Jewish Startup Inspiration with the Innovators Incubator

By Hila Ritzabi

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.

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