The Story of Atlanta’s ProteJ: From Obscure Jewish Start-Ups To Swimming With Sharks

by Jennie Rivlin Roberts

For all the people out there who are turning ideas into action in the Jewish world: this post is for you.

This is the story of a grassroots movement of Jewish social entrepreneurs in Atlanta that grew into a community partnership.

“A Smashing Success”

Last June, 300 Jewish Atlantans cheered for and funded six Jewish social ventures at an over-sold, standing room-only event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Shark Tank: ProtéJ Edition” featured business pitches from Jewish social entrepreneurs to a panel of celebrity sharks including: Laurie Ann Goldman, CEO, Spanx; Michael Kogon, CEO, Definition 6; and Bernie Marcus, Co-founder, Home Depot. With integrated text-to-pledge and “shark buck” pledge coupons, the audience was engaged at every turn. Over 29K for the ventures was raised that night.

The first Jewish event of its kind in Atlanta, Shark Tank: ProtéJ Edition was described as “a smashing success”. The community also noted that the relationship between the start-ups and the Federation was “an exciting surprise” given the relationship did not even exist one-year prior.

It was a brilliant ending to a Jewish social entrepreneur support pilot program called ProtéJ in which:

1. Seven entrepreneurs were matched with nine mentors.
2. Each venture was eligible to win a $5000 Leveraging Grant (to develop new fundraising or revenue)
3. Entrepreneurs:

  • learned from workshops focused on the topic of “Becoming Fully Funded”
  • received world-class pitch-training
  • were eligible for a $500 professional development grant
  • hosted “Salons” for the community
  • published articles
  • “came out” (in the debutante ball kind of way) to the Atlanta Jewish community

And beyond the participating entrepreneurs, ProtéJ had significant community impact:

  • ProtéJ created a much broader and stronger network of people that supports Jewish social entrepreneurship in Atlanta. (For example, more than 70 people contributed to make ProtéJ happen as leaders, entrepreneurs, mentors, community participants, advisors, trainers, coaches and judges for Shark Tank. Dozens of people are connected through the Facebook page, and over 300 are on the mailing list.)
  • It motivated other entrepreneurs to commit their talent and time to enriching Atlanta Jewish life. (For example, we identified 12 potential future ProtéJs.)
  • It encouraged a stronger connection to already existing Jewish community life and institutions. (For example, six of seven entrepreneurs reported feeling more connected to the Federation and donations from the group increased 60% over the year pre-ProtéJ.)

(If you are interested in the measures and details, you can read the ProtéJ Evaluation Report.)

All of this was brought about by a grassroots movement, led by myself and fueled by the passion, enthusiasm, and rolled-up-sleeves of peer entrepreneurs.

Our Beginning: Limmud to Indie Innovators to ProtéJ

Back in 2010, a group of Jewish social entrepreneurs sat in my living room and said to each other, “we really need to start promoting ourselves: noone knows about us”. We’d heard a rumor that one of our Jewish leaders had said that he didn’t know of any young entrepreneurs doing the kinds of innovative projects that, say, PresenTense supports.

By then, a group of us had met through Limmud Atlanta+SE. Ana Fuchs of Jewish Kids Groups, Russell Gottschalk of Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, Naomi Rabkin of Jewish Food Alliance, Marcy Levinson of Atlanta Jewish, Patrick Aleph of PunkTorah and, myself, with we were all friends and colleagues collaborating together.

All of us had clients in the Atlanta market – but our market penetration was small. Yet, we just knew that if Jewish Atlantan’s knew about our ventures many would totally dig them.

So we decided to help ourselves.

At the next Limmud Atlanta + Southeast event we created a showcase: “Meet Atlanta’s Jewish Indie Innovators.” We hosted a panel discussion in front of about 100 people. For the first time together, the entrepreneurs shared their ventures and I spoke about what other cities were doing to support their Jewish social entrepreneurs. The energy both on stage and in the audience was contagious.

It was through that showcase that we found our way to a family foundation which became excited about helping our community of Jewish social entrepreneurs.

The foundation envisioned a local program designed to fit the current community of Jewish social entrepreneurs. We social entrepreneurs brainstormed and created the first proposal for an “Innovation Hub”.

It was rejected for being too ambitious.

Even so, the Indie Innovators kept collaborating and gaining clients and exposure. We came together, for a second time, to create SukkahATL, Atlanta’s first public sukkah, created by our own Jewish Food Alliance. (Founder, Naomi Rabkin soon-after moved – we are still mourning our loss in Atlanta – even as she continues to do wonderful things in the Jewish community in San Diego).

In spring of 2012, under my leadership, we reopened talks with the family foundation and had a generous proposal (albeit much smaller than our original proposal) funded.

The new plan centered around mentorship, tailored to the needs of the Indie Innovators. By then, our group of entrepreneurs had expanded to include Rachael Bregman of Open Jewish Project, Chaim Neidtich of Jewish Student Union, and Adam Griff of Adamah Adventures. All of the ventures had been operating for three or more years.

The program, soon named ProtéJ, became a partnership between the family foundation, the Federation, and the entrepreneurs. As described in the first paragraphs, we truly made some magic together and went very far, very quickly – I’d like to think we took our community very far with us.

Six of the seven ventures are growing, and are much better positioned in terms of their funding, donor base, recognition and social-capital. One venture, folded. The enduring ventures have each forged close relationships with the family foundation and the Federation, most receiving funding from one or both.

In addition, almost all the mentor/mentee matches remain engaged.

If you too are out there turning ideas into action in the Jewish community, thank you! It is rare to find people who go beyond ideas and make things happen. It is even more rare to find people who are passionate enough about Judaism to make things happen in the Jewish space. You deserve gratitude.

My advice to you:

  1. Engage other entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is difficult. You face different problems than your friends with traditional jobs. You need support.
  2. Forge relationships with other Jewish social entrepreneurs. The Jewish space is different than secular space, too. It’s smaller, lower density, and, therefore, more difficult. Let’s be honest: the primary people who are going to fund Jewish education, camping, news, culture – and your Jewish initiative – are other Jews. If your business is Jewish in nature, it’s also harder to win funding at that secular pitch event.
  3. Attend, speak at, and volunteer with your local Limmud. It is a great way to get your name out into the community and create learning for yourselves. Limmud is volunteer led, and therefore, attracts people who, like you, are able to turn ideas into action. These are your kind of people.
  4. Utilize free training resources. Is there a Center for Nonprofits, a Foundation Center, a Small Business Association? Likely they offer free or inexpensive training on topics you need to run a successful venture.
  5. Offer to write a regular column for your local or Jewish newspaper or website. It is free promotion for you. Try it for six months and see if the return in worth your time.
  6. Create a plan to broaden and strengthen your professional network. The biggest problem facing the Atlanta Jewish social entrepreneurs was a narrow set of people who knew about, supported them, and served on their boards of directors. Carve out time each week for coffees, lunches, and communication to nurture relationships. Especially if you are fundraising, this may be your most important job duty.
  7. Join a board of directors in the Jewish community, preferably one that is well-governed (so you learn good governance) and with a diverse group of members (so that you broaden your network).
  8. Give and you will receive. If you are a giver, at times it may seem like you are giving, giving, giving and not getting but trust me, giving always pays off. Natural givers: don’t forget to ask for what you need.
  9. Make sure you are in this for the passion, adventure, and learning. Don’t expect professional stability. A Jewish start-up is like a tiny ship in the big ocean: you will feel every wave and you likely aren’t storm-proof. Therefore…
  10. Make sure you are having fun and feeling the joy of making a difference to your Jewish community.

Finally, a personal thank you to Atlanta’s Jewish social entrepreneurs, and those that support them, for making my and my family’s Jewish lives so full with passion, meaning, joy, and community.

Jennie Rivlin Roberts is an e-commerce and consumer product entrepreneur and founder of She earned a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from Georgia Tech and previously worked with Fortune 500 companies in leadership development and strategic marketing. She is an Atlanta native, wife and mom. She is passionate about business and Jewish American life.