Jewish Innovators, Entrepreneurs and Connectors Unite at SXSW

by Yoni Sarason
Yoni attended South By Southwest festival in Austin in March, 2012, and as by popular demand, he shared his thoughts in this blog below.


While much of the young adult geared Jewish world is focused on TribeFest, JFNA’s NextGen get-together in Las Vegas, this past weekend, a number of young Jewish leaders took on South by Southwest (SXSW), the film, music and interactive (digital) industry convention in Austin.

The young leaders are part of the ROI Community, a network of Jewish innovators, entrepreneurs, movers, shakers, and connectors. The community is formed and expanded each year by bringing 120 emerging leaders from around the world to Israel for a week of sessions, networking, and ideating. This year, as part of a pilot, ROI enabled a number of Community members to attend SXSW by providing logistical and material support.

For any innovator or creative, SXSW is a must-do destination. For ROI, the opportunity to strengthen the connections between alumni through the joint experience of an event on the order of magnitude of SXSW is a clear win. SXSW draws over a quarter million people to watch, listen, learn, shmooze, and explore. With major brands like Microsoft and Google, Chevy, and HBO, in addition to a myriad of start-ups, entrepreneurs, and plenty of creative advertising, SXSW is a maven haven, widely credited with launching start-ups like Twitter, Foursquare, and GroupMe to preeminence.

It is also the center of the newest ideas, trends, apps, and serendipity (which was the buzz concept this year), and in today’s information economy, ‘we are what we eat’ applies to our interaction with and consumption of all of the above.

The Jewish world faces an interesting paradox in this regard: We tend to be incredibly insular, looking to other Jewish organizations who ‘get it’ to try to model ourselves. Even as the vast majority of our constituency live in a far more integrated world in which Jewish models are not held to different standards of value. When deciding whether to donate to a Jewish or secular food pantry, most people (particularly younger people) compare each across the same metrics for social return on investment, and will choose based on impact and effectiveness of their philanthropy. SXSW presented incredible opportunities to learn from leading thinkers whose ideas, while not created specifically for the Jewish community, have great relevance to our efforts. For example, Dov Seidman (who happens to be MOT), spoke eloquently in a talk entitled, “HOW: Why how we do anything means everything,” about the need to scale our values instead of our numbers. Dov believes that we can no longer coerce the behavior we want, nor we cannot motivate through incentivization, only through inspiration. He explains that power over people is giving way to power through people. These ideas are incredibly valuable for a Jewish community that is struggling to inspire Jews, particularly young adults. This trend also describes a challenge that many of our major institutions, whose structures are more hierarchical and traditional, are facing.

If this case represents the value of larger trends and concepts to the Jewish world, the value of Jewish concepts to the broader world was also on display at SXSW. Reboot’s #unplugged party, in support of the National Day of Unplugging is based on the premise that the whole world might benefit from a day without technology, a tech-Sabbath, if you will. This idea, so firmly rooted in the beauty of Shabbat as a day of recharging our analog batteries, has universal value. In that moment, as Jews advocating measured breaks from technology at a conference based totally on technology, we were representing the counter-cultural voice that Judaism has traditionally and powerfully embody.

I found that beyond of the inspiring speakers, fascinating panels, and great give-aways, the most valuable aspect of SXSW was the opportunity to be there with other ROIers. The opportunity to spend time with these amazing individuals, about whom I often read, to get to know them better, to hear their perspectives, and to strengthen the sense of global community kick-started by the global conference was incredible. There is great power in having a peer support network and brain trust, and in this area in particular, the ROI community excels. By the end of the conference, I had the opportunity and serendipity to put Japanese entrepreneurs in touch with Israeli musicians, connect Israeli music exporters to Austin promoters, introduce my little brother to the founder of Pandora, help a SXSW staff person take a step toward leading a Birthright trip, and am already thinking about how to involve the local Austin Jewish community more intimately in next year’s ROI SXSW experience. While many of the opportunities arose from chance encounters, as I learned in one session, we can increase the potential for serendipity by identifying places of confluence and seeking them out. Putting the Jewish innovators of the ROI network at SXSW is a great start to what I hope will become a trend.

Yoni Sarason is Midwest Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. His goal is to create a national platform for building local connections based around meaningful Jewish community. His tweets from SXSW can be found at

Connected by the ROI Community of Jewish Innovators.