I teach rabbinical students to be entrepreneurs. Often, people respond, “Really, you teach rabbis how to make money?” Feigning patience, I explain that tackling the finances of any project is critical, but the tools I teach rabbis help them rack up solutions that impact the quality of people’s lives, not the big bucks. The proper term for my course is social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship means applying a business-like discipline to creating solutions to social justice, cultural and environmental issues.
In the past 10 years, Jewish nonprofits have begun to use a social entrepreneurial toolkit to address challenges that appear intractable, like how to effectively engage the majority of Jews in our country. As a teacher of social entrepreneurship, I instruct students to lead with fierceness. I promise them, when launching something untested, that they are guaranteed multiple failures without a guarantee of solutions. Only with dogged determination can they navigate the uncharted territory of launching a project.
Their fierceness must be accompanied by humility. They must ask hard questions, build a team with complementary skills and cultivate a readiness to learn from failure. Social entrepreneurs work within their eco-systems, developing partners and networks to contribute to their solutions. Admitting you don’t know or will never have all the answers while exuding unfettered determination is the leadership balance beam I train students to walk.
In the three years I’ve been at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, students have used the social entrepreneurial toolkit to launch numerous projects: podcasts on marginalized topics (e.g., death and loss, Jews with untold stories), a Jewish electronic-music album, new prayer and learning gatherings, a customized ritual guide and Snapchat Torah, to name a few.
I teach students how to fundraise and how to experiment with income sources. Sustainability is a nasty and necessary concept they explore.
But their success is not measured by revenue. As social entrepreneurs, they measure what works and what doesn’t. Data continually tell them when to pivot or preserve, to change or stay the course. Ultimately, rabbinical students learn to measure success by what degree they have been able to positively impact people’s lives.
My rabbinical students practice five steps when launching a new project. They:
- Uncover a real need—Ask, observe and listen to the needs of people you wish to serve. What’s the problem or need in their lives you want to solve?
- Shape a hypothesis—Name your hunch about what will meet the needs.
- Experiment—Test your hunch. Try and try again. And again.
- Gather data—Pay attention. Gather quantitative and qualitative data.
- Pivot or preserve—Learn from the data and change and/or stay the course.
To see how this process plays out, watch this one minute and 20-second video: