Lessons for the Jewish Innovation Enterprise from Ashoka: a Leader in Social Entrepreneurship

Our Jewish community wants to do big things. But we sometimes keep our people small either through interpersonal failings or system failings such as bureaucracy, defining jobs too narrowly, or revering hierarchy.

by Jennie Rivlin Roberts

After 20 years as a business consultant and entrepreneur, I’m currently leading a Jewish start-up accelerator for the Atlanta Jewish community called ProtéJ. ProtéJ is an initiative of Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta in partnership with Marcus Foundation and the ProtéJ entrepreneurs.

Last week I had the privilege of participating in the Ashoka Future Forum. 400 people came together – social innovators, business entrepreneurs, philanthropists and media – to strengthen our ability to improve the world. We bettered our skills of storytelling and leadership and shared our big problems and big solutions.

Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs in the world. Founded over 30 years ago, Ashoka now has over 3,000 Fellows in 70 countries.

Learning with Ashoka expanded my thinking about ProtéJ and our Jewish innovation enterprise. I’d like to share with our Jewish community four lessons-learned.

1. Think big (even if you start small).

As innovators, we do well by serving people’s needs. However, we do better if we clear the path so that many can serve these needs.

There are reasons why needs go unmet. Barriers exist. They could be high cost, poor infrastructure, or social conventions that don’t support the solution. Clearing these systems-level barriers can result in a much larger effect.

I’ll use my business, ModernTribe, as an example of the difference between serving needs and changing systems.

ModernTribe has a social mission to provide the younger generations products that help them express and share their Jewish identity. We do that on a small scale: serving about 5,000 customers a year.

However, while building ModernTribe, we’ve discovered a bigger system-wide problem: distributing niche products (especially Israeli handmade products) is difficult and expensive. If ModernTribe could solve the larger problem of how to distribute these niche products in a cost-effective way, it would benefit ModernTribe and also the entire Judaica market, its consumers and producers everywhere.

When programs fail or grants aren’t renewed, it is especially important to identify what are the systemic barriers. It may be that clearing a barrier is the next important social venture!

2. Grow up.

Ages at the Ashoka Future Forum ranged from teens through 70s, but most were late 30s to late 50s, seasoned people with long careers who are now running social enterprises.

Often in our Jewish space we equate youth with innovation. Some of our innovation support networks have age barriers for entry. Jumpstart’s 2011 report, The Jewish Innovation Economy, reported the modal decade of leaders of Jewish start-ups was ages 25-34 and two thirds were between 25 and 44.

To glorify youth fails us. First, we miss out on wise and experienced leadership. But worse, I fear we have made Jewish innovation a bit of a “kids-space” (with kid-level resources and kid-sized grants).

It may be as our innovation ecology matures, and our entrepreneurs mature along with their ventures, we simply grow out of this problem.

But if the Jewish community truly believes that it is through innovation that we are going to solve our biggest social problems, then we need to be dedicating grown-up sized resources and attracting all ages.

In the U.S., a typical ratio of research and development for an industrial company is about 3.5% of revenues. The Jumpstart 2011 report states 2% of the 10 billion dollars spent annually in the Jewish nonprofit sector was in the innovation sector.

Is our Jewish community spending, at minimum, 3.5% of its donor dollars on Research & Development? If not, let’s grow up.

3. Small people can’t do big things.

Ashoka believes that everyone can be a changemaker as long as they have empathy to recognize a problem and efficacy to believe they can make a difference. For some, changemaking will be reporting a bully, or setting out a trashcan on a littered street corner. For others – such as you, innovator – it will be starting a social movement.

Henry De Sio, the 2008 Chief Operating Officer of the Obama Campaign, urged us that as leaders one of our jobs is to help people “step into their bigness” and know they are capable of truly making a difference.

Our Jewish community wants to do big things. But we sometimes keep our people small either through interpersonal failings or system failings such as bureaucracy, defining jobs too narrowly, or revering hierarchy.

Henry shared with us a time he stepped in and elevated his travel staff. People were complaining about the travel staff re-routing trips to save money. To remedy, Henry highlighted that travel was the 3rd biggest budget line-item and the travel staff was saving enough money to finance state-wide campaigns.

We are all, at times, guilty of making people small. Let’s stay aware and help each other step into our bigness, remembering: big people do big things.

4. Social enterprise support also needs to think big.

Our Jewish innovation support programs should be helping its innovators, certainly, but also striving for system changes, too, including:

  • Ensuring the next generation of innovators,
  • Recognizing and championing funding needs,
  • Sharing alternative models for innovation support.

For example, Ashoka not only supports 3000 social entrepreneurs through networking, training, and grants, it works to ensure a growing population of future social entrepreneurs.

Ashoka recently launched an educational initiative, Changemaker Schools Network, that equips young people with the skills needed to solve problems for their communities.

The Jewish innovation support community, as evidenced by the hundreds of articles on eJewish Philanthropy, consistently champions systems changes. One great example is Bikkurim’s 2012 report, From First Fruits to Abundant Harvest, that urges our community to support post-startups, allowing Jewish innovations to scale up and reach their full potential for social impact. This important report motivated The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Second Stage Growth Fund.

Lesson #4 is an important one to bring back home as our Atlanta community decides what to do next, now that ProtéJ is finishing its pilot year.

Sure, ProtéJ is meeting its stated outcomes: better prepared entrepreneurs and a broader network of people engaging in and supporting innovation.

However, ProtéJ has also demonstrated an alternative model for supporting innovation: a grassroots one. We’ve demonstrated that Jewish social entrepreneurs can help themselves, utilize local resources, collaborate with the establishment, and mobilize the local community for support.

It may be most important for ProtéJ to tell its story so that communities beyond Atlanta, those without the privilege of Upstart, Bikkurim, or PresenTense, can move their innovation efforts forward.

Jennie Rivlin Roberts is Director of ProtéJ, Atlanta’s vibrant community of Jewish social entrepreneurs connected through mentoring, training, and more. A native of Atlanta, Jennie earned a Ph.D. in industrial & organizational psychology from Georgia Tech and worked for Fortune 500 companies, including Home Depot & Bell South, in leadership development and strategic marketing. In 2007, she founded ModernTribe, which makes and sells Judaica for younger or hipper Jews at ModernTribe.com.