A Panorama of Jewish Venture-Based Organizations, Part 2

by Barry Camson

What enables the organizations that create and support Jewish start-up ventures to make a significant contribution to the larger Jewish community? What practices are important for us to be aware of? What helps these organizations be successful? In this article, I will describe with selected illustrations some of the helpful practices that support the creation of entrepreneurial ventures. This follows an earlier article where I set out an overview of these organizations.

Being responsive to the needs of young people

Many of these organizations were created to respond to the needs of young people and to facilitate their engagement with the Jewish world.

ROI Community, part of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, is an organization that formed with the intention of meeting the needs of younger people. One intent of ROI is to identify people who went on a Birthright Israel trip but who, upon their return, did not find compelling opportunities to stay involved in Jewish life. According to Justin Korda, Executive Director, ROI Community, these people said, “I didn’t find an opportunity that speaks to me, but I will create the kind of programming that will be relevant to me and my peers.” Young people are doing this in all of their various ventures.

Reliance on new conceptual frameworks for innovation

A good number of these organizations specifically utilize new conceptual frameworks to guide innovation.

One such organization is UpStart Bay Area. According to Maya Bernstein, the Strategic Design Officer at UpStart, these concepts include Design Thinking, the Business Model Canvas, Lean Start-up and Adaptive Leadership. “These have been adapted from the tech start-up world and the private sector and work well with start-ups.” These concepts provide a common language among participants.

Providing training and education on relevant business skills

A variety of formats are used by these organizations in order to provide the business competencies needed for success in guiding a new venture.

The PresenTense Fellowship program includes five seminars focused on business skills as well as coaching, mentorship, peer “cluster” learning, opportunities to hear from experts in a variety of fields and a culminating expo called Launch Night where fellows present their ventures. There is also a role for the older generation to serve as mentors, coaches, subject matter experts and speakers. The PTSchool custom designs workshops for other organizations based on materials from the Fellowship program to help them innovate from within.

Creating networks among participants and alumni

Building networks of participants is helpful in supporting the individual entrepreneurial ventures on an ongoing basis.

A key part of the Joshua Venture Group program is networking among the cohort and alumni. The first retreat of a new cohort is about developing connection within the cohort. Every retreat brings back alumni for one day of the retreat. Expenses for coming to the gatherings are covered.

ROI Community uses methodologies like World Café and Open Space Technology that facilitate connections among participants in its micro grant program. According to Justin Korda, one of the main questions members ask each other is “how can my skills complement yours and advance your ideas?” ROI also uses web-based technologies that enable searching membership to find complimentary people.

ROI asks members to write blog posts about how they used the money they received in the micro grant program to advance their ideas and skills. In addition to inspiring the reader, these posts provide a means for others to identify needed skills for their own ventures that are accessible to them as a member of the community.

Building partnerships with legacy institutions

Sharing knowledge and practices with mainstream legacy institutions helps these institutions adopt contemporary practices and also helps the larger Jewish community.

PresenTense partners with federations and JCC’s in the U.S. In Israel and the FSU they partner with the Joint Distribution Committee.

One example of a PresenTense partnership with a legacy institution is with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Boston. As pointed out by CJP staff member, Abby Goldenthal who is responsible for this working partnership, each city customizes the PresenTense program. “We are looking for a mix of people working on Jewish ideas and Jewish values. We are looking for a fit with CJP. Does it help move CJP and the community forward?” The result could be programs that could be a part of CJP or another organization. There is also a Fellowship track for intrapreneurs employed at Jewish nonprofits in Boston.

UpStart has been working with The Jewish Education Project on a project funded by UJA Federation of New York on how to get day school teachers and administrators to be more collaborative and creative. This Day School Collaboration Project is working with twelve schools to change the way schools work internally and with each other.

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit has taken the opposite tack of creating its own “basement” start-up, Community NEXT, to address the needs of young people while also focusing on speed by avoiding traditional federation structures. It was staffed by people from outside the federation. This venture was so successful that it was brought in-house and ultimately folded into NEXTgen Detroit which became the R&D department of the federation. The focus of the R&D department is to change the way the federation does business. NEXTgen Detroit has tripled participants and donors by primarily focusing on engagement.

Ensuring that ventures meet real community needs

In order to be sustainable and also support the needs of the local or wider community, ventures must be effective at meeting real needs.

Selection criteria at Joshua Venture Group helps to ensure that the ventures meet real community needs. These include:

  • Is the idea needed or unique?
  • Is it compelling?
  • Will it solve a demonstrated gap?
  • Will it seize an opportunity not seized before?
  • Is there a strong team behind the venture? Is there a model that can survive?

PresenTense uses Design Thinking to help ensure that ventures meet community needs. In the Design Thinking approach, fellows look at who else is working on that change; who are potential collaborators; is there a need for the venture?

Improving effectiveness in the innovation ecosystem

Supporting effectiveness in the larger Jewish innovation ecosystem supports individual ventures and also meeting wider community needs.

Jumpstart has been involved in translating to a larger audience the lessons from those who are doing things really well in the innovation ecosystem. Joshua Avedon, a co-founder of Jumpstart commented, “We recognized that there was an ecosystem of Jewish startups. They had similar needs. They were good at program, but had challenges knowing how to build a nonprofit. They were outside of federations and JCC’s and were not connected with each other. There were lots of people reinventing the wheel. We asked how can we connect and leverage all of the things that people were inventing so that they can share their ideas.”

Jumpstart is known for its original research, including two reports that defined the Jewish innovation sector. Jumpstart is also addressing structural changes in Jewish funding and trying to encourage new ways of funding. Examples include impact investing, giving circles and crowdfunding as well as funding for hybrid social enterprises. Jumpstart’s current project is a series entitled “Connected to Give” dealing with religion and household charitable giving among Jews and other Americans.

Scaling up and Reaching Out

Organizations supporting venture-based work are taking action to expand the reach of their work.

The ROI Summit has been one vehicle for supporting engagement and leadership development. It is a five day conference that brings in 120 new people each year. ROI is now scaling up its offerings through Schusterman Connection Points. ROI wants to train members to run their own ROI-like gatherings for other people using the methodologies from the ROI Summit. ROI invites members to insert the kind of content that they would want to have. This year the Schusterman Philanthropic Network is piloting ten Connection Point gatherings that will collectively host over 600 participants. The Connection Points are taking place between January and June, 2014 in the U.S., Israel, Argentina and Hungry.

Joshua Venture Group, says Lisa Lepson, Executive Director, is “broadening the lens of where and how innovation can be used within our community.” “By partnering with philanthropic entities, Joshua Venture Group can focus on advancing innovation in specific areas, such as day schools and disabilities and inclusion.” JVG has also removed age restrictions in its application process. Ms. Lepson adds, “Social entrepreneurship is a vehicle, methodology, tool that can be used to expand the community and engage emerging leaders.”

There is also the issue of the longer-term sustainability of a given venture and what is being done to support this. Sandy Cardin, President of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, captures this in his comment, “the next stage is how to take advantage of things being well received by young adults, create the infrastructure and scale to achieve widespread adoption. Second stage funding is one element of it.”

PresenTense Israel has a program called SCALE sponsored by the Leichtag Foundation that does address the next stage of a venture’s development. As described by Guy Spigelman, CEO of PresenTense Israel, “the emphasis here is assessing how the entity is doing according to the original vision and building an infrastructure to enable it to scale to enable substantial growth and greater income. It is having a growth plan that will be attractive to funding. It is making sure that the entity is achieving impact that they can pitch to donors.”

Developing future leaders

Recognizing high potential future leaders and supporting their development and career progression is a part of leadership development in the venture arena.

Sandy Cardin commented that micro grants provided by ROI Community are an extension of our approach of ‘betting on the jockey.’ “We look to invest primarily in the young adults themselves, not the specific program or project they are bringing to the table. We wish to help individuals develop new talents and spread their message.”

ROI offers facilitation and logistical skills training towards helping people become conveners in the Connection Points Program. Justin Korda stated, “By empowering people to become conveners, we position them as leaders in their community.”


Feel free to share your own examples of venture-based innovation with readers of this article.

Barry Camson consults with Jewish institutions, businesses and networks. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com.