by Alina Shkolnikov
“Russians aren’t social or entrepreneurs, therefore it will be impossible to create community-based and community-supported grassroots projects.” These were the words of a Jewish communal professional, who shared them with me a year ago, prior to my very first trip to Moscow. I didn’t quite believe him, but I didn’t know what to expect either.
Eight months later, I stood in the hall of Moscow’s “Zavtra” restaurant, waiting for Launch Night to begin, surrounded by the social entrepreneurs of our second Moscow Fellowship, run in partnership with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). I heard how Ludmila created the first Jewish old age community in a suburb of Moscow; Yulia ensured the entire Launch Night was zero-waste as part of her ecological venture; and Oksana created the first Russian interior design website aimed at people with special needs.
A week later, I joined our St. Petersburg fellows at their Launch Night. Dasha pitched her newly-established Jewish job placement service, Ira discussed her initiative to provide psychological consulting services for parents, and Valentina presented her plans for the first free health clinic in the city.
What amazed me most was not their own personal accomplishments as social entrepreneurs but the amount of support they had. They shared their Launch Night success with dozens of volunteers – steering committee members, mentors and coaches, all dedicated to helping social innovators make their dream of a better Jewish community come true. Though I didn’t believe that “Russians aren’t social or entrepreneurs,” I was pleasantly surprised when Moscow steering committee members shared that their biggest criticism of the Kaet program is that it doesn’t give them enough assignments, and when mentors of one project wanted to donate their time to help even more projects.
Many global organizations misjudge Russia’s innovative eco-system. However, over the past two years, we’ve been excited to work with the JDC and the Jewish Agency, who had the foresight to partner with PresenTense early on to bring our social entrepreneur accelerator and workshops to several communities and programs in the FSU. Social entrepreneurship is growing and becoming more well-known across the country. There has been an increase in coworking spaces, in Moscow, particularly those devoted to cultural causes. Moreover, after facing roadblocks in using international crowdfunding platforms, we see the rise of local platform such as boomstarter.ru.
Some of these trends can be attributed to online exposure of Russian entrepreneurs from all fields, as well as global programs, like Student Report, which have started reaching out to the Russian community. Others claim that the credit goes to global organizations that have entered the Russian market such as PresenTense and Hub Moscow. And, funding and philanthropic funds are becoming available through organizations like “Our Future,” along with useful funding information on sites like Jewishnet.ru. Yet, in order to maintain and grow the circles of community-based social innovation, both inside and outside the Jewish community, we need more funds, exposure, information and education.
The only thing that isn’t in short supply is people. We see today that when the people meet one another, get the right hands on education and information and are allowed access to funds, they can create real change in their local community and beyond.
Motivated by this belief, we at PresenTense are running our 3rd accelerator in Moscow (application here) and our 2nd accelerator in Saint Petersburg. And, I am even more excited about the new communities we will work with – Kiev, Ukraine and Riga, Latvia. Together with JDC, the Jewish Agency, and our partners, we are able to run four social innovation accelerators in the FSU and I can’t wait to stand with our community of fellows, mentors, coaches, and volunteers of 2014.