By Sam Haas, editorial editor
Senior business student and Entrepreneurs Club president Benjamin Bungert was named earlier this month to the 2016 Mayor’s ONEin3 council, an advisory group composed of students and young professionals in the city. Since its inception in 2004, the program has worked with the Boston Redevelopment Authority on wide-ranging issues including public transportation, student housing and the burgeoning small business scene in Boston.
Bungert, a Mission Hill resident and Mattapoisett, Mass. native, said he aims to bring his entrepreneurial experience, people skills and love for his current neighborhood to the council. The News sat down with him to discuss ONEin3, millennials and civic engagement.
The Huntington News: In your words, what is the ONEin3 council?
Ben Bungert: Essentially, what it is is pretty much an advocacy group for millennials in the city, people from the ages of 20 to 34 because they represent, in theory, one-third of the population in Boston. So the council will advocate on behalf on millennials. They were some of the ones behind originally changing the T to be open late. They originally proposed that to the mayor and a couple of other things. They host events for people to get out and learn about Boston, enjoy Boston, see all the resources that young people can use [and other] things like that.
HN: How did you become involved?
BB: You go through a series of interviews with different council members, different members of the city. Basically, who would be best fit – they pick people based on proximity, location – you have to live in Boston proper for this program. You have to live in East Boston, South, Roxbury, Dorchester, Brighton, Allston or somewhere in there. I live on Mission Hill – my guess is the poll of people from Mission Hill was pretty small. They’re looking to get more students involved. [Students] are in the ages of 20 to 23 for a lot of schools, and the council is trying to extend their reach more into the college sector.
HN: What was your motivation for applying to the council?
BB: I’m the president of the Entrepreneurs Club at NU (Northeastern University), and through that I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of groups that, one, support entrepreneurship, but also strive for innovation in the city and making sure it’s easier to start companies here. […] There’s what they call a brain drain, where upwards of 150 to 200,000 students come to Boston every year for college, and they’ll leave after they graduate. I believe that that’s a big issue for the city. Seeing that happen as I come to the end of my college career, everyone is talking about “Oh, I’m gonna go here, I’m gonna go here, like, Boston sucks, there’s no resources for me […] there’s nothing for me.” I’m looking at what I believe to be Boston and thinking that’s just not true. So how can I, on the younger side of this 20 to 34 range, start spreading what actually Boston has to offer for this age and why Boston is a great place for people to be?
A lot of people say you have to get people to stay in Boston, but I think that it’s more along the lines of “how do we make Boston an efficient Boston and give the students the resources to stay and the reasons to stay?” Instead of saying, “We have to hold on them,” I would say we have to make it as attractive as possible for students. There are quite a few groups like the Venture Cafe organization, District Hall, Roxbury Innovation Center and different groups that are working really hard to make it easy for students to stay here and find resources, and so I, as I became more accustomed to those and realized the lack of knowledge college students had about them, I thought, “How could I help students stay in what I believe to be one of the best cities in the world?”
HN: Outside of spreading knowledge and awareness about what’s already here in Boston, what else can you bring to the council? What might a successful year look like?
BB: I specifically have an interest in Mission Hill. I know that when people think Mission Hill, they think parties and they think Northeastern students. Every time I tell people I’m from Mission Hill, they’re like, “Oh, Northeastern?” And I’m like, “Yeah, actually.” The reputation is low. I take issue with that because I think Mission Hill has a lot to offer and I very much like it there. One of the biggest issues is the dichotomy between the older generation who have been there forever and the younger generation who came in because it’s one of the cheapest places to live as a student in the city. But they’re pushing out these older generations, these working generations, who in theory should be living [on Mission Hill] because it’s closer to their jobs, it’s closer to where they grew up and it’s closer to whatever it is. It’s getting too expensive for families to live in these areas, while it’s easier for students to split up and share.
So how do we follow that change, how do we continue in – how do we not push all of those people out but instead live symbiotically in the same space? A lot of the older generation and a lot of the families who meet students just inherently hate the students as they come to Mission Hill. “Ugh, they’re just here to throw parties, they’re going to be disrespectful and they’re going to trash the streets.” And a lot of the time they’re right; a lot of the time that’s exactly what’s happening. But they’re close-minded, as are we [as students]. Sometimes, I’ll see families or I’ll see older people and I’ll automatically think, “Oh, they’re not going to be happy we’re moving here, they’re not going be happy students are here and it’s ruining what we call home.”
Students move to Mission Hill for two, three, four years during their college career, but they don’t care about the space because it’s temporary, right? Their goal is not to stay in Mission Hill; their goal is – if they’re even staying in Boston – to move to South Boston, move to Beacon Hill, move to Brighton or wherever it is. Mission Hill isn’t considered a home for a lot of these students, so how do we change that notion to okay, this is your home? Yeah it’s temporary, but how do we make it your home so that you care about the space, you don’t trash it, you aren’t throwing beer bottles off of the porch at 2 in the morning and you aren’t throwing ragers, so that there’s some sort of care about the place they’re living? […] I really want to focus on how we build some sort of bridges between the different groups. There’s this huge gap between the people living on Mission Hill. So I started to realize this, started to see them and had a couple of conversations with people who have lived on Mission Hill for awhile. It’s interesting getting their perspectives on it because it’s obviously not something that I’ve lived or seen from their side. Having those conversations really jump-started me in thinking about how to do something about this.
HN: You’re talking about creating a community between students and residents who have lived in the city for a long time. Do you have any specific ideas about how to go about that?
BB: Well that’s the hard part, right? The problem is no one talks to each other. That’s the first place you have to start. These groups just inherently hate each other […] so there’s no conversation and there’s no discussion. If you’re throwing a party on Mission Hill – which happens all the time – the older people will just call the cops. They don’t come over, they don’t say “Hey, I have kids, could you turn it down?” They don’t build the relationship. Meanwhile, the students are just loud on purpose or they just start being disrespectful. There’s conflict all the time, but those are never addressed up front. They’re never discussed up front. It’s always a retaliation, and that is absolutely not a state that should be maintained. So one thing that I’m doing is starting a focus group with students I know who live on Mission Hill and some of the companies and owners of companies who live on Mission Hill about what are some of the issues that they see and what are some of the ways that they think we can start the conversation. Because I think that it’s all about talking to each other. […] We need to have an adult conversation about sharing the same space where students can be students in the sense of maybe they do still throw parties but they’re quieter, they don’t go as late or they have their neighbor’s phone number and the neighbor can say “Hey look, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, I’m a little annoyed, could you please just keep it down?” I know that’s not really an answer, but that’s where we’re starting – it’s somewhere.
HN: How has your time at Northeastern and as an entrepreneur helped you become more and more involved in Boston?
BB: [Without Northeastern] I wouldn’t be as interested or as passionate about entrepreneurship or civic duty or civic engagement through entrepreneurship. There’s the area of the city that’s more entrepreneurially focused on creating innovation in different forms, and I became interested in that through the Entrepreneurs Club […] I met a couple of people over the years who have been previous council members. I’ve known about it for a couple years now and tried to figure out what the right time [to join] would be for me […] Right now, I’m working for the New England Venture Capital Association and co-running a program called TechGen, which is an internship platform for students looking for internships in Boston. Their goal is to build a talent pipeline in the city. The two missions seem to really jibe, so it seemed like the right time to get involved in both. I think there’s a lot of cross-pollination that can happen, and I think that I can learn a lot and also bring a lot to the table from the startup side, from the VC side and from the city side.
I think I’m in a unique position given that I’m very, very recently a student – I still am, but in the next three weeks will not be. So, being in Entrepreneurs Club, I’ve been really passionate about building the community. The club is all about it: What makes a club, in any shape or form by any president, is the community that they build and the sense of belonging. I’ve been through the process of starting from scratch in the club, building a community and building what it means to be part of that group. I found that I find that incredibly reward. A lot of it is empowering people to do what they want to do. […] A lot of the people I’ve met in the city are talking about community all the time, talking about how to build this community and how to make it a well-rounded community so it’s not just one piece. For example, on campus, they have the Myra Kraft Open Classroom through the School of Public Policy, right? And no students go; a lot of people say every single person there has gray hair, so they’re all pushing for the same thing and approaching things from the same place. That’s not really a community. That’s a very small piece of the community, but how do we build it up? That’s a lot of what my work has been in the E-Club, and so I felt like it was very translatable in that sense and something that I naturally do: Making connections, introducing people to other people and trying to make connections where it’s valuable on both sides.
HN: How does Boston compare, as a place for young people, to other cities you’ve visited or lived?
BB: Boston is unique in the sense that it’s a relatively large city in terms of size and in terms of people – though it’s obviously not the largest – but it’s manageable. Especially in the entrepreneurs’ community, pretty much everyone knows each other or has heard of the company you’re starting. It’s incredibly large but also small. It’s not about making a name for yourself; it’s about the impact. [In Boston] it’s easier to find the group you belong with, it’s easier to find something that you’re like, “This is what I’m going to do,” and have a significant amount of benefit to the city itself, a company, a school or whatever it is. I think there’s so much opportunity here. There’s opportunity everywhere, but the opportunity here is a special kind of opportunity. […] People come to Boston with ideas; Boston is an ideas place. So many things, and so many things that people wouldn’t expect, have been invented here. I think that makes it incredibly unique. There’s so many resources for people who want to create something. Boston is a city of creation. And I think the city is working really, really hard to make sure that actually rings true instead of just blocking things – as the city sometimes does, right? – with bureaucracy. […] The city really cares about the people who live here, and I think the fact that every single person is talking about – well, not every single person, but there’s a huge majority of people asking, “How do we make the city better? How do we make it more innovation-friendly? How do we teach students here and bring them into these conversations?” The fact that [Mayor] Marty Walsh has a council of students that does this and he shows up to meetings to talk to us about this demonstrates that even at the highest level they care. I don’t know that if you go to San Francisco and you have those people who have made it, who are way, way, way up in the clouds in terms of how rich they are and influential they are, you don’t have them on the ground with the people who can make the change.
Photo courtesy Benjamin Bungert