Network and their work on twitter @MCNpartners.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin’s DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We’ll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We’ll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.