The Collaboratory: a Diverse Community, a Network that Thrives
By Emily Winograd
During the Pesach season, it is customary to reflect on the blessing of freedom through the story of the Exodus. We live in an era when American Judaism is defined by freedom of choice and diversity of expression. The current conventional wisdom tells us that the availability of so many ways to be Jewish can lead people to either defer making a choice or to simply disengage. However, it also gives rise to one of our greatest blessings: the ability to invent exciting new connections to Jewish wisdom.
In late March, the annual Collaboratory gathering brought together the leading voices in this growing world of Jewish innovation for two productive days of learning and networking in Atlanta, GA. Over the past four years, The Collaboratory, with generous support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, has been a hub for innovators and their institutional partners. This was a special year for the Collaboratory, as four of its five founding organizations (the fifth is ROI Community) celebrated the creation of a one-stop shop for Jewish innovation through the merger of Bikkurim, Joshua Venture Group, and the US Programs of PresenTense into UpStart.
As the next phase of UpStart emerges, it will serve as a testing ground for the power of collaboration to accelerate progress toward a shared mission. In that spirit, this year’s gathering was entitled The Collaboratory 5: Building Networks that Thrive, and it focused on conveying the key principles of effective collaboration, while weaving a powerful network among more than 200 attendees. Here’s what we learned:
Opposites may not attract, but effective organizations and networks require diversity
For a quick snapshot of the lively atmosphere at The Collaboratory, look no further than the “running of the brides” free-for-all at the Tuesday evening keynote session, entitled Personality Poker. The setting was a room jam-packed with Jewish community innovators, hunting for treasured insights in a sea of fallen playing cards. Each card was labeled with a character trait: compassionate, analytical, popular, resourceful. Everyone had just a few minutes to grab five that described them. When the facilitator, business culture expert Stephen Shapiro, called the crowd to order, each hand was a unique mix of traits, and more importantly, suits: clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds.
Stephen asked the group to organize itself based on the suits in each person’s hand. Colleagues found themselves stranded on opposite sides of the wide room, while strangers struck up conversations with their like-minded peers. He explained that those who share a “suit” makeup are likely to have a great rapport. They share values, work styles, and personality traits that make it easy to get along. However, he emphasized, the most important people to collaborate with are actually their opposites. Although such uncommon collaborations have their own occupational hazards, this mix of skills, mindsets, and knowledge produces innovations that are well worth the discomfort.
Collaboration is not a mass marketing campaign; networks are woven one relationship at a time
In their session on the uniquely Jewish aspects of networking, Drew Cohen and Rabbi Lee Moore of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah reminded us that our community intuitively understands the importance of creating space for authentic connections. Why else do so many of our interactions begin with a rapid fire game of “Jewish geography?”
True to its name and theme, The Collaboratory 5 took this natural inclination a step further by incorporating creative opportunities for structured and casual networking. Participants engaged in an hour of speed dating in which new contacts sought each other out to strategize, establish partnerships, or simply get to know each other. As part of this year’s Co1:1aboratory Consultations pilot, a self-selecting group of attendees participated in 40-minute pro bono consulting sessions led by UpStart professionals, receiving personal guidance on topics like program design and fundraising. During a vibrant and bustling lunch hour, participants organized themselves around thematic table conversations on hot topics like intrapreneurship and political activism. These peer-led discussions planted the seed for future connection in the form of Collaboratory communities of practice, which will launch based on participant interest in the near future.
The Collaboratory’s intentional investments in one-on-one connection speak to the deep belief that there is no shortcut to building an engaged network. Particularly in the Collaboratory community, which encompasses such varied Jewish and professional perspectives, every conversation has the potential to convey transformative insights on key problems. Perhaps more importantly, these individual connections foster the sense of trust and caring that is critical to mutually beneficial collaboration.
Innovative networks nurture sub–communities and honor individual needs
Effective organizations and networks understand that cultivating a defined external brand and a strong internal culture is critical to their success. The less-discussed caveat is that innovation flourishes best when people with divergent life experiences, values, and interests collide. That doesn’t mean that strong brand values and innovation are mutually exclusive. Rather, cutting-edge organizations should uphold a commitment to supporting their key asset: a community of stakeholders with a shared vision and varied perspectives.
The Collaboratory consistently offered a wide array of options reflective of the variations within its own network. From morning spiritual practices to breakout sessions and local tours, choice was a key principle of the conference design. While the plenary sessions aligned the group on a shared theory of collaboration, these “choose your own adventure” moments put the theory into practice by meeting the needs of diverse participants. Through this mix of shared and diffused experiences, The Collaboratory advanced a collective vision of collaboration while embodying its core belief that our diversity makes us stronger.
The Collaboratory strives to be the premiere venue for Jewish social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and their champions to connect, learn, and envision a vibrant future. Our freedom to innovate for social change, in the Jewish world and beyond, is a blessing that we cannot actualize without representation from every corner of our community. Each member of the Collaboratory network holds a piece of the puzzle that is crucial to designing a bold and inclusive Jewish future. In the year ahead, we look forward to facilitating further engagement among members of this thriving network.
Emily Winograd is Vice President of Programs at PresenTense, which recently announced a merger of its U.S. programs into UpStart. Consolidating with Bikkurim and Joshua Venture Group under the “UpStart” name, PresenTense’s U.S. programs will now be part of UpStart’s one-stop shop for Jewish communities pursuing innovation.