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A New Batch of Budding Entrepreneurs
Deena Roemer could be described as an advertising executive turned anti-consumerism activist, a stylist, a graduate student or an observant Jew.
She’s also a participant in the latest round of the Tribe 12 Fellowship, a program for startups, where donning multiple hats is not unusual. A graduate student studying public health, Roemer is trying to develop Closet Redemption, a small business in which she helps clients create new outfits primarily from clothes they already own.
Many of the 13 young adults who participate in the program are, like Roemer, working full-time jobs or in school as they try to develop their businesses or nonprofit ventures.
The program began three years ago as a way to nurture innovation in the Jewish community. Organizers say they would like to see participants realize their startup dreams and bring new ideas to the community, but they don’t measure the success solely on whether the venture ultimately becomes viable.
Even if a fellow’s venture never quite takes off, if the person becomes a better leader and more involved in the Jewish community, then the program has succeeded, said Ross Berkowitz, executive director of Tribe 12, a nonprofit umbrella organization that fosters independent programs serving Philadelphia-area Jews.
The fellows program, which receives funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, provides business curriculum interlaced with Jewish content and pairs entrepreneurs with coaches. Over five months, fellows attend seminars, workshops and networking events. The climax of the program happens in May when participants pitch their ventures to prospective investors and donors.
“We’re teaching about building ventures, but we’re also teaching the leadership skills and entrepreneurial skills that can be used in a lot of different ways,” said Berkowitz.
Noting the adage that 90 percent of ventures fail, Berkowitz said that past fellows have a better average: 12 of the 21 individuals involved in the first two classes are still working on their venture in some capacity.
Here’s a glimpse of three of the current fellows.
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Deena Roemer, 32, started sorting through closets about five years ago, around the same time she became observant and began to dress more modestly.
“I realized there is a larger picture that is about belief in God and a certain way of life that is in line with Torah values, and part of that is the modesty thing,” Roemer said, referring to the proscription for women not to wear revealing clothing and to cover up their knees and elbows.
In a two- to three-hour paid session, Roemer constructs full outfits — shoes to boot — and makes suggestions for purchases, like a white blazer, that could allow owners to “extend their wardrobe.” The key is not going out and continuously buying more clothes, trying to fill a void, and yet still feeling “like you have nothing to wear,” she said.
Though she works primarily with women, especially those who are observant, Roemer also consults with men and is not opposed to taking on a woman who wears short skirts and high heels. She said it’s about understanding people.
“I want to zero in on what people’s main challenges are and then ask, ‘What do you want to put out in the world with your style, what are you putting out, and are those things congruent?’ ” Roemer said.
In the fellowship, Roemer is trying to figure out how she could scale and monetize her business. She said one of the biggest benefits thus far has been working with a coach who has helped add structure to the business.
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Raphael Menko said he was not a very good reader growing up — except for when it counted during summer read-a-thons.
Menko hopes his venture, Learn2Earn, will encourage students, often distracted by other pursuits, to spend time with books or other academic efforts by linking those efforts to fundraising for their schools or other causes. Instead of selling gift wrapping or cookies to raise money, they are selling their learning; the same way a runner asks people to sponsor the miles they complete, a participant in Learn2Earn asks people to sponsor books they read.
“It is a fundraiser that is directly aligned with the educational goals of a school,” said Menko, a graduate of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. “Instead of promoting consumerism, the means are directly aligned with the ends of the fundraiser.”
Menko graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts last spring. During his last year there, he and a friend took a seminar on developing a business plan where the idea for the venture was hatched.
After graduating, they headed to San Diego, where Menko’s business partner grew up. In a fundraiser with an area school, students raised $900 for the Feeding America program. Menko returned to Philadelphia in time for the fellowship program, which started in January.
In contrast to other fellows, Menko is pursuing the creation of his business full time. He said he found particularly interesting a fellowship lecture framed around a metaphor of the Jews’ liberation from Egypt. The lecturer told the fellows to focus on the problem they wanted to solve through their venture, comparing this to how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt. “The greatest benefits I’ve gotten so far are sharing my ideas with different people in the program,” Menko said.
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Aleeza Ben Shalom is a professional matchmaker but doesn’t embrace the “Yenta” nickname.
“I only want to be involved in the matchmaking, I’m not someone who likes to know people’s business, I only like to know details for tachlis (purpose),” she said.
A 34-year-old mother of four, expecting a fifth, Ben Shalom would informally try to match-make at her Shabbat dinners and often succeeded. In January 2012, she started to help people find spouses professionally with her new business, Marriage Minded Mentor.
Her target clients are people from their late 20s to their 60s who are looking to get engaged in the next year. She acts as a sort of counselor, meeting with clients weekly for as long as they wish, sometimes until the day of their wedding or beyond. She helps single Jewish people of all backgrounds.
Since she turned pro, she says he has helped 10 people marry and six more are currently engaged.
“I grew up in a Conservative household and became more observant in my 20s, so I understand the range of Judaism and the range of what people want,” Ben Shalom said. “I’m someone who sort of bridges the gap for a lot people.”
Right now, she is planning to self-publish a book on finding a mate and is also trying to develop an online media library with guidance for singles and other people who might want to also become matchmakers.
“I don’t have fear of competition,” Ben Shalom said. “If we can train hundreds of mentors, that would be great.”
The other fellows are: