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Jewish Startup Inspiration with the Innovators Incubator

Live the Questions Now - Rainer Marie Rilke

Starting in February 2017, the Reconstructionist Learning Networks launched its first in a series of six sessions of the Innovators Incubator. Participants working on different startup projects in the Jewish community gathered online to gain insights on innovation, startups, changes in the Jewish community, branding and marketing, entrepreneurship, and boards and governance. Presenters included Cyd Weissman (Assistant Vice President of Innovation at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), Rabbi Doug Heifetz, Rabbi George Wielechowski, Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Rabbi Hayim Herring, and Tobi Rubin. Each session included a piece of “Innovation Torah,” often linked to the weekly parashah or a Jewish holiday, shared by one of the participants. These teachings connected ancient Jewish wisdom to the challenges of entrepreneurs in the Jewish community today.

If the sessions could be summed up in a succinct phrase, the following quotation from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke would suffice: “Live the questions now.” As Cyd Weissman set the stage in the first session, she emphasized that the best entrepreneurs are those who have humility, who recognize when they do not have all the answers. She presented the Mission Model Canvas which invites innovators to spend time thoroughly investigating the needs of their community before jumping to implement one’s next great idea. She also shared the important motto: “Fail forward.” How we embrace and learn from failure is essential to our future growth and success.

Rabbi Doug Heifetz echoed this advice in the second session, where he highlighted that 90% of startups fail and that an effective question to ask oneself is: “What is the cost of my next failure?” He also picked up on the theme of making an effort to truly understand one’s community’s needs, by encouraging participants to have deep, one-on-one conversations with members of their community. Participants shared that in their experience such in-depth conversations have been enlightening, though perhaps time consuming to execute for some larger communities. They practiced this type of conversation with a role play exercise.

Session three extended the discussion to branding and marketing, where presenter Rabbi George Wielechowski stressed an essential piece of wisdom that came up again and again throughout the series: Talk to people. You might have a brilliant idea, but if your vision does not match up to what your community needs and desires, your startup will likely fail. Take the time to understand what people want and how your values line up with their needs.

Much of the insight shared in the first three sessions could be applied to virtually any business or community, but session four focused more specifically on trends in the Jewish community. Rabbi Sid Schwarz traced the changes in Jewish organizations that have led to the decline of so-called legacy organizations and the rise of smaller, grassroots, startup communities. Older and newer organizations have a lot to learn from each other, he shared, but they must be willing to listen to one another. Older organizations can easily get stale, but newer ones may not know how to move beyond the initial passion that inspired them. Jews today, Sid emphasized, want Jewish life to provide meaning; they do not feel beholden to organizations that don’t fulfill that need.

Session five brought back the ever present theme of failure, as Rabbi Hayim Herring shared a lesson from a jazz musician on the value of “noble failure.” His presentation on the qualities of successful entrepreneurs included the insight that you must choose the right team to work with, a group of people who are truly invested in you and your vision. He shared tips on how to focus, highlighted the importance of humility, and emphasized that in our hyper-connected world, we must go beyond our small communities to see connections to the larger world.

Finally, session six completed the series with the topic of boards and governance. Tobi Rubin led participants in an exercise to measure their attitudes toward boards and to lead them to the notion that a positive attitude is essential to working with a board. The goal is to choose the right group of people for your particular organization and to be clear as to what “lifecycle” stage your organization is in to understand what you need from a board at this particular moment. Tobi shared the seven pillars of performance imperatives and the importance of clearly documenting the roles of everyone on the board. She compared the role of board chair to that of a program director, and highlighted why relationships are the most important aspect of a board.

Based on participant sharing and discussion throughout the series, it was clear that each innovator’s wheels were constantly turning, as they absorbed the wisdom shared and considered how to apply it to their own projects. As one participant said: “As I review my notes from the few weeks we learned together I see how useful it was. The discussion and learning acted as a guide and facilitated useful points of reflection for my ideas. Taking the risk to present and share aided me in looking more in-depth at the work I will bring forth in useful and effective ways.”

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