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Starting-Up Leaders

June 28, 2012 By:
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Tribe 12 fellow Sara Landman (center, holding a bowl) poses with students from Alexander K. McClure Schol who wrote out family recipes as part of her literacy program last fal.
 

From an educational standpoint, Sara Landman's first start-up could be deemed a success. Over the past academic year, 10 families participated in the free literacy program she developed with help from the Tribe 12 Social Entrepreneur Fellowship. Several parents have asked to do it again.

From a business standpoint, Landman's project is a labor of love, far from sustainable without donated supplies and volunteer manpower.

"It's just my dream, so I will at any cost make it happen right now," said the 30-year-old teacher from Center City.

Landman's colleagues from the inaugural class of fellows two years ago report similar stories: They're still plugging away at their ideas, though few have managed to turn a profit and some have yet to even transform plans to action.

As far as Tribe 12 executive director Ross Berkowitz is concerned, how many businesses survive isn't as relevant as how many of the young professionals remain active in the Jewish community.But fellowship organizers aren't worried about the seemingly slow progress. The way they see it, the program's doing exactly what it's supposed to -- jump-starting ventures that benefit the Jewish community while simultaneously cultivating future leaders.

"It's not just: Is the venture making money?" he said. "It's learning the skills they can take to potentially succeed with that one business but also potentially as a leader in another way."

"Most ventures don't succeed," Berkowitz continued. "But people, we want people to succeed."

Capital Ventures

Tribe 12, a nonprofit umbrella organization fostering independent programs serving Philadelphia-area Jews, started the fellowship in partnership with PresenTense, which in 2010 began adapting its signature intensive summer business-training institute in Jerusalem into "community entrepreneur" programs in a handful of U.S. and Israeli cities.

A $50,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia coupled with a matching grant from the Lindy family covered the cost of the curriculum and instructors from PresenTense the first year. (Both donated similar amounts for the second round that just ended.)

A volunteer steering committee selected the fellows from a pool of applicants in the fall.

Then, over a five-month period from January to May, the fellows met with guest speakers, coaches and mentors to develop skills, business plans and connections that would theoretically help turn their ideas into viable ventures.

According to PresenTense data, 284 fellows around the world have gone through the program, run concurrently this past year in 12 cities including Moscow, Boston, New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Tel Aviv.

Of those, 21 hail from Philadelphia -- 11 the first year and 10 this year. Some, such as the leaders of DAVAI!, a group for Russian young professionals, and Jews in ALL Hues, a support network for dual heritage Jews, came looking to strengthen existing programs. Others wanted to build their expertise in Bar Mitzvah tutoring or Jewish music into a steadier source of income. And then there were those who started from scratch with little more than an idea.

All but one of the first class of fellows is still working on their projects, though the activity ranges widely.

Evan Levitt, for example, recently met with an advisory committee to discuss the next steps in reviving an interfaith youth mission to Israel that he piloted in 2008 while working for the Jewish National Fund.

Meetings aside, Levitt has yet to set a time frame for funding or scheduling the trip. The 36-year-old said he received a few pledges after making his pitch during a "launch night" event at the end of the fellowship last year, but he hasn't collected them yet because he wanted to set up an official nonprofit or partner with another existing organization first. However long that takes, Levitt said, he was grateful to have the fellowship as a portal to jump into the established Jewish community, which isn't always easy.

"One day we're all going to be leaders of this community so we need to get our training and experience somewhere," said Levitt, of Southwest Philadelphia.

For her part, Landman wasted no time piloting her afterschool program at the public elementary where she teaches in North Philadelphia and another nearby school. She recruited a team of 10 volunteer student and retired educators to lead workshops focused on health, family history and financial literacy. Since the space and teachers were free, she used donations totaling a little more than $1,000 for snacks and materials.

Landman's already thinking about expanding to three more schools next year and adding a monthly book club for the parents. Ideally, she said, she'd raise $10,000 to split among the five sites: a $1,000 stipend for a coordinator at each school, the rest for supplies. Maybe someday, she said, she'll even publish her curriculum and bring it to other countries as a model for making neighborhood schools into literacy community centers.

As a sociology and psychology major, Landman said, she would have never had the background to do this type of thing without the fellowship.

"It was perfect," she said. "I always had this vision. I needed space or a group of people to really kickstart this dream. It was a whole group of people that I'd never interacted with before and all into the concept of social justice and change."

Jonathan Dickens, 24, said he came into the program with the hope that he might be able to turn his counseling business into a full-time job, yet he also realized that he might only have a year in the area if he couldn't support himself after completing master's degrees in Jewish education and Jewish communal service from Gratz College in May 2011.

With a partner, he put together a website explaining their goal of helping families maintain relationships with members who become more or less religious. They also wrote a sample communication seminar, Dickens said, but didn't have time to test it out or see any clients before he moved back to his parents' home in New Hampshire.

Even though their business never panned out, Dickens said, the fellowship "still gives you the valuable tools that you need to be in business in general."

"It was being forced to do those homework assignments that gave me the practical experience of putting together a business plan, networking, that kind of thing," Dickens said.

Stephanie Singer, 30, who lives in the Olde Kensington section of the city, said she already knew much of the material covered in the fellowship seminars through her job as a graphic and experience design researcher, so it didn't help with setting up a roll-out timeline or marketing. She and friend Einav Keet, 31, have been soliciting Jewish professional chefs for modern twists on a family recipe along with a story about their grandmother to publish in The Bubbi Project cookbook.

But, Singer said, being in the program did give them a sense of structure and accountability, and encouraged them to have more regular meetings. Most importantly, she said, they ended up with many valuable connections.

After making her pitch at the most recent launch night on June 6, she said, "people ran up to me to talk to me about the project because they were so excited."

Measuring Success

Len Lodish, vice dean of social impact at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said he's not surprised that none of the ventures have really gotten off the ground. Only about one in 25 start-ups in general end up succeeding, he said, and the odds are likely much lower for social entrepreneurs because they face the additional challenge of doing something good for the community while remaining financially sustainable. Many of the Tribe 12 projects also appear to be traditional nonprofits, he added, which can be even harder to run if they rely solely on donations.

The fellowship seems like a "reasonable experiment," Lodish said, but organizers might consider having fellows do more research, whether focus groups or concept testing with potential customers, to make sure there's a market for their proposed product or service.

"If you get one or two that will succeed, it will, in terms of the community's value, pay for the whole thing."

Frank Lindy, 51, a Tribe 12 board member whose family fund supports the organization as well as the fellowship specifically, said he hoped to see about 20 percent of the ventures still in existence after five years. While many will naturally fail, Lindy said, the fellowship must produce enough success stories to attract interest from new fellows and mentors.

"Even if one business really takes root and grows, it can make a difference," said Lindy. "Maybe it builds the community in a direction that might have been left undeveloped."

It'll be years before officials can measure whether the fellows stay more involved in the Jewish community than their peers, which is one of their goals. Meanwhile, Berkowitz is in the process of surveying the first-year fellows to see how they've been doing and tally how much, if any, funding they've secured. Ideally, he said, this fall he'll start a continuing education program to support the fellows after they "graduate."

Depending on how much funding is available (Federation is expected to announce allocations in late July), Berkowitz said he may host monthly roundtable discussions for former fellows to continue learning from local Jewish business experts or set up a pool of seed money.

He's also been talking to organizers of Jewcer.com, a crowd-funding platform that launched in late March (and was featured in a May Exponent story) about promoting Tribe 12 projects.

Laurel Klein, a fellow from the first year, raised $8,000 through the site that will go toward a kick-off event and other costs associated with opening the Jewish brewpub that she'd been working on before even hearing about the fellowship.

Federation board members have already been impressed to see so many first-round fellows still making progress and showing support at events for the current class, said Brian Mono, director of the agency's Center for Jewish Life and Learning.

Several ventures morphed during the fellowship process and a couple seem to have lost their Jewish angle. Landman's literacy project was never designed to serve the Jewish community, though she originally proposed recruiting retired Jewish educators as workshop facilitators.

Michal Waldfogel folded her combination challah-making/ yoga "Deep Breath Baking" workshops into wellPHL.com, a site that showcases her yoga and nutrition services as well as her new foray into music. Waldfogel said her mentor actually encouraged her to use what she'd learned to market herself in a broader context.

"The idea of the fellowship is as much about my project as it was about me," said the 27-year-old West Philly resident. "I'm still bringing all this into the Jewish community. The ripple effects you cannot predict. The skills I learned I can bring to my synagogue, I can bring to any other project I do."

Whether or not the ventures ultimately end up tied to the Jewish community, Berkowitz predicted that the fellows would always remember where they got their start.

"We've taken some individuals who were involved in the community, who weren't as sure about themselves and where they could go and were really able to direct them," Berkowitz said. "That's going to come back."

For a listing of the fellows' projects, go to: From Matchmaking to Cookbooks: Another Crew of Innovators.

 

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