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.