Culture, Politics

Innovation Involves Risk

What if Steve Jobs never came back to Apple?  Well for one, those of you reading this on your iPhone would have to chain yourselves to a desk and read this blog the old fashion way.  But back in 1997 when the prodigal CEO returned it was not without some second guessing. His leadership brought in Microsoft software on Apple hardware. He started this crazy concept of stores dedicated to only selling Apple products. Under his leadership the company started making these small, expensive music players to compete with the radio.
As we look back on this now it makes perfect sense: Our society is primed for all these innovations. But it wasn’t at the time.
Recently Daniel “Mobius” Sieradski lamented in a JTA Op-ed that it is impossible for a non-rich person to become an innovator in the Jewish community.
This simply isn’t true. Sure it is a whole hell of a lot easier to work for a non-profit start-up while on a trust fund or being supported by a partner in the for-profit sector.  But impossible it is not.
You can afford to live on (kosher) Top Ramen and frozen veggies, live in a small, cramped space somewhere in the hinterlands of New York and get paid almost nothing; you have to be willing to take that risk in something you believe in to make it work.  Being rich has nothing to do with the drive or desire to be successful.
The iPod changed American culture and it wasn’t expected to do so well so fast.  Through very strong marketing and an easy to use, fun to play with product, Steve Jobs’ investment paid off handsomely for his company and its shareholders. Now you may say, “dcc you are new to this Jewschool thing and you are talking about the evil corporate system that is oppressing millions of people around the world…what does that have to do with social entrepreneurism?”
And I would ask, because we are Jews and therefore will answer a question with another question, “Where do you think the word entrepreneur came from in the term social entrepreneurism?”
You see, apart from the money that is spent to pay for these innovative-think-tank-tweet-ups, the idea of forming program models and budgets and everything else that this so-called revolution in the community now does as second nature is exactly the same as business.  Now don’t get your radicalism in a bunch here: there is a good reason to follow this model when trying something new – it works.
Why something takes off is sometimes a mystery.  The market, or in our case, the community needs it and doesn’t even know it (see the iPod). But the process in which we create it or “innovate” needs to be surgical in approach.  Businesses, especially publically traded companies like Apple, need to provide step-by-step analysis of everything they do from the paper they buy to the ideas being floated by the people in Cupertino’s labs.
In the end this has nothing to do with being born to or marrying into wealth, but with taking the risk, following your plan and executing with flawless procession.  Odds are what you “innovate” is going to be rejected.  How many start-ups from the early 1990s do you still see on the Interwebs? 
A vast majority of the “game changing” companies that came out of the first wave of Internet commerce failed after a few years.  This only happened because the market didn’t need their services, not because the people in the companies wanted to make more money and had to quit ‘cause the trust fund dried up. (Sure it is possible there are one or two stories like that out there somewhere.)
The same is true about these social entrepreneur’s projects within the Jewish community.  A vast majority of the ideas bandied about at think tanks are duds.  Just because you want something to change doesn’t means that people are going to embrace your ideas or that your creation with become the iPod of Jewish community life. 
Your idea needs to be sustainable, a word that Sieradski points out that is over used within these innovation circles.  But what he misses is that the product, not the project, needs to be sustainable.  If your product doesn’t deliver something useful and worth the investment, then it will be and should be canned before more money is wasted. 
One perfect example is the social networking explosion that took place in the Jewish community about four years back.  There were those who wanted to create a community wide social action social network that brought together all the different alumni of Jewish social action programs in one place.  This would not be a page on Facebook or a Twitter feed to follow.  It was a completely different network.  I sat in on these meetings in a few different capacities and I knew it would fail because 1) the product was a waste of time and 2) the community not only didn’t need it, they really didn’t want it.
As you know this project didn’t make it.  And that is a good thing.
Innovation for the sake of innovation is wasteful, but changing the system for the better is great.  If you have an idea that you believe will reshape our community for the better that is powerful thought and you should be ready to fight for it.  You better be willing to give up everything for something you believe in that deeply.  Because, from what I hear, the funding for innovative Jewish community projects that no one wants doesn’t allow you to live the high life.

24 thoughts on “Innovation Involves Risk

  1. yeah being willing to live on top ramen is fine if you’re single. How many parents are willing to have their 3 year old live on top ramen, though?
    Is it really to the community’s benefit to say that only single people without chldren should innovate?

  2. Mobius is sooooo right. You’re living in bourgeoisie brainwashed la la land if you think otherwise. The fact you use Steve Jobs as an example makes this all the more true.

  3. You’re misplacing the risk. The risk shouldn’t have to be on the shoulders of those doing innovative work, but on the shoulders of those asking us to dedicate ourselves to innovating within the Jewish community. Real risk is giving us the freedom to try and fail and to try again. You don’t manage risk by expecting your candidates to impoverish themselves as a test of their will to succeed. That’s not even remotely within the boundaries of sustainability if what you’re looking to do is build a culture of innovation.
    Furthermore, I am flabbergasted by your suggestion that innovation for the sake of innovations is “wasteful.” How many experiments in social networking were there before there was a winner in Facebook? Should no one have tried to enter the field once Friendster existed? Should Twitter have even bothered once Facebook had captured the market? Experimentation is the core of innovation, a prerequisite for any kind of success. It is the very willingness to try and fail and try again that defines social entrepreneurship.
    That doesn’t mean signing off on a blank check, which wasn’t even a suggestion I had made in my op-ed. It means giving people more opportunities to be creative and innovative in ways that fit different life situations.
    But thanks, I appreciate the implication that my projects are all duds.

  4. KRG- Fair point. I wouldn’t. But then again that is my choice.
    shmuel- You nailed it. I am an upper class individual. I work for money and in the for profit sector. I am also so brain washed to know that the projects that have been out in the world for the last few years have also produced nothing outside of producing other programs for people to get together and talk about how they are doing projects. You are also crazy to think that the only way to get things done in this space is through the listed think tanks and other incubators, you are the one who is brain washed my friend. Just read the Challah for Hunger post on this site…that is innovation that works…it was organic and didn’t need a seed grant or office space in NYC. There is more than one way to change the Jewish community. The one at hand however, follows a business model.
    Dan- First of all I do not believe all your projects are duds, nor did I say so. Innovation without a goal is different than experimentation. Social change should have a goal and in this chase change for the sake of change isn’t well thought out.
    We aren’t discovering post-it notes while trying to invent super glue here. Sure twitter has been a wildly popular success and it serves some sort of need in the community, but that isn’t want “social entrepreneurship.” That is just entrepreneurship…I am sure Biz Stone is happy his product is helping people connect but I am more sure he is happy with the pay check. What we are talking about isn’t about making money, it is about making a product or program that is useful and smart that will in the end make the Jewish community stronger. If you don’t think your product is either of those things and has this particular end goal, then you won’t be able to raise the money you need to pay yourself enough or get your project going.
    That isn’t to say yours won’t work Dan, but telling the people who are willing to give you money that what they do isn’t good enough sure isn’t the best way to secure funding.

  5. You say “change for the sake of change isn’t well thought out” but this is an out-of-left field allegation about the merits of others’ initiatives that I don’t even consider part of the conversation. You’re knocking down a straw man to wipe away legitimate concerns about the weak financial incentives for social innovation in the Jewish non-profit sector.
    I’m sticking up for people who are going broke trying to make a difference, and you’re arguing that if their projects were really worthwhile they wouldn’t be going broke. That’s bullshit and anyone who’s ever worked on such an initiative knows it. Aaron Bisman made under $20k a year the first three years JDub was online. You think he’d have even bothered if he had already been married when he started? Melissa Weintraub had to work two side jobs to pay the bills when starting Encounter and is still killing herself to get by. When I broached this subject, prior to writing my op-ed, on Facebook, Sarah Lefton of G-dcast said that she’s worked like a dog on the side, barely made rent and is facing “deep, deep debt.”
    As I said in my article, if the only way you can make it as an entrepreneur in the Jewish world outside of being rich already is to make yourself a pauper, we’re not incentivizing people’s commitment to Jewish communal service. And that is not a sustainable model for building a culture of innovation.
    Talking about which projects are actually meritorious of long-term funding is a completely different subject that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the compensation structure as it exists is insufficient if the goal of the funding establishment is to encourage more innovation.

  6. I have mixed feelings on this issue. On one hand, I’m with Dan that if the Jewish community really wants to adapt, then it needs to offer serious funding like Joshua Venture more. On the other hand, I think the amount of money poured into cultural innovation is second-fiddle to needs like lack of civil rights in Israel, Holocaust survivor poverty here in America, or shitty public education. To the first hand, I say, yeah, give me a grant! On that second hand, I say, if my idea is so worth it, then I better be prepared to work my ass off.
    But there’s another level here also: those innovators who make it work have prior access to Jewish education. What’s really true here is that to be an innovator and get your idea to funders, you need to live in the three Jewish Meccas: NYC, Boston or So Cal. All the budding ideas out there in the hinterland are dying, and nobody here in the “in crowd” could necessary care to go out there and find them. They’ve got to come to us. Which is another expense I’m not sure I’m willing to prioritize.
    Also, I’m just going to throw this out there: with a national health care option, innovators would have the time and health to develop their projects. Just thinking of something we can agree on also.

  7. Let’s also not forget that even before the words “social entrepreneurship” entered the vernacular, plenty of folks (married and single) were slaving away for long hours and little pay on behalf of the community. That’s been the state of affairs in the non-profit world for quite a while, whether one is innovating online or simply trying to keep a nursing home open or get voters registered or whatever else makes your pulse beat quicker.
    Please don’t think I’m whining. I feel pretty good that I get to work for the benefit of the community, make a pretty decent paycheck relative to what many of my colleagues in other institutions make, and straddle the line of status quo and innovation in many ways.
    A lot of my artist friends, and my academic friends as well, like to give the advice that “if you can envision yourself doing anything other than art/academics, then pursue that… this isn’t the life for anyone who can’t exist on the passion and drive alone.” I would say that there’s a similar model at work here as well.
    Would I love for the Jewish community to be able to fund all innovators while they experiment with the hopes that they’ll come up with the magic bullet to… whatever it is that they’re trying to do? Sure. Would I love the same for writers, sculptors, musicians, academics and the rest? Absolutely. But I also know that’s not the way real world economics work, and that at the end of the day, there are certain calculated risks that “we” can afford to take and some that “we” can’t.
    Were there an infinite pool of money for experimentation, I believe there would be an infinite number of hands out asking for help. It’s the responsibility of those with the money to figure out not only who gets it first, but also how to make sure we can cover the more immediate needs of the community — the nursing homes, the soup kitchens, etc. — while doing so.

  8. KFJ, for my part, I’ll just say that nothing prevents these entrepreneurial projects from addressing social justice issues in Israel (Encounter being one such example). In fact, I believe there is such a dearth in projects that adequately serve underserved communities in Israel that funders are actually yearning for more of them to fund.

  9. Were there an infinite pool of money for experimentation, I believe there would be an infinite number of hands out asking for help. It’s the responsibility of those with the money to figure out not only who gets it first, but also how to make sure we can cover the more immediate needs of the community
    dlevy: well said. it is the golden rule. the one with the gold makes the rules.
    But the concecpt of SE is a business model structure, not a simple community non-profit. That is the main difference. Funders are looking to “invest” not “donate.” Perhaps it is all a bunch of crap and just an “innovative” way to do exactly the same thing in a different age.

  10. I’m innovating, or trying to, in San Francisco. I have zero formal Jewish education. My husband is a grad student. I have a baby on the way. I don’t have a trust fund.
    Just sayin.

  11. I appreciate the problem Dan is raising – and agree with his analysis. That said – it’s a subtopic within a larger issue, the class divide in the Jewish community.
    Quite a few of the issues that come up here at JS connect to this. Women working for crap and without paid family leave in Jewish nonprofits? Pay scales in which the ratio between the bottom and the top is a bit, um, stretched? A devotion to fundraising that easily stretches into devotion to the wealthy and connected?
    I remember that great social justice conference in Boston where one of the leaders presented the paradigm that Jewish Social Justice is primarily about using our privilege to help others. And I thought about all the yidden I know who have to ask for discounts on synagogue dues, go without health insurance, went back to living with parents at age 35, or double up because they can’t afford the rent.
    The assumption that ‘we all’ are one or two family members away from a nice lawyer or Wall Streeter or comfortably retired doctor is disconcerting, all the more so with it’s sort of a taboo subject in polite company. Or rather, it’s polite to joke about the assumptions, but not to share our stories of classism, poverty and humiliation.
    And while I’m at it, let’s put this in a larger context: millions of educated Americans are falling off the class ladder that the previous generation worked so hard to climb. There are generational and class divides emerging that don’t have good labels yet. Stay tuned.

  12. Other than in name, how exactly is this “investment”? Are these so-called investors expecting money back at the end?
    Real investment would be for established organizations to make room for innovation and experimentation within their existing structures — gambling that by allowing their resources (including staff time) to be spent on untested models, they might reap the benefits of increased (whatever their goals are – social justice, Jewish engagement, etc)…

  13. So maybe I’m just not a sufficiently big thinker or something, but I’m not sure why everyone needs to think in these grandiose terms – “being an innovator” in the “global Jewish community” and so on. Why don’t we focus on making a difference in our shul? Or group of friends? Or college campus?
    I’m pretty doubtful that the world needs a lot more “social innovation think tanks” and such – whether or not they require a lot of money. So maybe we should all get over ourselves, stop touting our brilliant innovations, and think a little more locally.

  14. dlevy- It is an investment in the future. The concept of SE is that is run like a business with the goal being a cleanly run alternative to the current model of community programing and orgs. And if that isn’t what some are talking about then, this entire convo was for not.
    The class question is real and I have no idea what it is like for those with lesser means than I (and I also don’t know what it is like to have greater means…) who are trying to make a difference in the community. But miri makes a great point. The class issue most likely will not come into play if so called innovations are started on a much smaller level; you know like a successful business model.
    I am told my example of Challah for Hunger was off based due to the personal of the situation the founder. But there are many examples of innovative programing that changed the community for the better that took no money at all. Indie Minyanim for example have been game changing; they don’t cost much and don’t really require a class conciseness to function.

  15. As someone who works in the Bikkurim office for an organization that just recently successfully graduated from Bikkurim’s program, and as a college student who wants to do this kind of thing in life, holy shit. Thanks everyone for sufficiently scaring the crap out of me.

  16. Sieradski seems to be missing the basic concept that defines entrepreneurship in general: it’s a risky business. Entrepreneurs always put in “sweat equity” time – and, in fact, the most successful businesses in recent entrepreneurial history, like Dell Computer, Microsoft, Apple, HP, and others, have started in dorm rooms, garages, and kitchen tables, with the founders eating popcorn for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and living, barely, off of savings. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. Some succeed, and some fail. But most all get back up on their feet, and try again. In defining social entrepreneurs, Ashoka’s website claims that “social entrepreneurs often seem to be possessed by their ideas;” in other words, they cannot not pursue their vision, despite the personal and professional risks involved. Of course, this is not the business for everyone.
    read more:

    1. Dan writes:
      Entrepreneurs always put in “sweat equity” time – and, in fact, the most successful businesses in recent entrepreneurial history, like Dell Computer, Microsoft, Apple, HP, and others, have started in dorm rooms, garages, and kitchen tables, with the founders eating popcorn for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and living, barely, off of savings.
      The difference is that the founders of those companies are now filthy rich, which is not what anyone in the Jewish nonprofit sector can hope for.

  17. An “investment in the future” is not an investment in the financial sense. Those “investing” in these social entrepreneurial enterprises are not expecting a financial return. They are making donations with the hope of a positive programmatic outcome. Which is no different than those making donations to more traditional charities.
    There is a sense among some of these donors that they help with startup costs as new organizations work towards becoming self-sustaining, but even in that model, “self-sustaining” usually means “able to raise the equivalent money from other sources.” I fail to see how this is different from traditional nonprofits in any way other than spin.

  18. BZ: Social entrepreneurs, whether in the Jewish world, or anyplace else, generally are not expecting to become rich from their projects. Money is clearly not their motivation.
    For that matter, individuals who work in the nonprofit sector aren’t seeing stock options or bonuses, and except for a very few, are not earning high salaries. You could make a strong argument that the entire sector needs to pay better; that certain organizations pay their staffs at levels that require sacrifice. Plenty of individuals make these choices every year. Joshua Venture (and others) has no shortage of excellent applicants; Hadassah – pre 2009 layoffs – had no difficulty filling $32,000 year positions in New York. Perhaps if they did, we would see higher salaries. New MBA’s go into Jewish organizations and get offered starting salaries in the 40’s (in New York). And good people take these jobs all the time.
    It’s called choice.
    A strong belief in what you do and what you want to do. No-one is stopping you, Sieradski, or anyone else, from working in the private sector if money is so important.
    Or, alternatively, finding a trust-fund partner.

  19. Thanks to KungFuJew for remembering that not all us live in well capitalized large communities. One other point being that some of us are working the hours of a part-time job as volunteers just to see some of our dreams advance past the vision stage. When you live in a small, clannish Jewish community where personality politics and class trump anything that the JFed or JCC didn’t come up with first…well, access and respect can be hurdles as large as money for young Jews. For the sake of this argument, let’s just lay it out there- social entrepreneurs need to be well capitalized; lack of funding actively discriminates against parents (single or otherwise) and people without support structures; entrepreneurship succeeds often and best when workers are fed and living on more than dreams; and these social enterprises provide a necessary route for Jews to build new vehicles of identity and pride, outside of mainstream JFed/JCC organizations.

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