PresenTense: Innovation for Innovative Change

Courtesy PresenTenseLA
Courtesy PresenTense LA

By Maayan Jaffe
eJewish Philanthropy

Judaism has certain pre-set activities every day that encourage people to live in the moment. PresenTense – cool, trendy and buzz-worthy – is equipping passionate people with entrepreneurial skills, tools and support networks through community-based venture accelerators, innovation workshops and entrepreneurship consulting that drive creativity today. The results, however, translate to what promises to be a more vibrant Jewish future.

PresenTense started in 2005 as a voguish magazine in New York City. The founders, Aharon Horwitz and Ariel Beery, wanted to publish a periodical about what it is to be young and Jewish in the 21st century. What they realized in a couple of years was that their friends – the writers – weren’t just talking about the issues that were important to them, they were taking action on them.

They opened an accelerator one summer in Israel and brought their friends together to create and innovate around a social challenge. In 2009, Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) honed in on the project and asked them to re-engineer it to be a four-to-six months-long program that could engage young adults in innovation, social entrepreneurship and community building in the States.

At the recent NYC Launch night program, the Fellows pitched their ideas to a panel with backgrounds in technology, startups and the social innovation sector.
At the recent NYC Launch night program, the Fellows pitched their ideas to a panel with backgrounds in technology, startups and the social innovation sector.

Today, PresenTense has graduated 843 entrepreneurs, 766 ventures (335 and 328 in North America) and completed more than 70 PresenTense programs (31 in the U.S.) over the last six years.

Sara Weinreb, vice president of programs and strategy for PresenTense, describes herself as “a necessary troublemaker who has believed, since childhood, in challenging the way the world works.” Through PresenTense, she’s able to help others do the same thing. PresenTense fellows apply to develop a creative solution they have determined meets local and societal needs. Through innovation workshops, entrepreneurship coaching and strategic partnerships with foundations and organizations, PresenTense introduces these fellows to the tools they need to research, develop and ultimately launch their projects.

The culmination of a PresenTense track is “Launch Night,” where fellows present their ventures to communal leaders and philanthropists, many who ultimately invest in these ideas. A number of PresenTense ventures have been highlighted in the coveted Slingshot Fund guide. Others have transformed fellows’ lives and the lives of the people they serve.

Carla Friend was a 2014 NYC fellow when she started her venture, Tkiya: The Jewish Community Music School. Today, it is a full-time gig. This summer, she is hiring her first staff.

Photo courtesy Tkiya: The Jewish Community Music School
Photo courtesy Tkiya: The Jewish Community Music School

“When I applied to PresenTense, I was in the idea phase,” Friend tells eJP. “I had been running classes for about five years, so I had some relevant experience. But I needed something extra to help me take the next steps and make it a reality.”

Tkiya is New York’s first Jewish community music school and a place where three generations of Jewish families can come together to celebrate Jewish culture through music.

“PresenTense helped me realize that even though I was under the impression that I had so much to learn, I was further along than I thought,” says Friend. “It’s a big joke that Jews like to complain. PresenTense fellows are people who will take a problem they see in the community, think of a solution and believe in it so much that they want to devote their lives to this work.”

PresenTense operates around the “design thinking” framework – inspiration, ideation and implementation, explains Weinreb. Fellows observe their environments to identify latent needs. Then, they develop their ideas based on observations to address latent needs. Finally, they test their assumptions of new ideas to continuously shape them into viable opportunities.

“The first question is, ‘What do people need?’” says Weinreb.

Rachel Sumekh built her international 501(c)3, Swipe Out Hunger, through PresenTense. Every two or three weeks, her cohort would learn another aspect of the design thinking methodology, from visioning to building a business plan. Then, when ready, they would plug that lesson in to their own projects.

Swipe Out Hunger’s mission is to tangibly and tactically partner with college campuses to alleviate hunger while raising young people’s awareness of homelessness and hunger through education and outreach. They do that but encouraging college students to donate unused meal swipes at the end of the semester or school year.

“I went through a lot of waves, being a single founder. It is challenging to be in these places alone. But when you are so committed to what you are doing, quitting is not an option. PresenTense gets a support network around you,” says Sumekh.

Courtesy PresenTense Boston
Courtesy PresenTense Boston

In Boston, CJP has leveraged the PresenTense curriculum to examine its own PresenTense program – and the work of its federation in general. According to Reni Gertner, the local PresenTense steering committee served as a catalyst for change, iterating on the PresenTense program by expanding it from five to 10 months long and then opening it up to young entrepreneurs that want to work on solving a problem that was identified by CJP as a community priority.

“We wanted to give these young adult change-makers the opportunity to involve themselves in a venture that the community already has its eye on … because it aligns with our community priorities,” Gertner says.

CJP took an environmental scan recently to see who its collaborators are and how it could partner with other organizations to offer better and stronger programs and services.

“PresenTense thinks about imagining the Promised Land. When change is made, what the world will look like and what do we need to get there?” explains Gertner, who has served as CJP’s PresenTense co-chair for the last three years. “These ideas are percolating here in Boston, and it is all part of that thinking. In a better world we will be using the PresenTense curriculum to strengthen and help innovate all of our Jewish organizations in Boston.”

PresenTense itself is undergoing a similar design thinking scan now, reevaluating its current model as it expands for the future. Weinreb says the group recently launched a high school pilot, is working with Hillel International and with a group of fourth year rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“What was once a standard program most run by federations to engage people in their 20s and 30s is expanding beyond that definition in a big way,” Weinreb says.

Adds Gertner: “PresenTense is an innovative way to help the Jewish community innovate.”