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The great incubator debate

I always shep great naches when something from JTA stirs a community-wide debate, even if I didn’t write it.

So I feel like a happy uncle since in recent days I have not been able to go to any Jewish event involving any professional Jew under 35 without someone bringing up Dan Sieradski’s Op-Ed, "Innovators wanted, non-rich need not apply."

In case you missed it, Sieradski, JTA’s former director of digital media, argued that Jewish incubators are not doing enough to accommodate the financial needs and realities of many social entrepreneurs.

Sieradski said that after attending a recent information center for the Joshua Venture Group, he came away "with the impression that social entrepreneurship is a privilege of the wealthy, or at least those with no other professional or personal responsibilities."

"Only those who already have a certain freedom, if not significant resources at their disposal, are truly eligible for the benefits these organizations are offering," he added. "Our current innovation ecosphere, as it were, is reinforcing that impression, with requirements and compensation for residencies and fellowships that are unrealistic for those of us who cannot afford to make ends meet without a full-time salary."

It’s hard not to admire the spunk that it took for Sieradski to write such a piece criticizing an organization he was about to ask for money. And he certainly opened up a can of worms, making public a conversation that has been taking place in private. Even those who run successful, stable and established Jewish startups are asking: "How can I afford to keep doing this?"

At the same time, there is a valid response to what Dan is saying – entrepreneurship, be it in the nonprofit or for-profit sector, involves a good deal of personal risk. And if your personal mission is to create something positive and new for the Jewish community, you have to be willing to take that gamble.

My judgment, after talking with dozens of folks involved on both the funding and startup sides, is that opinion is mixed — and not simply between those seeking money and those giving it away.

Check back on the blog and the newsletter as this debate unfolds. We have a number of voices that have been weighing in through Op-Eds and interviews. First, here is the response from the Joshua Venture’s executive director, Lisa Lepson:

Op-Ed: The challenges and opportunities of Jewish social entrepreneurs

NEW YORK (JTA) — Our tradition teaches us that after sojourning a year at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jewish people journeyed to the border of Israel. Before entering, Moses dispatched 12 spies to scout the land. Clearly, being a spy wasn’t for everyone. For 40 days these spies traveled throughout an unknown territory to determine what the Jewish people could expect to find. It was among those spies that a future leader of the Jewish people would emerge — Joshua. 

The spies returned with conflicting accounts. For 10 of them, the inhabitants “were so tall that we were like grasshoppers to them.” For Calev and Joshua, on the other hand, there was no question that the Children of Israel could and should persevere.

What lessons does this story hold for us today as a community of Jews who imagine and innovate in our local, national and global Jewish communities?

This question occurred to me as I read Dan Sieradski’s recent JTA op-ed titled “Innovators Wanted, Non-Rich Need not Apply.” Dan’s piece raised important questions about the way the Jewish community supports risk-takers. While I disagree with some of the conclusions Dan draws, he points to realistic challenges that potential entrepreneurs will face.

Even the 10 spies were not off base completely in recognizing that the land of Israel would present some challenges. But like our namesake, my incubating organization, the Joshua Venture Group, believes that the driven entrepreneur can flourish. And while we would welcome an influx of even more capital from patient investors to support new ventures, we believe that the Jewish innovation sector does offer those risk-takers among us the important seed resources they need to turn their dreams into reality.

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There is no question that in an age of scarce resources, those pursuing new ideas must make choices and sacrifices to realize their vision. And while some can weather those sacrifices a bit easier, we already have seen many succeed through a willingness to sacrifice a great deal in order to pursue a mission and vision burning inside of them. We do not believe that personal wealth is the defining attribute of future Jewish social entrepreneurs. Notwithstanding, I appreciate Dan’s contribution to the conversation, as well as his acknowledgement of the inherent value of the Joshua Venture Group’s work.

Joshua Venture Group’s funding (like the resources offered by our colleague organizations Bikkurim, UpStart, Jumpstart, PresenTense and certain Jewish federations and foundations) is designed to provide a springboard, a measure of stability, networks and exposure, to develop a diversified funding stream. Our “Dual Investment” strategy is not intended to provide full funding for an entrepreneur’s dream; it is intended to help individuals reach further toward their goals than they otherwise could have reached. Our program provides some funding to entrepreneurs ($80,000 in unrestricted funds and $20,000 in additional stipends over two years); but perhaps more important, it provides fuel for them to be able to find other resources, financial and managerial, to make their initiative more sustainable — sustainability that ultimately helps lead to financial security.

As any entrepreneur knows, pursuit of an entrepreneurial endeavor is not easy or even appropriate for those who desire or need financial security. It’s for those who have a burning passion, vision, drive and ability to do what it takes to get started. This often involves significant sacrifice in the short run because entrepreneurs believe they will get to viability and ultimately sustainability in the long run.

Sometimes viability also means adaptability. For example, JDub Records, one of our alumni organizations, recently announced a partnership with NextBook — demonstrating that JDub continues, after seven years, to be creative in seeking out financially and programmatically sound partners, increasing sustainability and changing our Jewish community for the better.

So just like the spies dispatched by Moses to the land of Israel, people identifying as social entrepreneurs are risk-takers scouting their individual (and our collective) Jewish visions of tomorrow. We appreciate those funders who have made investments to support this growing creativity and hope the organized Jewish world will pay increasing attention to these individuals both within their structures and outside of them.

In any case, some of these entrepreneurs will come back from their journeys unable to accept the risk and hardship to come; others will come back eager and energized by the big grapes of success to be harvested. And some will come back to be leaders of the Jewish people.

Leaders just like Joshua.

(Lisa Lepson is the executive director of the Joshua Venture Group.)

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