Israel’s Bootcamp for Social Entrepreneurs

by Brian on September 11, 2008

in Only in Israel

Israel is well known for its hi-tech entrepreneurial spirit. Now, a new non-profit organization hopes to use that expertise to train young Jewish professionals from North America how to become “social entrepreneurs.”

A social entrepreneur, explained Aharon Horwitz, who along with Ariel Beery co-founded Presentense, the force behind the new initiative, uses the same business techniques and Internet savvy as his or her hi-tech counterpart, “but as a way to address major societal questions. The social entrepreneur is committed to the betterment of society.”

Horwitz offered several examples of entrepreneurs currently working with Presentense.

Daniel Schaefer is launching a democratic investment fund that will put money into businesses in third world and developing countries. The organization will focus on sustainable development and helping people build homes in ways that are outside of the mainstream.

Another project, headed up by Rebecca Linden, describes a way for middle class families to create their own “family foundations” that would determine where to give to charity as a larger extended family unit,

Presentense publishes a magazine with a circulation of 30,000, runs a consulting group that shows non-profits how to use web tools like Facebook and YouTube to reach their market, and maintains a lively video-heavy website.

Its main activity, however, is a summer tour of Israel for 15 hand picked Jewish participants. The Fellows program is headquartered in Jerusalem (Presentense rents accommodations in the capital’s Arnona neighborhood) but includes trips as far flung as Stef Wertheimer’s Tefen complex in the Galilee and the local office of Google in Haifa.

The summer institute, now in its second year, runs from June 23 through August 3 and has a packed schedule of meetings with leading Israeli figures from art to venture capital. Speakers include Eral Margalit, managing partner of the VC fund Jerusalem Venture Partners; Jewish artist David Moss; journalist Yossi Klein Halevi; and Deborah Harris, founder of a leading literary agency for local authors.

Institute participants learn how to effectively pitch their projects, build a budget, and conduct a strategic assessment. “We see it as a 6-week bootcamp,” Horwitz said, “for projects that have value to both the Jewish and general population. We see Israel as an ideal place to teach. Because of the risk in Israel, entrepreneurs here can be innovative in ways that are inspiring and courageous.

The participants’ projects are an eclectic mix of Jewish and world concerns. Some of the topics: a web-based “Wiki Hagaddah” that will allow Jews of all backgrounds to contribute to writing the site; a program to enable birthright and MASA participants to extend their stays in Israel with meaningful programming; and a semantic database of the words and verses of the Bible, structured by scholars, and populated by user tags.

Dan Rosen founded a hi-tech incubator in Arizona to promote Clean Tech initiatives. “My passion is getting the world off oil,” he told Israel21c. Israel is leading the world in this area, Rosen said, pointing to organizations like Project Better Place, started by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi to push electric cars into the marketplace. Rosen plans to take the business lessons he learns during his Presentense experience back to the U.S. “It’s like getting MBA in 6 weeks…with a Jewish bent,” he said.

Tanya Strussberg is starting an arts management and consulting agency to bring Israeli performance artists in theater, dance and music to an international stage. Originally from Australia and raised in Hong Kong, Strussberg has worked in the arts for 15 years. She sees her Presentense experience as an opportunity for Israeli “hasbara” – getting the word out on what’s positive in Israel and bridging the Israel/Diaspora divide. “I’m never going to be a politician,” she quipped. “I see the arts as a really effective tool for communication.”

Competition for the 15 slots was fierce – only 15 percent were accepted. The program is entirely free to the participants and is sponsored by the Avi Chai, Schusterman, Morningstar and New York Jewish Federations. Presentense has an annual budget of $500,000 and is planning on expanding to Europe next year.

Horwitz and his partner Beery seem to have been destined to create Presentense. Both grew up in Zionist youth movements in the U.S., both volunteered to serve in the Israeli army, and the two ended up meeting at Columbia University.

Horwitz describes what Presentense is trying to achieve as no less than a continuation of the path set into motion by Herzl, Jabotinsky and Ahad HaAm. “At one point Israel was a land of material scarcity but spiritual plenty,” Horwitz said. “Now we have so much materially, but we are facing questions about what our mission is. We consider our entrepreneurs to be the inheritors of the pioneer spirit, but now we’re doing it online rather than sticking a shovel in the ground. We like to call it Chalutz 2.0.”


This article originally appeared on Israel21c.

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