The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.
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Steven Olikara hasn’t been content to be a bystander during America’s deepening age of political polarization. His idea of helping to get out of this rut: bring together, cultivate and train younger elected officials in both political parties to engage in collaborative bipartisan problem solving and policy development. This is the mission of the two organizations Olikara has founded, the Millennial Action Project (MAP) and its related organization, the nonpartisan Congressional Future Caucus (CFC).
MAP now consists of over 250 staff members of CFC members of Congress. The CFC itself has nearly 40 members, who collectively have introduced over 200 bills with bipartisan, 35 of which have become law. MAP also has expanded its reach to include 31 Future Causes in the states, engaging over 1,600 legislators.
Olikara’s journey to leadership began in 2011, when America was less polarized than it is today, but still distressing enough to spur Olikara into action. His idea was to focus on younger elected officials because they belong to the generation that will inherit the future determined by decisions made today—the stakes of such decisions having an outsized impact on young people’s lives ahead.
Olikara was inspired by his first-hand experiences from a seemingly unrelated sphere of interest, but one about which he was equally passionate: music. He saw that what made musicians so successful could do the same for communities: the best music happens when people from different backgrounds, experiences, and talents come together. He wondered, “How can we bring that collaborative spirit into politics?”
Olikara has had some critics along the way, but they haven’t deterred him. By the time he launched the MAP, Olikara had learned to trust his intuition with big life decisions and assessing uncertain paths forward. He explains, “You could analyze decisions and see success as unlikely; but instinct and intuition can help you tap into a higher intelligence allowing you to see opportunities and solutions you might otherwise miss.”
Olikara’s own early life experiences enabled him to transform an inspired idea into a viable and credible political organization. He credits his immigrant parents for instilling his entrepreneurial mindset and willingness to take on the risk and uncertainty of founding MAP. Additionally, growing up in an immigrant family within a largely White community meant Olikara learned at a young age that one can either choose to turn inwards when faced with differences, or seek connections. Being forced at an early age to reconcile his own identity with his surroundings, Olikara became adept at building relationships over shared values and interests (playing music or doing art) while honoring his own background and culture. Despite the tension and personal challenge of trying to figure out where he fit in, Olikara says these experiences led to the development of his leadership skills: “I’m comfortable anywhere and I think a lot about how the country can come together with such rich diversity.”
Olikara identifies passion and courage as two critical factors that enabled him to not only galvanize those who shared similar perspectives, but also overcome hurdles along the way. Citing President Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”, Olikara learned that people respond to genuine passion. With this, Olikara sought similarly passionate people in building the momentum and coalition for MAP.
Olikara also speaks of being fearless—not being afraid of starting conversations, reaching out to people you don’t know, hustling and digging deep when challenges arise. This fearlessness is reflected in one of Olikara’s favorite books, The Alchemist, which speaks to the critical choice one must make upon finding his life’s purpose—having the courage to take action is the first leap of faith a leader must take to begin to effect change.
Remaining connected to a sense of purpose helped Olikara hold steady in the face of challenge. Also, knowing from history that ideas and movements around social or cultural changes go through ups and down, Olikara wasn’t perturbed by temporary setbacks. He instead viewed these events as tests of his own willpower. Similar to weight training, as Olikara explains, the moments when pain creeps in is when you have the choice to anchor yourself, tolerate the pain and discomfort, and stay committed to the task at hand. With each setback or challenge, Olikara was building his “pain threshold” and mental endurance for whatever hurdle lay ahead.
When reflecting on his leadership tenure with MAP, Olikara has several lessons he would share with others looking to carry an entrepreneurial spirit alongside social purpose. Embrace an entrepreneurial mindset, as well as a cosmic one—be bold in taking risks while keeping an eye on your personal purpose. Recognize the power of finding co-founders who share your passion and create teams and networks that include individuals who mirror your values and who know more than you. Know that progress is not linear and that your endurance will be tested. Progress might resemble early days of feeling like you cannot (and might not) get anything done before one or multiple turning points that could spark exponential change and growth. Finally, Olikara emphasizes, “Believe in your differences, what makes you unique, and have the courage to be an inclusive bridge builder.”