Incubator For New Jewish Ideas
Later this month, PopJudaica.com owner Sara Marcus plans to launch JewishWeddingNetwork.com, a one-stop resource for Jewish wedding planning needs. The site will feature a Jewish Brides blog, a glossary of Jewish wedding traditions and customs, and a virtual marketplace where couples can buy and sell gently used wedding dresses, veils and shoes.
Marcus bills it as a Web site that will "take the 'Oy Vey' out of planning your big day." It's the site she wishes she'd had back when she got married three years ago, she says.
Yet in the weeks before the launch, Marcus is still grappling with whether to incorporate the business as a for-profit or seek out 501(c)3 tax-exempt status.
So when she heard about Bikkurim's Idea Lab from a friend who works in the Jewish community, she promptly signed up. "I wanted to attend Bikkurim's event to determine which direction I should go with my idea," she says.
The Idea Lab is an annual gathering where Bikkurim - an incubator for new Jewish ideas - opens its doors to those in the broader Jewish community who are looking to develop a good idea into a new project or nonprofit organization. The dozen participants who attended a recent roundtable had the opportunity to network with one another and share one-sentence "elevator pitches" about their next big Jewish idea. Aliza Mazor, Bikkurim's program director, kicked off the late afternoon program by defining common buzzwords in the Innovation Sector (for example, "social entrepreneur" and "capacity building"). Then she laid out a tried and true strategy for developing a business plan that will attract potential donors. Afterwards, Bikkurim's consultants provided free, one-on-one coaching sessions.
"At the proto-project stage, a little bit of advice goes a long way," says Martin Kaminer, chair of the Bikkurim board and a founding board member of Bikkurim who also participated in the Idea Lab as a coach. "The best of ideas, grounded in the most wonderful of intentions, is only part of the battle in successfully implementing an idea or program," admits participant Randi Cairns, the founder of Home Front Hearts, which provides a support system and resources for military families (including Jewish ones). Cairns left her coaching session with Richard Marker, co-principal at Marker Goldsmith Philanthropy Advisors and a professor at NYU's Center for Philanthropy, with a more focused game plan for growing and developing Home Front Hearts.
"I am a one-woman entity at this point working on a voluntary basis and also raising four children," she says. "Marker warned against the temptation, of which I'm very guilty, of trying to take on everything at once. So impactful actions are key: I need to focus on those areas where I can provide the greatest benefit. For Home Front Hearts, that will now likely mean that I'll build the resource database and start advocating for these families to those in a position to change the status quo."
The Idea Lab is as much a valuable service to innovators in the Jewish community as it is a recruitment tool to help Bikkurim identify and attract quality applicants. Though Bikkurim is approaching its 10th birthday and is well-known among the young, entrepreneurial types in New York, it still remains under the radar of many in the Jewish world. The names of the organizations it has nurtured - from the environmental group Hazon to JDub Records and the independent minyan Kehilat Hadar - enjoy far greater name recognition than Bikkurim itself.
"It's the unsung hero of Jewish startups," says Kaminer. Bikkurim recently moved into a sleek, modern space in downtown Manhattan, where it hosts nine groups. The Bikkurim hub comes rent-free, thanks to sponsorship from the United Jewish Communities: Jewish Federations of North America, which houses Bikkurim. This arrangement allows for a cross-pollination of ideas and partnerships among its diverse group of member groups.
In addition to free office space, Bikkurim groups receive regular consulting from in-house experts in the field. "We're building the organizational infrastructure," says Nina Bruder, Bikkurim's executive director. This includes helping startups appoint a board of directors, institute governance measures, draft personnel policies and ensure their accounting books are set up correctly.
Bikkurim is big on helping its groups build a circle of stakeholders, which encourages a sense of team ownership and investment. Each group receives a yearly operating grant of under $10,000. For the calendar year 2009, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation is contributing an additional $5,000 to each organization. In addition, up to $3,000 in matching grants are available to Bikkurim groups looking to hire outside consultants to do work such as designing a Web site or conducting market research. Despite the economic downturn and disinclination among funders to invest in new projects, the number of applications Bikkurim has received has remained steady, says Bruder. "It really surprised me. You would think that people would stay conservative. It's not the best climate to launch something new." In addition, the profile of the applicant pool is very consistent with years past. "It's not a bunch of unemployed people," Bruder says.
Bikkurim seeks out innovative organizations possessing leadership potential and strong entrepreneurial skills. There must be a comfort level or willingness to learn about fundraising, Bruder says. Although over the years Bikkurim has admitted 24 organizations, not every Bikkurim group graduates to alumni status. "If everyone completed the program, we would feel that we were not taking enough risk," Kaminer says.
What's key is that some of these organizations are going to be the Hillels and Hadassahs and B'nai Briths and ADLs of our children and grandchildren's time, Kaminer says. "But I can't tell you which."
As for the economy's impact on Jewish startups, Kaminer isn't too worried. "If you're passionate about an idea, you're not checking the Dow," he says. "You'll do it regardless of the stock market." That's the approach Sara Marcus is taking with her wedding site.
Mazor, Marcus- coach for the evening, helped Marcus determine that her idea would be better off as a for-profit business due to its earning potential. "The good news is that she felt my idea was a viable one," Marcus says. "The bad news is that because it would not qualify as a nonprofit, I can't take advantage of all the great services and support Bikkurim's incubator has to offer."