Estee Portnoy wants BBYO to be like Mike

Estee Portnoy, standing in front of a Michael Jordan jersey, understands the importance of a "brand refresh" through her longtime affiliation with the basketball legend. (Darla Photography)

Estee Portnoy, standing in front of a Michael Jordan jersey, understands the importance of a “brand refresh” through her longtime affiliation with the basketball legend. (Darla Photography)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — It might be hard to imagine what Michael Jordan and BBYO have in common, but Estee Portnoy knows.

Jordan, nearly as famous for his product endorsements — Nike, Gatorade and Hanes, to name a few — as he is for his slam dunks, continues to be one of the most influential figures in both sports and branding. As the longtime business manager and spokeswoman for the basketball legend, Portnoy, 44, understands the importance of a “brand refresh.”

Since becoming chairman of BBYO’s board of directors last year, Portnoy recognized the need for the 88-year-old Jewish teen movement to upgrade its brand while maintaining its heritage.

The refreshed BBYO brand — an updated logo along with the release of the organization’s new five-year strategic plan — was launched this week. The logo’s design, says Portnoy, is meant to convey a “sense of tradition with modernity.” The iconic menorah symbol was maintained, while asymmetrical lengths were added to the branches and heights of the flames to convey individuality through self-exploration.

“We’ve set a bold vision for the organization,” says Matthew Grossman, executive director of BBYO. “We believe that we’ve created fun, meaningful and affordable experiences that can connect Jewish teens for a lifetime to the Jewish people.”

Portnoy’s experiences with BBYO as a young teenager growing up in western Pennsylvania helped lay the groundwork for both her future professional and personal pursuits.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor father and an Israeli-born mother, she was one of six Jewish students in her high school in tiny New Castle, Pa.

BBYO “was all that I had to connect me with the [Jewish] community,” she says. 

By being part of the teen-led movement — even serving as regional president — Portnoy says she gained invaluable leadership skills and business savvy.

“I was giving speeches, planning events and planning conventions … and feeling good about being Jewish,” she says.

Portnoy also made lifelong friends, with whom she remains in touch through Facebook, and met her husband, Elliott, at a BBYO event when she was 13 and he was 15. He’s now an attorney in Washington.

“I loved [Elliott] all through high school,” the mother of three says with a laugh. “And I always tell my kids: You never know who you are going to meet [in BBYO]!”

But her connection to BBYO had been relegated to fond memories in her scrapbooks until a lengthy 2003 profile on “The Woman Behind Michael” in Washingtonian magazine “outed” her as the “gatekeeper” to Jordan and a BBYO alumna. Soon after, the organization contacted her and she joined the board.

“Estee is the first alumnus of BBYO to be chair of the board,” Grossman says. “She experienced many of the programs that we are working on, and she has an appreciation for the organization’s history and a personal feel.”

Coupled with her professional insights, Grossman adds, “She brings knowledge and expertise to the table that other nonprofits can only dream of.”

With her oldest son set to embark on his own involvement in BBYO, Portnoy says it is important that he also “finds a way to feel good about being Jewish that doesn’t just come from a rabbi or school.”

BBYO, Grossman says, has leveraged tools like a centralized database that tracks teens’ involvement with the organization. Overall participation, he adds, is already up 11 percent this year and 60 percent over the past five years.

By implementing the new strategic plan and adopting the updated logo, the organization hopes to continue to reverse the trend of Jewish teens dropping out of Jewish life after their bar or bat mitzvahs.

“We will use our platform to address [the trend] by offering four of the most influential identity development experiences: year-round youth group programming, summer camp experiences, Israel travel and service opportunities,” Grossman says.

A key priority in the five-year plan, says Grossman, is the organization’s goal of reaching 70,000 Jewish teenagers by 2016. To reach the goal, BBYO is placing a stronger emphasis on programming for a younger audience: sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, he says. Older teens already actively involved in BBYO will be encouraged to serve as mentors to the younger teens. In addition, the organization plans to hire eight to 10 new professional staffers to serve as experiential educators and implement new “values-based” programming in the regions.

It doesn’t matter whether you are selling sneakers for Nike or Jewish experiences to teenagers, Portnoy says, “You have to know your customer, stay true to your mission and be authentic.”

And Michael Jordan, she adds, “is always authentic.”

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