Innovation at Any Age

by Justin Korda and Esther D. Kustanowitz

In the field of innovation, the term “innovative” is almost always paired with the word “young.”

Admittedly, at first glance, these two terms seem a natural fit. As Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, points out, the development of high-caliber social entrepreneurs is largely linked to taking initiative at an earlier age. He bases his assertion on both experience and research: in a study of more than 2,500 Ashoka fellows, the organization saw that a significant number of these social entrepreneurs had first experienced the power of being change-makers in their younger years.

Closer to home, in a Jewish community focused on courting the “NextGen” population to ensure Jewish continuity and global Jewish peoplehood, there is a widely held belief that innovative, peer-helmed initiatives have a greater chance of succeeding than the traditional, top-down structures long central to Jewish life. And generally, they do.

But we would be short-sighted not to see that innovation in Jewish life can come from anyone, anytime, at any age.

In the ROI Community, we spend a lot of time focused on the issue of age. While ROI was created to provide support and community for Jewish innovators in their 20’s and 30’s, we now see some of the older members of our network (ourselves included) hitting our self-imposed age cap. But as Erica Cohen Lyons astutely noted in her recent piece, Aging Out of the Generational Divide, we at ROI are committed to life-long relationships with the creative individuals in our network, regardless of age. Or as we like to say: once an ROI Community member, always an ROI Community member.

For us, what matters is the social entrepreneurial spirit – the courage to look at challenges with open minds and to propose creative, innovative solutions. And there is no age limit on that. Indeed, the “finely developed skills and life experiences” that Erica and others bring to the table are of immense value to the network. Our vision is for ROI’s active membership to rely on these skills and on the ongoing interest our members have in collaborating and offering one another strategic support.

The kind of experience that tends to come with age is an obvious asset for encouraging mentor-mentee relationships. However, if ROI is to become the ‘community of reciprocity’ that we are envisioning for the future, there is much more to be gained from the continuously expanding age range. The future of ROI is about fusing a wider range of perspectives and experiences in pursuit of new and innovative solutions for today’s challenges. To that end, we aim to connect those who are risk-averse with risk-takers, those who are financially stable with adventurers, and those who are family-oriented with individualists. These different perspectives, in combination with others, are sure to create more relevant, more far-reaching and more robust initiatives in the future – both in the so-called innovation sector, as well as within the walls of our community institutions.

As we, together with our members, “grow up,” we are learning together how to harness the upside of such a wide range of professional and creative experiences. In the spirit of continuing the important conversation Erica started, we offer three observations:

1. While generalizations are not facts, they can still provide vital insight into how things work. Most people under 30 have a different relationship to technology than most people over 40. People in different age, marital and economic demographics access culture, religion, politics and information differently. Many more people are single at 25 than they are at 45, and many people who have families to support are not so eager to embrace the inherent risk and instability of the social innovator. As one ROIer on the north end of the age range recently posted on Facebook, “The major challenge for people in my life stage is that while we now have the time and drive to develop entrepreneurial projects, we also have the fiscal responsibility of our families to consider, that single 20-somethings don’t have to shoulder.” But these are not absolutes, nor does age or economic or marital status determine creativity or innovative spirit.

2. Innovative Jewish programs need to find ongoing sources of support in order to achieve sustainability. This week, JDub Records – a longstanding and very well-known example of innovative Jewish programming – announced that they would be shutting down after nine years of operation; in their official press release, among the reasons cited for the decision was “aging out of the cohort of Jewish ‘start ups,’ [which] made securing the necessary operating support an insurmountable challenge.” In the world of business start-ups, some ideas succeed, while others fail. The same can be expected of social start-ups. Not every innovative Jewish program will last, but what “failure” gives us is a chance to really analyze what went wrong, and try to identify corrected paths to inform future innovative projects. JDub’s closure can be a point of reflection on what success looks like for Jewish start-ups. The paradox at hand is that fresh ideas need to prove their value over time, and this maturation process unavoidably diminishes their freshness. Every new initiative will inevitably ‘age out of the start- up cohort’ – either because it will fail, or because it will succeed in achieving some form of sustainability. Our challenge is to create new models for the latter.

3. In the Jewish world, there are several promising models of engagement that transcend age boundaries. Indeed, a handful of innovative organizations are doing exemplary work to include projects by and roles for an audience as diverse and inclusive as the Jewish community can be when it’s at its best. The programming created by most Joshua Venture fund projects, for example, is not solely aimed at 20s and 30s, and in the fund’s most recent applications process, many proposals came from people over 40. At most Limmud gatherings, it is not uncommon to see older people learning texts alongside 20-year-old hipsters, and many of the longer Limmud experiences are specifically built with Jewish families in mind. PresenTense, too, successfully engages more experienced people as accomplished mentors and resources for their entrepreneurial fellows. These organizations and others are creating fresh ways to connect young-hearted people regardless of age.

As we continue to discuss the role of age in innovation, let’s agree that the idea of focusing philanthropic and leadership resources on younger Jews does not come from a desire to ruin people’s 40th birthdays by making them feel obsolete.

When it comes to thinking creatively and innovatively about the challenges that face us in the contemporary Jewish community, “young” is more about an open attitude and generous perspective than about one’s age. Why are some people called young at heart? Because it’s a way of demanding a second look at someone, of saying, don’t be fooled by her age. And for this, we can all take a note from ROI’s visionary founder, Lynn Schusterman – undisputedly the youngest 72-year-old innovator in the Jewish world.

Justin Korda is the executive director of the ROI Community. Esther D. Kustanowitz is a long-time consultant for the ROI Community and works with both community institutions and independent initiatives.

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  1. says

    I am well “north of 40″ — north of 65, in fact — and I am neither supporting a family, nor uncomfortable with technology. I read eJewishPhilanthropy and Jewcy, and am on FB and twitter. In fact, I have several friends north of 85 who skype, email, and surf quite happily. And by the way, many in the retired generation are single too, but we call that being widowed.

    We are a huge and growing demographic; many of us are healthy and active; and there are even those among us who have been risk-takers and entrepreneurs. If the lifespan predictions on TED come to pass, we’ll be around for many more years to come.

    We grey-haired geeks have experience, time and ideas. Occasionally, we even know a little about popular culture and the thinking of 20 and 30 somethings, since we have a fair number of those in our extended families.

    Segmenting communities by age tends to pit one stratum against the other, and imho, it’s not a healthy strategy for developing community. It would be far more beneficial to let people of all ages work together and learn from each other. If tactics are needed to prevent one group or another from dominating the discourse, then by all means use them. But segregation is not healthy.

    Focusing on the “young” as the source of innovation leaves out the most likely sources of success — those who are serial entrepreneurs — the ones with the most ideas, drive, and experience. That’s who the venture capitalists invest in. Shouldn’t we be doing the same?

    And why are we investing only in social entrepreneurs? If our social ventures are folding for lack of funding, shouldn’t we also be investing in people/ventures that can develop new sources of income for the Jewish community? We need entrepreneurs of all kinds to keep our community afloat.

    One last note. Social enterpreneurship is anything but new. In Israel, it goes by the name “gemach” – the acronym for “gemilut chasidim”. Here there are gemachs to provide wedding gowns to impoverished brides, schoolbooks for students, carriages for new babies, medical referrals to the world’s leading experts… you name the need and you’ll likely find a gemach for it that runs out of someone’s apartment, has no overhead, and is entirely volunteer. There are hundreds of gemachs, that operate without public funding. Why do we think that we need contests and funding to create gemachs when we have proof that all that’s needed is initiative, commitment and drive.

    Ahhh, there’s the rub.

  2. says

    Minds can be sharp and people can be innovative at any age.
    I am a “Baby Boomer” who created an online tehnology to assist Jewish families and those who wish to express their condolences-
    It features informative articles, a Shiva Registry system to privately share funeral & shiva details, a calendar to ccordinate food for each day, direct memorial donations, helpful resources and an emailed Yahrzeit Reminder.

  3. alter says

    To be truly heretical, allow me to suggest that not only is age an irrevelant category in discussing innovation and bold change but so is institutional platform. What another article derisively called “legacy” institutions,(I assume to mean federations and their traditional partners) remain at the forefront of creatively tackling many of the central issues of Jewish life with staff and boards that reflect the multiple generations of our community. These organizations have learned that change is constant and sustainability is an imperitive. They accept their bigness as an asset and quite frankly when Jews, of all ages and classes, are in crisis and need of support it is to these agencies that they turn. We are entering a period of generational change in non-profit leadership. Younger generations should see this as a golden opportunity to effect change from the inside on a scale they have yet to even approach in their start-up ventures. The family business is there for the taking!

  4. Judy Beck says

    I want to add my voice to those of Rochelle and Sharon who know that innovation is not limited to those in their 20’s. For those of us cycling out of FT gigs with years of experience and skills and social security there is the opportunity,luxury and desire to create new and innovate approaches to Jewish life. I have recently gathered together a group of Jewish professionals with “ideas” for new programs and institutional models to move our local Jewish community forward. Interestingly, there were several folks in their 20’s but the preponderence were individuals in their late forties and above. The most interesting outcome was the realization that folks at the upper end of the age spectrum were not interested in retiring but were motivated and excited about the opportunity to take their years of experience and apply it to the creation of new programs and initiatives to fill the unmet needs of our Jewish community. Whereas, in their younger days they were obliged to put family responsibilities first, now these educators, rabbis and lay people were freed to be entrepreneureal and take risks. It is ageist to think that creativity and innovation is the purview of the young. It is at our peril that we limit funding for innovative initiatives to those visioned by individuals 40 and younger.

  5. says

    I’m also on the “north end of the age range” yet I’m 1 of the 16 PresenTense fellows in the Summer Global Institute in Jerusalem right now. As such, I found your article really refreshing! Thanks for the encouragement!

  6. says

    This is a welcome and important conversation. As my colleague, David Elcott, and I wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy on May 23, 2011 ( elsewhere, one reason we began a new venture, B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform (, is that age should not be the primary criterion for funding decisions and when recruiting for leadership learning programs. Many Boomers are at a life-changing pivot right now and we are exploring new models of engagement (or re-engagement). We would suggest that there could be a rapid “return on investment” for the community from engaging a 55 year old who is searching for new ways to connect to Jewish life and to use his or her skills, experience and resources, and this ROI could occur as quickly as it would from someone much younger, as noted above. There’s a reason Americorps is reserving 10% of its slots for those over 55. Many As David’s research demonstrated, Boomers are exploring “encore” careers in public service or would be interested in serious, ongoing volunteer engagement, if programs and resources are available in the Jewish community. What’s more, we recognize that any efforts to address Boomers’ evolving interests and activities must also explore inter-generational connections and implications, because these are directly affected. So, let’s keep this conversation going. For us, a key next step is listening to Boomers and to other age groups, to be sure we have current, accurate information on their evolving needs, attitudes and interests, and find points of potential collaboration among generational groups. Mentoring–in both directions–is very appealing, as are joint learning and teaming up for volunteer work both locally and in places like New Orleans. One final point: entrepreneurism and innovation can happen any time, among inspired twentysomethings and among those pushing 60 (or more) who have enjoyed terrific midlife careers and now want to use their skills and ideas to strengthen Jewish life in new ways.

  7. says

    As the ROIer “on the north end of the age range” quoted in this very relevant article, I’d like to add that, as we have seen from JDub, the director of an innovative organisation that is acknowledged as doing great work and having a real impact on the community,should not be expected to survive on a less-than-shoestring budget. While the issue of nonprofit operating expenses (aka salaries) is of greater concern to “older” social entrepreneurs (and a challenge we face in scaling up the Eco Campus), it will ultimately trickle down to younger, foward-planning innovators as something to think about when planning their career, hence another reason to fear their “aging out”.

  8. says

    Speaking as another 72-year-young single, I think that age and innovation are largely independent. It’s true that personal and family obligations at various points along the life cycle can positively or negatively influence one’s ability to focus on new ideas leading to innovation. But innovators are innovators, young or old, and followers are followers, young or old. Let’s take the ideas from wherever they come, and apply them to help people of all ages.

    Sometimes a good idea is enhanced by new technology and brought to a wider audience as a result. And sometimes a technological advance can be used as a basis to enhance an older method of communication. My blog, Jewish Humor Central, started when I was 70, has a wide audience of Jews of all ages in 150 countries. It exists only because of the internet, and because one of the co-authors of “Innovation at any Age” introduced me to the world of blogging.
    Now, it’s about to become a series of interactive lectures for audiences young and old that can be presented at JCCs, Ys, on cruises, and at any face-to-face venue where Jews of all ages are looking to light up their faces with smiles. Age, whether that of the blog or course developer, or that of the audience, is completely beside the point.

  9. says

    At last! I am so thrilled to hear from Justin and Esther about the idea of age-transcending social entrepreneurship in the Jewish community. We have not begun to plumb the riches in talent, experience and idealism that are present in Jews beyond midlife. Many are serial social innovators, and are ready to take on a “third chapter” enterprise to bring meaning while changing the world. Others would be delighted to share their hard-earned practical wisdom with younger Jews eager to repair our broken world. All of this will be possible if we can somehow transcend dread of aging and worship of youth and embrace all generations in a community for ALL ages, as Ashoka fellow Nancy Henkin teaches.

  10. says

    I particularly enjoyed Al Kustanowitz’s comment.

    I would actually like to take Al’s style of Jewish humor, which is funny and clean, and use it to connect to our Jewish children who unfortunately are growing up a world that values a different kind of humor (e.g., Sarah Silverman style and the like) that creates a negative face to Judaism, and promotes verbal bullying (guised as “sweet talk”).

    If Al could deliver should a program for kids in Israel (where I live), I’m in, and will get him the forum, meaning the audience, venue and PR. Anyone else interested in buying into this idea, of the older generation engaging the younger generation through Jewish humor?

  11. says

    Amen all around! As Jumpstart has been telling anyone who will listen for the past 3+ years, innovation ? lifestage ? affiliation. These are not synonyms! According to our research (see, nearly a third of the participants in Jewish startups are over 45 years old, and just over a quarter of the founders of Jewish startups were over 45 when they launched it.

    But there’s more: as The Jewish Innovation Economy’s recommendation #2 states, “Planning, funding, and evaluation metrics should distinguish among age, lifestage, lifestyle, and level of affiliation and set distinct, independent benchmarks for each category.

    “The diversity of new Jewish initiatives is evident not only in what they do, but also in how they do it. Jewish startups use a wide variety of tools to engage their participants, who vary considerably in age, lifestage, lifestyle, and level of connection to the organized Jewish community. For example, initiatives and issues that appeal to the disconnected or unaffiliated (many of whom are baby boomers) do not necessarily appeal to younger participants. ‘Next-generation,’ therefore, is not a synonym for ‘unaffiliated.’ Stakeholders should distinguish among demographics and behaviors when formulating planning, funding and evaluation strategies, and benchmark them accordingly.”

  12. says

    I’m very encouraged by the response to this piece, and am excited by the potential impact we could create by opening up our minds and institutions to innovation – from within, in what I like to call “withinnovation,” and outside whatever literally or figuratively constitutes our organizational walls. I look forward to the emergence of a new, generationally-, institutionally- and experientially-blended approach to Jewish creativity and innovation.

    Plus, I think my dad will be getting some business out of this blog post, proving another way in which generations can provide platforms for each other.

    Shabbat shalom to all!!

  13. says

    This article really speaks to me. Three years ago when I co-founded the Boston Jewish Music Festival at 50+, I read about these next generation ventures with a weird combination of pride, envy, and resentment. Why should my age be a discriminating factor on how innovative or effective BJMF would become? Why should my birthdate, not my creativity or ability, determine whether I would qualify for such much-needed financial and professional support? With the utmost respect to the young Jewish start-uppers, I can assure you deciding that your future lies in trying to create a more joyous, more inclusive Jewish cultural organization is far more radical when you are middle-aged than when you are in your 20’s.
    So if anyone out there would like to support an entrepreneurial start-up that in just two years has reached over 11,000 attendees of all ages and affiliations, including over 12% who claim no affiliation with any other Jewish organization, please, please contact me.