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PresenTense: A sectarian model of social entrepreneurship

   /   Jul 21st, 2011Interviews, National, New York City

Ariel BeeryPresenTense, started in 2007 and inspired by the famous Y Combinator model, has flourished into a full-fledged ecosystem for social enterprise in a sectarian community. The organization matches teams of young Jewish social entrepreneurs with cities in the US and abroad in need of innovative solutions to social problems, betting that the next generation of Jewish entrepreneurs can cross borders, ethnicity, and religious sects with a good idea.

Here’s Ariel Beery, founder, on the how and why of PresenTense:

Beery: Gen Y is career-driven.  We’re focused on building our resumes.  That also means we’re often focused on careers that may conflict with our society’s challenges–education, social action, environment, philanthropy, the arts.

So the challenge is: how do we get people to utilize those skills they’ve developed in their professional pursuits and, instead, apply them to fixing social problems in their city.

We tackle this through our community entrepreneur partnership.   We’ve built a social enterprise in that 80 percent of our revenue comes through our programming.  So, we’re on the path to sustainability and self-sufficiency.

How does it work?
We approach a city, or municipality, that’s interested in engaging with the 22-40 age group on social challenges.   While we’re a sectarian organization, this format can be brought into any community.  We sell a franchise of our organization as a turnkey.  In the past year, we’ve been in six cities.  In the next year, we’ll be in eleven.  In each, we find a local partner organization. So instead of them having to hire people with the same expertise, they can just buy it from us and we’ll give them everything – open source—and train their staff so that in the end they’ll have a ready-to-go community entrepreneur program.

Ariel BeeryWhat would one be signing up to if they joined this program?
It’s a year-long program.  The first six months is a community development program, where we work with local professionals– identified by our client organization–to build a steering committee of young professionals between 22 and 40.   These individuals come from a variety of professions: venture capital, law, communications, finance, etc.   They identify the main challenges facing the community.  Then, they issue a call for applications in those fields.

For example, Boston was interested in Jewish-African relations and wanted to do a joint leadership program with their sister city, Haifa, on early-childhood education.  So, social entrepreneurs will apply with ideas that focus on these specific topics.

In January, between 8 and 16 entrepreneurs are selected and try to get these ventures going.  We don’t provide them with funds but with resources.

Why are no funds provided to launch them?
We found that those who were provided with funds didn’t do as well in developing a sustainable business model.  Rather, if you provide funds, then the focus becomes on getting more donations and investors and not on a sustainable business model.

So we raise resources, not dollars for them.  That means we raise hours of professionals who are experts, who can provide them insight, support, and mentorship.

By the time they finish their year, they should be earning revenue or on the cusp of their first sale.

What’s a venture that caught your attention?
A lady in Boston started a venture that was then called Entrepreneurship 101 but now it’s become Venturing Out.  She came in with the idea of reducing recidivism rates in local prisons.  She found that many members of the local Jewish community are in business schools.  And the greatest problem in local juvenile prisons is that they are unskilled.  So, she connected the two and made the business students mentors.  That way, the juvenile offenders could learn a skill so that when they left prison, they had real hard skills for their community.  She’s now scaling it to other cities.

And over the past four years, we’ve launched 77 new ventures and 49 of them are still going.

How would you compare yourself to other organizations such as StartingBloc who are also trying to create an ecosystem for social enterprise?
StartingBloc works with a different demographic that’s younger and going through a transition state from student to professional.  Also StartingBloc has a different methodology.  But the assumption and the aim is in many ways the same – to foster more social enterprises.

What is the cost for a city to work with you?
It’s $180,000 over the course of three years: $90,000 the first year, $50,000 the second, and $40,000 the third year.  Boston was our first partner, which approached us.  And then, we branched out to other cities on the East Coast- NYC, Philly, DC and then went to Mid-West- Chicago, Kansas City, etc.

You’re still a start-up still in many ways.  What’s your long-term vision with PresenTense?
We’ll be financially sustainable when we’re in 18 cities and we see that happening by 2013 if we keep adding six cities per cycle.  By that time, we’ll be working with over 2,000 community members.

What inspired you to take on this challenge?
I was working on a magazine called PresenTense where people were writing about challenges and then identifying solutions.  Also at the same time, my business partner and I were developing a for-profit web service start-up; we invited some entrepreneurs over the summer to come join us to get some training.   It was incredibly successful.  So we had a lot of people writing to us and asking when we would be doing that program again so that they could get some for-profit skills.  And that’s how this model and program started.

Currently, you’re a sectarian organization specializing in the Jewish community.  Any plans to go beyond that?
Yes, actually, we’re trying to launch in Jerusalem with the East Jerusalem Arab population.  We very much hope to get it off the ground – and are open to other communities who are interested in using our methodology to give tools to young creatives who want to leverage their energies and passions to change the world.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve seen amongst these social entrepreneurs?
A lot of people think that because you’re doing something good for the world, people will want to support you and finance you.  That’s not necessarily true.  It’s a bit tougher given the many options, organizations, and ideas out there.  So, that’s why a business model is so important.  You have to find a market first and show that there would be paying customer for it.  If not money, then you have to show that people would be willing to put in volunteer hours for you.

You mentioned earlier that our education system is too career-focused.  If you could, how would you remedy it?
Introduce project- based learning.  It’s ridiculous that we’re using an education system that was developed in the industrial revolution.  We need to move with the times and develop all skills – not just math or the traditional subjects.  Some people are exquisite at the arts but don’t get to develop that fully.  Project-based learning would allow people to prove themselves in different settings and would foster more collaboration.

6 Responses

  1. Geri Stengel says:

    I am delighted by any program that fosters entrepreneurship and that engages people in social change. This does both as well as emphasizing that social entrepreneurship starts with a business plan.

  2. You know very well about social entrepreneurship,
    Who reads your website well.
    Nice Information and really helpful

  3. Ilove your article, I have been into the line of business for
    many years and recently I took a daring step to go beyond the
    way I used to do work before. We started with managing people
    and their needs first, rather than considering maximizing our
    profits. We have seen a massive growth in our business compared
    to my previous business venture which gave us a relatively slow results.

  4. I’ve had a similar experience that providing funds actually encourages people not to take ownership of a project. For example, at Landmark Education, most of the staff are volunteers.


    I suspect it is becasue they found that when people volunteered, they were more likely to focus on contribution. When they are paid, they are more likely to focus on doing the minimum amount of required work to earn their salary.

    I find it fascinating observing how money can change the motivation strategy of people…

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