Jewish Social Entrepreneurialism Accelerated: My First Year as an Upstarter

Project BeyondBy Bradley Caro Cook, Ed.D.

A year ago, I was in the midst of pioneering an initiative that would leverage the Birthright experience to more deeply engage young adults with Israel, their Jewish identity, and home communities. I devoted all of my time and energy to creating a research-based, simple solution to the problem of lack of short-term Birthright extension opportunities. Turns out: my idea was spot-on! After 200+ face-to-face and phone interviews with Jewish community leaders, young adults, and others, I didn’t encounter a single person who said it couldn’t work. Making it happen? Now, that would be the challenge. But one I was ready to take on.

I spent the next several months researching the best practices for engaging young Jewish adults, and developing my business plan. Much of my time was spent having meaningful conversations with leaders in the Jewish ecosystem and business leaders with an interest in Israel that could be involved with my endeavor, funding or advising. Those conversations were welcome because the Pew Study had recently been released and there was a great deal of discussion surrounding using Birthright as a catapult into Jewish life. I was eager to share my vision and gain their guidance. These conversations led to more conversations, and steadily I worked my way up the institutional ladders and gained a great deal of early traction.

Originally, my organization was called “The Next 10 Days” but I was asked to revisit the name to avoid brand confusion with Birthright NEXT. Thus, Project Beyond was born. We had some impressive early successes, having over 200 extenders in our first year, many of who later enrolled in Onward Israel or Masa programs, joined lone soldiers, made Aliyah, married Jewish, or are now engaged in their home communities. Though I now had more than a concept, evidence that my organization was viable, and a vision for a multi-national pluralistic and inclusive entity with both Israel and diasporic impact, I felt alone and needed some intense guidance on how to advance my young organization.

Then I was introduced to UpStart: a nonprofit accelerator of innovative expressions of Jewish life, based out of San Francisco. Some of UpStart’s past participants included superstars of the Jewish social entrepreneurship world. Groups like Moshe House, G-dcast, Wilderness Torah, A Wider Bridge, Kevah, Urban Adamah, and other groundbreaking initiatives making an impact in the Jewish world. I thought,“What a network for a new entrepreneur like me to join,”

The timing could not have been better, because soon after, I learned that UpStart was looking to expand their impact beyond the San Francisco Bay Area, and that, for the first time, they would be taking on national and international-based projects on into their Accelerator program. An introductory phone call, a lengthy application, and a couple of interviews later, I was flown out to San Francisco as a member of the 2014 UpStart Accelerator cohort. Thrilled and feeling like all of my efforts now had a stamp of approval in the Jewish world, I was hopeful that Project Beyond, my innovative solution on what to do after Birthright , would be among UpStart’s many successes. I looked forward to having the guidance and mentoring to advance my endeavor and strengthen my own entrepreneurial and leadership capabilities.

Over this past year, my cohort and I have had the privilege of participating in Upstart’s retreats and workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each time we focus on refining a specific skill set or area of growth, necessary to accelerate our startup. We started from the beginning: First we created a Business Model Canvas, a graphic organizer that laid out my whole business plan in an easily understandable unit. There was a 2-day intensive where we delved into the basic components of the canvas, identifying and understanding our customers and the value we can add for them. At the Annual UpStart Retreat in October, we crafted a compelling organizational story, and after some intense coaching from advisors and our cohort colleagues, we delivered it to a JCC courtyard full of Bay Area community members. Though still a bit raw, the presentation that evening resulted in several new contacts and even major donors for Project Beyond – great early success! We’ve also learned, planned, and implemented effective scaling techniques, and coached our fellow cohort members on their equally impressive and innovative efforts. Just last month, at our last group session of the year, we were coached on the creation of our organizational case for giving, refined our major gifts ask, and benefited from a panel of foundational professionals who demystified the foundation world and grant making process. Throughout the whole year, I also benefited from 1:1 coaching that allowed me to receive guidance and direction on issues specific to Project Beyond’s development.

Entrepreneurship can be an isolating and overwhelming experience. As a member of the UpStart cohort, I no longer feel like a lone voice in the crowd. I have had the privilege of learning with a premier group of the nation’s finest minds, and have grown with them together as a cohort. Whenever I need someone to turn to who knows the landscape, I have the Upstart team standing by. Even though I am 1,700 miles away from UpStart’s headquarters in San Francisco, I feel a deep connection with this network of support. I hope that Project Beyond will one day join the ranks of Moishe House, G-d Cast, and Wilderness Torah. But even now in our early stages of development, I feel validated and confident as I grow my organization.

As the first year of my UpStart cohort comes to a close, I feel that we have learned and accomplished so much. We are armed with skills to get the resources we need, are buoyed by the remarkable people in our corner, and are excited to strengthen the Jewish world through our impactful, life-changing programs. I can’t wait to see how Project Beyond has evolved at this time next year.

Bradley Caro Cook, Ed.D. is the Founder and Executive Director of Project Beyond. Project Beyond just completed its first year as a member of the UpStart Accelerator. Learn more about the UpStart Accelerator, and the other UpStarters here. Bradley can be reached where he tweets his adventures with the Twitter handle @BradleyCooks