Saturday, September 18, 2010

Skating for Freedom

When you walk into a pizza place in New York City, you can reasonably expect to see a couple of things. The first is pizza. You'll also likely spot shakers of oregano, garlic and hot peppers. And without fail you'll see autographed pictures of a number of celebrities signed "Tony: Thanks for the pie!" hanging on the walls, leading you to wonder why Bono was in that neighborhood and why he would stop there to get a slice.

What you don't expect to see is 6 foot tall guy on rollerblades with a crash helmet holding an American flag. Now, this being New York and all, a guy dressed like that is not really that far outside the norm. So encountering him when we went to pick up some lunch merited a glance, not a stare. But he looked harmless, curiosity got the best of us and so we had to ask.

Turns out that Austin Szelkowski is on a quest to skate across America. A recent graduate in engineering from Kettering University in his home state of Michigan, he was waiting tables and trying to figure out how to build a business around his passion, "empowering young people to pursue their own passions and blaze a trail toward the lives they envision for themselves."  Perhaps taking a clue from his university's mascot, a bulldog named General Determination, he hatched a plan to deliver his message on the most grassroots level imaginable: going from town to town on rollerblades over the course of a year. And so the "Freedom Skater" was born.

He drafted a buddy to do publicity and outreach, and they started to lay out their plan. They decided that come hell or high water they would kick off their quest on Labor Day at the Statue of Liberty, even if it meant they had to hitchhike to get there. They enlisted support from friends and family, and got lucky when they hooked up with Dan Hussain, an MIT grad with a venture capital firm and a history of helping startups. They then secured an RV as their mobile headquarters, and got a local sign company to spiff it up. And with that they headed east and put rollers on the ground.

Szelkowski certainly could have taken a more traditional approach to starting a business. After al, even in recession ravaged Michigan, most people looking for work don't take off on skates for a year. Why this direction? He says it had its roots when he spent a semester in Germany. While he and his fellow students felt out of place and out of control, he finally figured out the way to cope was to give that control up and ride the wave. "For just a period of time, instead of living life, I let life live me," he recalls. "It's not to say that I was passive. I just learned to laugh with the punches. I learned to let life be an interesting and unpredictable experience. I let life be an adventure. I've never lived more fully than I did during that three month span. Never."

He decided that the way to start his business was to get out and do it. And so for the next year his goal is to skate, meet young people and skate some more. His connections are helping him set up some speaking gigs at such top tier schools as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wellesley, and MIT. He is looking to connect with kids in person at schools, and of course, online though his Facebook page and website.

What kind of message can a guy in shorts and wrist guards impart? At its most basic level, Szelkowski says it's to "pursue your dreams and live without fear." He throws out a laundry list of drivers: "passion, courage, hustle, innovation, authenticity, entrepreneurship and shared vision." But most of all he says it's about freedom: "I believe true freedom will grow from grassroots, when the seeds of these ideas are planted in the hearts and minds of young people." He envisions a movement that will "revitalize and remake the American economy by inspiring passionate young trailblazers and entrepreneurs to imagine a stronger America and take the steps necessary to build it." To his way of thinking, if those first baby steps have to be on rollerblades, so be it.

Szelkowski will be around the city until the end of month, when he heads south and then west, all with a goal of getting to Santa Monica around September 2011. You might wonder about his method, but it's hard to argue with his message. And so if you see a rather large guy skating by the side of the road with an American Flag (or just trying to get a slice of pizza), give him a wave: that's the Freedom Skater you just passed.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will keep his eyes open at the next pizzeria he enters. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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