Four Years, Four Lessons

[eJP note: Back in June 2007, PresenTense launched their first Global Fellowship Program here in Jerusalem. And from day one, eJP has been privileged to have a front row seat. We’ve watched the organization grow from a single program boot-strapped venture to the professionally staffed, volunteer supported, global organization it is today. More important, we’ve witnessed a group of young adults, most with little or no on-the-job experience, develop into smart, savy managers, capable of not only building, but leading in the fast-paced world of the 21st Century. Individuals who, we suspect, we will be hearing a great deal from in the future.

As she concludes her tenure at PresenTense, one of the team shares valuable lessons learned with our eJP community.]

by Brachie Sprung

As I prepare to part ways with PresenTense and pursue new opportunities, I have taken personal time to reflect on the invaluable lessons that I have learned along the way. For the past four years I had the privilege of working at PresenTense, one of the most innovative start-ups in the Jewish world. I have watched the organization grow from a six-week flagship Summer Global Fellowship, to 10 full programs in three countries around the world. These past four years have been an incredible experience where I learned lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my professional career. These lessons can be grouped into four main themes: vision and measuring success, pilots and failure, mentorship and building community.

Vision and Measuring Success: The first module of the PresenTense curriculum urges fellows to carefully define their vision and answer one simple question: “what is your promised land?” I often found that our entrepreneurs would jump into building their venture before taking the time to articulate their vision, making it difficult to recruit people to join their cause. After entrepreneurs have defined their vision, the next important step is to establish gauges for measuring success. The second question I ask entrepreneurs who I meet is: how do you measure success? What would be a successful outcome for your venture? Often I will get a blank stare or answers that aren’t really measurable.

From its inception, PresenTense carried out qualitative and quantitative assessments of its programs, utilizing intake and exit surveys as well as personal interviews to define our parameters for success. These assessments enabled us to understand what components of the program were succeeding, which weren’t and where there was room for improvement. If the goal of the program was to achieve X, but in fact we were only able to achieve Y, then we needed to go back to the drawing board.

Throughout my years at PresenTense, I constantly relearned the importance of defining my goals during the visioning and workplan phase and following up with an assessment of the outcomes to check how they matched up with the original plan. It is so easy to get caught up in the “doing,” that we can sometimes lose sight of our end goals and desired outcomes.

Pilots and Failure: All PresenTense fellows are asked to implement a prototype and assessment of their venture. For fellows, the key to this phase is realizing that a pilot doesn’t mean a full blown project, but rather a small expression of their venture that will either affirm or disprove initial assumptions.

When I met with 2012 fellow Julia (name has been changed) I realized that her approach to her venture was “all or nothing.” We looked at her budget, and I urged her to start on a smaller scale and look for ways where she could save by partnering with existing resources and organizations. Julia emailed me several months after we met: “Our conversation changed everything. I scaled my goal for initial enrollment down from twelve to six. I slashed extras from my curriculum so that I could cut my budget by a third. Everything suddenly became much more realistic.” Julia’s school opened its doors on September 1, 2012 with six students in a caravan that is used as a youth center in the evenings and was donated to Julia’s school for use during the day. The school currently has 10 students and is significantly impacting the lives of its students, their families and communities.

Prototyping requires the wisdom and flexibility to go back to the drawing board and carefully assess the results and learn from them. Julia is one of many PT fellows whose venture has ignited as a result of lessons learned from this critical phase. Other fellows met with failure during the prototyping phase. At PresenTense, we also consider failure a success. Failure helps fellows realize that their target market is off, their business model needs sharpening or that their venture is not answering the initial problem they set out to solve. At PresenTense I learned for the first time that failure is often the step that precedes success and a focal part of the learning process. The lessons and insights you can learn from failing are often much more valuable than succeeding after your first try.

Mentorship: One of the key components of the PresenTense training program is Mentorship. We pair an aspiring entrepreneur with a volunteer seasoned professional and provide a structured setting for them to work together. Mentorship teaches fellows modesty and the importance of learning from people around you. It basically says to the entrepreneur “Yes, you have an excellent idea and you want to change the world. But you don’t know everything.” It urges the entrepreneurs, who often tend to become wrapped up in their ideas, to surround themselves with smart, experienced people who can advise them while they grow their venture. PresenTense mentors have been instrumental in helping fellows with their business plan and have made valuable connections and introductions for the fellows. In at least two instances, mentors were the first investors in PresenTense-ignited ventures.

I walked into PresenTense four years ago with only a vague understanding of the world of social entrepreneurship. Today, I am grateful for four years where I was surrounded by wise people who I continue to learn from. A vital component of the success of PresenTense is the organization’s commitment to surrounding itself with people we can learn from, coupled with the desire and willingness of the staff and fellows to learn from everyone we come into contact with.

Building Community: One of the best gifts you can give someone who is pursuing their dreams and starting a new venture is to introduce them to a community that can provide a supportive framework during the most crucial time of their venture development. One of the most valuable gifts you can give a community that is looking to be part of a just, vibrant and entrepreneurial society is to introduce them to a group of inspiring change agents. The magic of PresenTense lies in its ability to bring these two groups together and provide them with meaningful opportunities to grow and build together.

During my early years at PresenTense I focused mainly on building a community of volunteers. Volunteer management can be challenging and, at times, I thought that it would be easier to do the work myself. I was wrong. I learned that our volunteer steering committee, coaches and mentors are the successful engine behind our recruiting and admissions process. I saw incredible relationships form between our fellows and mentor community and I witnessed how instrumental the coaches are to the success of our fellows, acting as a sounding board and providing emotional support during the demanding process of launching a new venture.

At times, I struggled with various elements of PresenTense’s start-up culture. There were long periods in the early days where we called our office an ICU. If you walked in to our old Hub on Emek Refeaim you could always find us working on pressing projects, attending back-to-back meetings and it felt like we never had enough time in the day to get everything done. Our hard work was a reflection of the great hunger we all had to grow, expand and ultimately change the world.

So what did I learn over these past four years? The most important lesson: in order for organizations in today’s world and economy to achieve success and growth, they must be able to balance innovation and sustainability. From day one, my co-workers and the spirit of the organization itself encouraged me to think out of the box, pushed me to explore new opportunities for growth and look for the less obvious solutions. These very values are the ones that ultimately characterize a socially responsible enterprise. And this is what embodies PresenTense: a passion, thirst and determination to change the world.

Brachie Sprung joined PresenTense in 2008 as the (first) Global Summer Institute Coordinator. She is now the outgoing Associate Director of Business Development at PresenTense Israel.