UpStart Honors Founder on 10th Anniversary

Current UpStart participants; photo courtesy.

By Max A. Cherney

When out-of-towners came to an UpStart Bay Area conference in years past, founder and CEO Toby Rubin would let them crash at her East Bay home.

She was the kind of leader who, after her official responsibilities had concluded, would meet aspiring Jewish nonprofit leaders over a glass of wine and share her honest, unvarnished opinion and advice.

Now Rubin, who stepped down as CEO last year, will be honored at UpStart’s 10-year anniversary gala on May 10 for her achievements and the profound impact she has had on so many lives. During the event, which takes place at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, David Cygielman, CEO of Moishe House, will present Rubin’s award.

UpStart is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that empowers Jewish social entrepreneurs and pioneering Jewish organizations with real-world strategic guidance and resources, helping them turn their passion and vision into successful, sustainable ventures. Each year its Accelerator program accepts a new three-year cohort – starting with four Bay Area organizations in 2006 and growing to 18 in the current program – hailing from across the nation. So far it has helped 38 fledgling groups find their footing, including Bay Area fixtures Moishe House, Wilderness Torah, Kevah and Urban Adamah.

Filling Rubin’s shoes was not an easy task for Aaron Katler, who took over as CEO in November. “It’s daunting to create a non-founder identity for the organization,” he said. “I knew of Toby before I came to UpStart. I knew of her reputation, her role in the community and how she was driving for change, and when I came on board UpStart was on an upward trajectory.”

That trajectory maps admirable growth. From one initial San Francisco office, the organization now has hubs in Palo Alto, Chicago and Los Angeles. And in addition to working intensively with its cohort groups through the Accelerator program, UpStart consults with existing Jewish organizations, offering cutting-edge design services to help them move to the next level.

In November, the group announced an upcoming merger with Bikkurim, Joshua Venture Group and the U.S. arm of PresentTense, a move that will effectively bring several nonprofit accelerators under UpStart’s roof.

Toby was about thinking big and having a big, hairy audacious goal.

Nonprofits that have moved through UpStart’s Accelerator program offer high praise for the help they received there.

Ilana Schatz, the founding director of Fair Trade Judaica, is among them. The East Bay nonprofit promotes socially conscious Jewish consumerism, with the ultimate goal of building a fair trade movement in the Jewish community. She said the assistance she received was immensely valuable.

“UpStart was critical at helping me develop my business plan,” Schatz said. “My background is in nonprofit and public health, but UpStart brought a business perspective. Early on we developed lots of ideas about monetization, and our income-generating strategies are bringing in 60 percent of our revenue.”

Rubin, said Schatz, taught her to aim high. “Toby was about thinking big and having a big, hairy audacious goal – that’s what it’s known as in strategic planning.”

David Winitsky is artistic director of the Jewish Plays Project, which was accepted into UpStart’s first national cohort in 2014. Based in New York, it produces new Jewish plays and musicals. “We want people 100 years from now to look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s what the 21st century looked like,’” Winitsky said.

Winitsky credits UpStart and the connections he made at a 2014 conference with his organization’s expansion to the Bay Area.

“I came out for the launch of the UpStart office in Palo Alto,” he said. “They had a big event with a bunch of their [board members, coaches and donors] there, and I gave my one-minute pitch. Someone saw it, and that has led to my two years of programming in Palo Alto. I met a donor who loved the idea, who was able to put together a group of people that made the Palo Alto program possible.”

Since stepping down, Rubin, 62, has taken some much-deserved time off. She looks forward to putting her experience to work consulting in the same field.

“I think the biggest shift in my life can be expressed as the fact that I’m living my life incessantly, and working around that,” she said. “I’m enjoying mornings that are dedicated to health and wellness activities that I’ve wanted to be a part of forever. … But I’m also picking up consulting work, taking up the projects that are really interesting and that are defined so I can manage the amount of time in my life that they will take.”

This article originally appeared in J. The Jewish News of Northern California; reprinted with permission.