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Sam Vaghar: One Cold Call to Jeff Sachs Away from Fighting Against Poverty

Sam Vaghar loves helping young people own their voice and power to make a difference. He is the executive director of Millennium Campus Network, convening and training his generation of social impact leaders on university campuses in over twenty nations. In his capacity, he builds robust partnerships with leaders in philanthropy, higher education, business, government, and non-profits to realize their vision as a platform for undergraduates making a difference.

That Millennium Campus Networking knights and trains over 1,000 campus leaders annually through the Millennium Fellowship and global campaigns. Sam has been fortunate enough to represent his business on the global stage from meeting President Obama at the White House to speaking on State Department speaking tours across four nations in North Africa and Eastern Europe. He is always searching for ways to improve his work, grow his community and add value to other leaders committed to strengthening communities. He is one of a kind. He is extremely genuine and someone I am really excited to introduce to you today. 

Takeaways:

  1. Becoming intentional with yourself young allows you to show up in the right places and build the right relationships quicker… It’s never too late!
  2. At the heart of change, is a community. Convening people to rally around ideas that matter allows you to take a stand for something greater than yourself.
  3. You’re going to draw the people to you that believe in the things you do.

Transcript:

BRYAN WISH: Why don’t you share your One Away moment with us?

SAM VAGHAR: My One Away moment, I was 19 years old and I read two books that changed my life. One was Mountains Beyond Mountains about a doctor named Paul Farmer, an organization partner in health. Then I read the book The End of Poverty by the economist, Jeffrey Sachs. Learned that a tenth of humanity lives on less than $1.90 a day in extreme poverty but that there are also things big and small we can do to respond to the crisis. When I was 19, I put those books down, picked up the phone, cold called Jeff Sachs. Two days later I went and met with his team at Columbia University in New York and I said, “I’m a university sophomore at Brandeis University. I don’t have many answers yet but I know our generation can do more and I want to figure out what small role we might play in tackling extreme poverty.” At the United Nations, they have these 17 sustainable development goals.

What can our generation do? We started small scale public health fundraisers in the fall of 2007, convene student leaders from across the city of Boston. We said, “Look, we’re all focused on injustice but we’re doing this work in silos. That minimized impact, minimizes diffusion of knowledge. What would happen if we teamed up?” Six months later, we had our first summit at MIT with 1,000 student leaders from around the world with Paul Farmer, Jeff Sachs, and a little known singer named John Legend, and the head of [0:02:09]. Paul, Jeff, and John joined our board of advisors. They said, “We’re in. Let’s build this student network on poverty.” I said, “I’m 20 years old. I’m not quite sure what this is yet. Let’s give this a shot.”

We launched Millennium Campus Network (MCN) in our campus dorm rooms as a platform for undergraduates making a difference. That’s the work I’ve been committed to doing over the last 12 years.

BRYAN WISH: Incredible story and journey. When you first heard about poverty, you could have picked anything. You could have picked sex trafficking. You could have picked other global issues. Water. You picked poverty. Why were you drawn or attracted to that direction?

SAM VAGHAR: In high school, I studied philosophy and ethics. I almost went through an existential crisis as a 15 year old. I asked myself, “What is real? How do we even prove this wall is really here or that we’re really here?” For me, reading about extreme poverty was a wakeup call because I realized while I was questioning everything around me and had the privilege of doing so, there are many people who are struggling for survival right now as we speak. That is clear. That is real. There’s no question about it.

For me, it was recognizing and acknowledging my privilege but also saying I’m not just going to live in my privilege and just sit here. I’m going to take some action. I just think it was clarifying reading those two books. I always encourage people to read Mountains Beyond Mountains in particular as a starting point. 

BRYAN WISH: How come?

SAM VAGHAR: It makes so clear the impacts of extreme poverty, of losing a child under the age of 5 and how often that happens for families. Having kids who aren’t able to stay in school because maybe there’s not enough support to do so for a whole host of reasons. Just structural and equities and what a professor of mine used to call structural violence which is just as damaging as physical violence. That was a wakeup for me.

These are real challenges millions, hundreds of millions of people are facing right now but also that we can do things about it and that was a powerful thing to learn at 19. As great as the challenges are in our world, even the smallest ways of responding, for me, were small fundraisers for bed nets to prevent malaria as people are sleeping at night. A $10 bed net that might have a role in saving somebody’s life or preventing transmission of malaria. The smallest things where we could have an impact and one is part of the solution. 

BRYAN WISH: The earlier the better that you get real with yourself because I think it leads you on a more intentional life earlier. Also, to speak to your point about Mountains Beyond Mountains, that was one of the first books I read on my entrepreneurial journey. I gleaned more of the inspirational side of it than maybe the poverty side because of where I was in my life of watching somebody like Paul fight so hard for community, inside the communities, and what he did in South America was unbelievable.

I feel when we first talked, we had all these overlapping points, but to document them here is really special. It sounds like you got very clear early on who you were and some of these things that were important to you and where you wanted to make a dent and a difference. It came time to convene these student leaders. That becomes the impetus for what you’re doing today. You get that surge of energy. You get that idea. You get the people behind you who made this possible. How did you get the student leaders together? Did you know what this was going to turn into? 

SAM VAGHAR: If you ever saw the movie Bowling for Columbine it’s basically about mass shootings starting at Columbine and Michael Moore goes and interviews Marilyn Manson who is kind of the scapegoat for so many of the mass shootings because of his music and the influences in music. Michael Moore asks him, “If you could say anything to those shooters, what would you say?” Marilyn Manson looked back and he said, “I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just listen. That’s what nobody else did.” To me, that was one of the most profound insights that I’ve heard in any interview.

Not because I’m an expert on mass shootings or what to do when you’re having serious issues. More just this idea of the power of listening. Really authentically listening. Being present and just being there for others. I think so often in schools and outside of schools, we just don’t spend enough time listening to young people, to students, really trying to understand their aspirations, their own goals and dreams for their lives, and for the world. Inviting them to dream but then also just being present to hear what those are. The last 12 years has really been about listening.

Like we’ve tried to meet young leaders where they actually are. I think that’s why we’ve been able to – whether it was to host that first summit with 1,000 young leaders or launch global campaigns. The biggest program we run now is the Millennium Fellowship and it started with 11 fellows in our first class. This class, there’s 1,400 in the class of 2020. I think it’s just because we keep listening and responding to what young leaders are asking of us. 

BRYAN WISH: When you convened those student leaders for the first time, what happened? What was the conversation about? What were people excited about? How did you formalize this network to get people to march towards the direction that you saw and the vision that you held?

SAM VAGHAR: Just before the summit in the months prior, my co-founder, Seth Werfel, and I first had this little seed of an idea of what would happen if all these different student leaders linked up because on any campus we knew that there were students passionate about making a difference but so often working alone. A shout out to Jacob Korman because I remember going with him and he would travel campus to campus and I would too on some of these trips. We’d go all around the city. Boston is such a college hub. We would just go campus to campus meeting with student leaders, pitching them on this idea of what if we all collaborated, what could we accomplish? 

The first accomplishment or milestone was that summit at MIT to look and see all these students from around the world in one place and global leaders all in one place and have all these public figures like Paul Farmer be there and then say, “Hey, I’m in to join the board of advisors” were huge sources of validation when we were 20 years old. To see that this means something to young leaders, this means something to global thought leaders and people that we followed, that just told us we were onto something.

I think more than anything, when you’re convening people, the most powerful aspect of it for me is just the energy. The energy of convening. It’s magic. It’s hard to really define unless you’re there and experience it. That’s really what I think has kept me going is how do you create more of that? Of course, there’s going to be partnerships that emerge and concrete impact, but for me, it’s the energy that comes that you can’t really have without large groups. 

BRYAN WISH: I think it’s one thing to have a vision. It’s another thing to go out and talk to people and share the vision. Then it’s a whole other thing if they cross that bridge and they walk with you. What were you saying to people when you were presenting this idea to get them to join you in this movement?

SAM VAGHAR: Part of it is it’s never been about me or anyone of us as individuals. The pitch has really been about what you can gain and what you can contribute. In terms of what you can gain, we really thought hard about what are the incentives? What are the things that young leaders really need that they’re not getting today? Most young people we meet, they’re always seeking internships and jobs or they’re seeking funding for their ventures and initiatives.

We said as one nonprofit, we’re never going to get every young person a job or get every young person funding but what are those root causes digging deeper that if addressed would help young people secure their own career pathways, their own resources for their dreams and their work? That’s where we honed in on training, connections, and credentials. That stuff is much more concrete and those are things if you have those, it’s almost in a small way, but in my own heart, I feel it’s a path to liberation. If you have agency and if you own your voice and you own your power, you can go and do so many different things. That’s where we focus. That is what, broadly speaking, appealed and why we have 15,000 applicants for the Millennium Fellowship this year in 2020. 

It’s just been aligning incentives with what young leaders are really telling us that they need and what we know can be helpful. Again, it’s about community building. Rather than just doing a one off fellowship or something for a single student, ours is a cohort model. Really at the heart of this is building grassroots communities of practice, having students convene throughout a semester together, learning from each other’s experiences. So often, people just don’t want to be alone. Doing the work is hard and it can be really lonely to try and make a difference. I think at the heart of it, people want to be in community. If you can provide that at a grassroots level, if you can then do that virtually on a global level, people are seeking that. I think it’s just human nature and we tap into that. 

BRYAN WISH: You could have looked to solve poverty in a lot of different ways but you said, “Where am I in my life and how do I get other people to join me in this?” At the time, the most logical path forward was, “I’m going to get other like minded peers to do this with me, to take a stand for something greater than myself and to be a part of the community to speak up for something around a unified mission.” I think that’s powerful. It takes time to build a movement. You got this idea. You started to convene people and go campus to campus.

But the platform and the program to me is built on what we just talked about: giving people an agency, the curriculum, the training to eventually go out and leave Millennium Campus Network and then go out and make a difference in areas of their own and go start their own movement. The effect is compounded over and over again in different areas of the world that you kind of helped start. What does it look like if I’m a student and I get accepted for the cohort?

SAM VAGHAR: 15,000 students applied. We picked just over 1,400 Millennium Fellows this year on 80 campuses in 20 countries. We trained two students on each campus as campus directors in the core curriculum. They learn it. They learn how to curate the experience for Fellows. Millennium Fellows meet 10 times over the course of August-December. They come together. They share best practices.

They go through our core curriculum which is focused on ethical leadership which for us means engaging with empathy, humility, inclusion as guiding values. We gone hard and soft skills. Things like how to do an elevator pitch or how to do goal setting or how to manage teams; a lot of the fundamentals that I wish every student learned in college. Oftentimes, I did it myself through trial and error. We want to remove some of the need for trial and error and making the same mistakes over and over. 

These students are learning this core curriculum. We then layer on top of that, a webinar series to expose students to the myriad of pathways to a social impact career whether it’s in the public sector or the private sector. Then they earn a certificate from MCN and the United Nations Academic Impact upon completion of the program. So again, training, connections, and credentials all coming through the Millennium Fellowship. Their commitment is to meet together with other Millennium Fellows on their campus and virtually with Millennium Fellows around the world.

That’s powerful because what they’re committing to really doing is sharing their knowledge and being there to really take in others knowledge. So often we talk about collaboration as a priority in making social impact reality but it rarely happens because we all have tunnel vision. Oftentimes in nonprofits, it’s a scarcity mindset of too few resources, just need that little bit more funding or volunteers or whatever it might be. 

We kind of lose sight that there are a lot of other people who share our passion at other organizations. We’re creating this space for them to learn from each other and then they’re the ones that are actually going in their communities locally, globally, and having impact. Whether it’s Carisa Shah who created cyber sensibility, who is tackling cyber bullying through a curriculum she’s implanted with 600 middle schoolers, elementary schoolers here in the U.S. and then scaled in India through the Millennium Fellowship.

Whether it’s students at the University of the Ozarks who’ve launched community farms tackling food insecurity on campus and in the local community. There are a number of projects internationally and domestically on mental  health advocacy. All of the work, in short, links up with one or more of the sustainable development goals, tackling poverty, tackling discrimination, tackling disease, tackling climate change. It’s all grassroots projects where students know best their own community. We’re really there to support them and give them some scaffolding and training to help them get to the next level. 

BRYAN WISH: I relate and empathize and connect a lot with what you just said especially going out on my own after college. I sometimes think about what were some of the soft skills missing or hard skills missing. I didn’t know how to plan effectively. I might have understood empathy and connecting but I didn’t understand the soft skills in the way I needed to or the hard skills around what you’re saying. What does it really mean to lead on a core and existential level so you can go out and make a difference within the Millennium Campus Network but then beyond that in your own life? I love how you built on the curriculum and built the relationship around it. It’s like learning in a shared community where people share values.

If you can get that right, the impact is multiplied. Another thing you said that was really powerful that connects to experience I had at Kairos is giving people, on the campus level, ownership of their own leadership of leading others below them around a shared mission. That in itself is really special. There’s a donation model to what you’re doing to help support and fund and help impact to continue to be spread year after year. How do you raise money? What’s the process?

SAM VAGHAR: Something I’m really excited about and it relates to the funding model – in 2018, we formally partnered with United Nations Academic Impact. It’s rare to partner formally with the UN entity but we did it. What that enabled us to do was grow from 11 Millennium Fellows to 1,400 this year but there were conditions. One of the conditions and things that we agreed on was we’re going to make this program free so that it’s accessible to undergraduates worldwide so that we’re not restricting it based on which students have funding.

What we saw was today, as of this last cohort, our community is 39% first generation college students, the first in their families to go to college; 56% female, 87% people of color. It’s a global network in 20 countries now. We have Millennium Fellows at whether it’s Arizona State or at Harvard or at Stanford or at Penn. We have Millennium Fellows at Lagos State, at IIT in India. The most moving piece for me was hearing from Millennium Fellows at Al-Razi University in Yemen.

We’re tackling malaria in a conflict region and having them on a webinar with other Millennium Fellows around the world, learning together – I think it’s one thing to talk in theory about other parts of the world. It’s a completely different experience to know, personally and firsthand, the young leaders in community driving change locally. Just creating the spaces, the shared spaces and identities where people can come together and weave together that narrative is really special. 

In terms of funding, our seed funding came. It’s a funny story but we went and we pitched the United Nations four times. I remember I was probably 20 at the time and I went and I said, “Look. We’re helping student leaders achieve the UN goals. Can you support us?” They said, “Absolutely not, Sam. We get pitched all the time for funding. There’s no way.” I went back a second time and asked again and then said, “Absolutely not.” A third time, “No.”

Then I went and we did our first summit at MIT and then came back and pitched again and I presented a budget hoping for $2,000-$3,000. I’ll never forget Anita Sharma, who is working for the UN, she looked down at the budget and looked back up at me. She said, “Sam, how about $20,000-$30,000?” I said, “$30,000 sounds great.” That was our first seed funding. That’s really how we launched MCN and ultimately the Millennium Fellowship. We’ve been primarily supported by family foundations, some corporate philanthropy as well, but primarily family foundations who align with our values and who are committed to making this program free and accessible and then sometimes we do some more specialized programs like, shout out to the Remmer Family Foundation.

We have the Millennium Oceans Prize to capitalize more student activism for the oceans. Sometimes where there’s a particular issue alignment, we’ll team up. We’re grateful to a number of family foundations who believe in this vision and have helped us manifest this. 

BRYAN WISH: You’ve been persistent. You’ve carved your own way. How are you going back to these foundations every year and showing impact and quantifying impact as a nonprofit?

SAM VAGHAR: To be transparent, it’s very hard to have clear measurement when the change that you’re seeing is not digging a well and adding GPS monitoring to well. In the case of POP (Pencils of Promise) like building a school, a lot of the measurement is around what’s happening within young leaders and the return on investment is going to be seen 5, 10, 20 years from today.

What we’ve focused on and you can go to MillenniumFellows.org, there’s an entire section you can read called “Impact” where we put out an impact report each year. Here’s what’s happened with the Millennium Fellowship both in terms of outputs; so the fact that Millennium Fellows last year volunteered nearly 100,000 hours on 422 unique projects, positively impacted more than ½ a million people’s lives in 15 countries. 

We have that kind of data. Then we also look at the data pre and post program surveys for Millennium Fellows. The fact that 83% feel more confident to go into social impact careers as a result of this program or the fact that 67% share that they’re now more inclined to go into social impact careers as a result of this program.

In our last comprehensive alumni survey in 2017, 75% of our alumni shared that they’re now working in social impact careers in the public and private sectors. Ultimately, we’re really trying to set students up to make this a lifelong commitment. We’re one piece of the puzzle in students’ undergraduate years but that’s something that we’re really committed to doing and being a part of. A lot of the data is honestly trending the way we want it to. There’s a lot of room for growth. We get a lot wrong like any organization does but we’re constantly refining the model and feel pretty good about where we’re at.

BRYAN WISH: I’m proud of everything you’ve done and the impact you’re making across students’ lives. What are some things in childhood that maybe influenced you to have this global mindset and to want to make an impact way beyond yourself? I want to understand these core things that may have shaped you early. 

SAM VAGHAR: There’s kind of three things that jumped out as you asked that. One was related to my family. Two are related to my health. Three was related to just how I fit in with others. In terms of my family, my parents are from England and Iran. They’re from two faiths, to geographies, two cultures.

The likelihood of them getting together was exceedingly rare. Like we just didn’t anticipate that that would be possible. My brother and I are really manifestations of that love that seemed so implausible and they met at a disco tech in England and here I am. Just kind of knowing the possible is possible through my own parents’ love story is something that I think has really guided me from a young age and it also made me very much focused on being global because my parents came from two different places. They’re immigrants to the United States. I automatically connected to their stories. 

Two was when I was 11 years old, it was tough but I still remember I was in a bathroom and had gone to the bathroom. I looked down and there was blood in the toilet. It’s a really tough story. I didn’t know what it was but all I knew is I was having a lot of trouble health wise and it got to the point I couldn’t even eat food. I’d smell food at the dinner table and I’d lay on the ground writhing in pain.

What it was was I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease which is a chronic inflammation of the intestine. I was 11 and instead of eating more food, I went on a two month liquid diet where I had 8 Ensure protein drinks a day. That’s all I had for two months just to kind of heal. That’s where I learned the significance of health like how important your health is. A lot of kids grow up thinking maybe they’re invincible. I knew from a young age that I wasn’t. I think it helped me understand when I read The End of Poverty or Mountains Beyond Mountains why health matters so much and to know that millions of people don’t have access to quality healthcare, I just understood the implications of that from my own life and knowing how powerful healthcare can be. 

Then the third piece was in high school I just really didn’t fit in. I felt so alone and I was really shy. It really took me awhile and I found my voice in college. Because I found my voice, as I shared, in launching MCN, it really is about a sense of belonging. I want to help more young people really own their own voice and power because I know what it’s like to feel alone. I know what it’s like to be in the cafeteria and not have anyone to sit with. I know those experiences intimately and those are hard. I just want to make life, even in the smallest ways, a little bit easier for other people especially others like me who are on the outside looking in.

BRYAN WISH: I just got goosebumps. Let me speak to a couple of things. I have also learned health. I had a really bad back injury in college from CrossFit. I had shoulder surgery two years ago. I’ve completely changed my diet, how I’m working out, yoga, meditation, intermittent fasting, all these things that allowed me to sustain.

When you’re not physically healthy and helping your own body, it throws off everything mentally and that has its own cyclical effects. I think so much more could be done to your point about educating people at a young age that they’re not invincible. For me, I probably did from high school. I ate whatever I wanted, worked out as hard as I wanted, but as I got older, my body didn’t adapt the same. Also to your point about not fitting in. For me, I didn’t feel I ever fit in in high school. I didn’t feel I started to actually belong until I started to pursue the path and stand out. I really believe the best way to fit in is to stand out on your own terms.

You’re going to draw the people to you that believe in the things you do. The impact you’ve had is immeasurable and so special. I appreciate you being candid with me and your personal story and background. With Millennium Campus Network, you’re helping these students belong. You’re bringing in a global environment and probably leading the right way with good health. 

SAM VAGHAR: Thanks for sharing your own story too. It’s interesting because I feel even from our earlier conversations, I felt like a connection to you. It’s nice to surface some of your story and understand the synergies. 

BRYAN WISH: What’s the line say on your tombstone?

SAM VAGHAR: I don’t want to think about that yet. I just turned 34 which is exciting. For me, it’s the sunset of my youth. I’m mindful of the fact that I’ve had 34 years on this planet. I want to have at least another 34, hopefully many more beyond that. I’m hesitant to talk about my tombstone because I have a lot of life to live. I do think if I could sum it up in a single line at this present moment, it’d be maybe three simple words: Believed in youth.

It sums up so much of what I have committed myself to doing professionally and personally. I found my voice when I was young wanting to help other young people really own their voice and their power. Again, that just kind of comes through in everything that I try to do. I feel it’s a gap in so much of our society. We objectify youth whether it’s in marketing – yeah, there’s just a lot of gaps in terms of really appreciating and embracing youth agency and what young people can do in society if we take the time to listen. 

BRYAN WISH: I once heard, “End on death, so you know where to start.” I know that’s a morbid thought but I do think if we can get pretty clear on the end in mind and how we want to live and the pursuits of being super intentional, it can help us backtrack and figure out what are these buckets of life or areas that are important to us? For someone like you who lives so intentionally and cares so deeply and your actions are based in your beliefs; to live like that, it’s an important question to think about. Where can people find you? Where can people donate to what you’re doing?


SAM VAGHAR: Always open to connecting. You can engage with me on most social media platforms @samvaghar. You can connect with MCN @MCNPartners on most platforms. You can see everything that’s happening in our community at millenniumfellows.org. If you are or know any undergraduates anywhere in the world, they can apply for our class of 2020 at millenniumfellows.org. We always encourage people to head over to millenniumfellows.org. Reach out to me anytime.

Any listener and friend of Bryan’s is a friend of mine. I want to be supportive in any way I can as others are finding belonging and launching their pathways to impact. I’m really proud and humbled to be in community with you, Bryan. What you build and the intentionality with which you build relationships is exactly what the world needs. I’m grateful to have this time with you. Thanks for having me on.

One Away Podcast
Leah Walsh

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