April 15, 2019

Start-Ups with a (Social) Mission: Shalem’s Accelerator Takes Off

Odelia Yatzkan, director of the Department of Leadership and Career Development and the head of Shalem’s Accelerator, with Yonatan Aldouby ’17, CEO of Koala-Gear.

Think start-ups are founded only by business and computer-science majors? Think again. Today, it’s the philosophy majors and social activists who are launching their own initiatives—or, in the case of Shai Shani ’20, both.

“I used to show up at civic-action meetings in Jerusalem, and leave frustrated by how little the voting public seemed to care about issues that arguably affect them the most,” explained Shani, who is majoring in Shalem’s Interdisciplinary Program in Philosophy and Jewish Thought. “I quickly realized that my frustration wasn’t making anything better. I decided to do something concrete to bring about change.”

This past December, in the wake of Jerusalem’s hotly contested mayoral elections, Shani took his first step toward realizing that goal with the launch of Mashkif Yerushalmi (“The Jerusalem Observer”), a social-media news site that offers profiles of the people, and reports on the policies, behind the Jerusalem Municipality. And with the help of Shalem’s newly launched Accelerator, he plans to make the site a force for encouraging Jerusalemites to shrug off their apathy and become involved citizens. “We’re trying to turn the Municipality from an abstract idea into a concrete entity, one whose decisions have a face and, therefore, an address. Voters can find out what policies are in the works, read about the reasoning behind them, and, most important, learn which representatives to contact if they’re dissatisfied,” he finishes with a smile.

The Accelerator is a project of the college’s Impact Office, a four-year, comprehensive program funded by The Paul E. Singer Foundation. The Office combines study, field tours, volunteerism, and real-world work experience to grant students the tools they need to influence Israeli society from within a range of fields. Now in its fourth year, the Office recently expanded its mission to answer a growing need: the desire, on the part of both students and graduates, to launch socially minded businesses or nonprofits of their own.

“At Shalem, the thinking is that academics and an entrepreneurial spirit go hand-in-hand,” says Odelia Yatzkan, director of the Impact Office’s Department for Leadership and Career Development. “In contrast to the traditional idea that the university exists apart from the ‘real world,’ Shalem says, ‘ideas are what drive—and change—our world.’ The Accelerator was established to help students and graduates take their great ideas and learn the nuts and bolts of turning them into a successful, self-sufficient enterprise.”

In its first call for applicants last fall, the Accelerator received 15 proposals, all of which met the program’s requirements for innovation and a civic-minded angle. The winning candidates were selected by a committee comprising entrepreneurial-minded students and graduates as well as leaders in Jerusalem’s technology and nonprofit sectors. “The participating initiatives address a range of challenges facing Israeli society,” explains the Accelerator’s coordinator Omer Chananel ’18. “But despite their different goals, they all share in common the need for a sustainable business model. Without it, even the noblest of ideas will sputter out.”

Chananel, who currently works at a Jerusalem hi-tech firm, should know: In his junior year at Shalem, he was among the founding cohort of Fresh.Fund, a student-led venture-capital fund that invests in student-founded start-ups. His experience in walking young people through the process of building up a business “is best described as a balancing act: keeping the idealism and energy that catalyzed the project high, while at the same time keeping founders’ feet firmly planted on the ground.” For students accepted to the Accelerator, that means a carefully designed process of sequential skill-building, beginning with mentoring: “Along with the guidance the selection committee provides, it’s critical that students gain insight from successful entrepreneurs with many years’ experience in their specific industry,” explains Chananel, who will match students with local start-up leaders in a range of fields. He also points to a monthly schedule of workshops and lectures on topics such as online and social marketing, raising venture capital, growing a business, and writing skills.

Finally, he notes, participants will receive a monthly stipend and the use of a workspace and conference room, as well as assistance in producing a video trailer for their project—all of which will be screened at the initiatives’ official launch event at Shalem in November of this year.

“Setting a hard and fast date for their start-up launch means participants have to work intensively to check off all the items on their lists. We’re giving them a great deal of support, and in turn we expect serious commitment and progress,” says Yatzkan. “Fortunately, we have every reason to believe that they will succeed, and their success is a win for their community and country as a whole.”

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