Community ‘Shark Tank’ Spotlights Female Innovators
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Community ‘Shark Tank’ Spotlights Female Innovators

Like the fast-paced TV hit “Shark Tank,” 11 female entrepreneurs in the Atlanta Jewish community are set to present their innovative startup pitches next week.

A woman feels her sweaty palms, notices a tremble in her knees and smooths her jacket. Walking on stage, the bright lights and jam-packed audience cause a squeak in her speech but there’s no looking back now. It’s pitch day.     

Like the fast-paced TV hit “Shark Tank,” 11 female entrepreneurs in the Atlanta Jewish community are set to present their innovative startup pitches next week to a panel of business leaders and a couple hundred prospective investors and partners.

The women, chosen from a pool of 20 applicants – whose businesses range from wellness and sports to education tools and jewelry – will appear on Dec. 12 at The Temple.

Pitch day (called The Exchange) is the culmination of the Federation’s five-week crash course for the first-of-its-kind, Women’s Accelerator Israeli-Style.   

While the panelists won’t choose which business concept wins a contract, as on the reality TV show, the audience will vote on the best pitch, according to Jori Mendel, Federation’s vice president of innovation. One of the objectives of the accelerator is to teach the participants to present themselves and their products effectively.

Jori Mendel, Jewish Federation’s vice president of innovation

“You have to be bold and take a risk,” Mendel stated. “Be clear about what you are asking for, your needs. The product may be exactly what someone wants. That’s the magic.”

The Federation accelerator is a partnership with Hub Central ATL, Hadassah of Greater Atlanta and the Jewish Women’s Connection.

During the past two months, the class gathered for three-hour sessions to define, sharpen and map business plans; meet Israeli mentors; hear from experts; and learn how to promote a business.     

Orna Sharon, founder of Hub Central and the driving force behind the accelerator, is passionate about innovation, women in business and the Atlanta-Israel connection.

To build an  “innovation ecosystem,” experts from Georgia Pacific, Georgia State University, Goizueta Business School at Emory University, the University of Georgia, as well as private companies participated.

Now that The Exchange is just days away, the innovators are putting on the finishing touches and practicing their presentations.

A panel of local experts from law, real estate, finance and technology sectors will present insights, then listen to the innovators’ rapid-fire pitches.

The panelists are: Robert Arogeti, CEO of Aprio; Tal Postelnik, owner of Bellina Alimentary; Garrett Van de Grift, CEO of Red Wizard Group; and Brad Ruffkess, CEO and founder of BoxLock.

AJT interviewed each innovator about their experience, their companies and the long road to overnight success.


Karen Callen

Karen Callen, 43, developed Mozi, an app that connects families seeking to socialize through an activity, either previously scheduled like a sporting event, or spontaneous like a playdate at the park.

“If a parent is interested in an activity, like visiting the new exhibit at the children’s museum, and wants to see who is joining, it can be posted, and others can join. On [school break], we are going swimming at the MLK pool. People can see we will be there. Or, if we want to do something and nothing really comes to mind, I can see what the folks in my contact list are planning.”

Callen is a passionate community organizer of Jewish families in Decatur and Intown Atlanta, and her app fits right into that realm.

Callen said it was at a meeting with her former boss, Howie Rosenberg, past program director of the Marcus JCC, when her idea became a reality.

“I told him about my idea and he said, ‘What are you waiting for? You’re not getting any younger,” she laughed. “He knows me well. He gave me the push and encouragement I needed to move forward.”

About the accelerator, she said, it’s like a fast-tracked business school. Classmates share books, podcasts, authors and experts and the impetus is on each person to take what she needs and delve deeper.

Botanic Springs

Botanic Springs is a countertop device that creates essential oils from herbs and botanicals.
Jamie Drummer

A native of Israel, Jamie Drummer Fox, 29, used Israeli technology to develop a countertop device for creating essential oils from herbs and other botanicals. The essential oils still, believed to be the first and only one of its kind, is as simple to use as a coffeemaker.

Consumers place herbs into the patented still and fill the jug with water. In just 10 minutes, two products are condensed and ready to use in various ways. The hydrosol (herb-infused water) can be poured into a diffuser or added to cooking, while the essential oil can be added to soaps, candles or lotion. Leftover pulp is compostable.

Being new to Atlanta, Fox enrolled in the accelerator to make connections. “I wanted to meet people. I’ve already learned so much about how to raise funds and find strategic partners,” said Fox, who holds an MBA from Bar Ilan University.

“It’s a long road, so there’s a lot of starting over with each new session. Every time I go back to the beginning and tweak my pitch, I see that every stage is leading to a better result. It takes years to achieve overnight success,” she added.

“I am very excited about building a wellness brand, employing more people and spreading the idea of using herbs as part of day-to-day living,” she said, adding that home chefs to massage therapists have a need for her cutting-edge technology.


Gurvitch brought Catchball to the Marcus JCC.
Rachel Gurvitch

Rachel Gurvitch, 43, who is from Israel, is responsible for bringing Catchball to the MJCCA. Similar to volleyball, Catchball has been attracting women – mostly moms – from as far as Alpharetta for the past two years. It also created hype in Atlanta’s Israeli Jewish community. The waitlist to join a Catchball league is so long that she could double the league. Her biggest challenge is to provide enough space for the number of participants.

As a kinesiology and health professor and lifelong athlete, Gurvitch said Catchball connects all the dots. It is more than an international sport for women ages 35 to 55. It serves as a support group, a social community and a release for those who want to re-engage in athletics after having children.

“Part of my job is to generate new knowledge. I saw Catchball as such a powerful, dynamic activity and decided to take it into public schools for teachers,” said the mom of three children. “Research indicates that teaching is one of the most stressful professions. Teachers don’t have time to take care of their own health and be active, … so I brought Catchball to schools and measured the stress levels of teachers, the motivation of physical activity and its contribution to the school’s culture.”

Gurvitch’s goal through the accelerator is to identify more coaches and locations to play Catchball in Atlanta.

Platinum Platters

Michele Weiner-Merbaum of Platinum Platters sells homemade baked goods, snacks and other sweets.

Michele Weiner-Merbaum, who is in her mid-50s, grew up cooking with her parents. About five years ago she became a caretaker for her father, who passed away after a battle with cancer, and immediately her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was taking care of everyone else. Cooking was her therapy.   

Platinum Platters became a reality after a tasting in her home last year. She asked friends to bring someone, stop by her home and taste a myriad of cakes, chocolate bark and goodies. “I stood back and let them taste. It was very quiet. A friend of a friend came over and asked, ‘Why aren’t you selling this?’ I started to cry. People really loved my food,” she said.

Her specialty company makes baked goods, candies, chocolates, decorated cookies and chocolate dipped pretzels in any color and any theme. Her gluten-free and vegan line, perfect for Paleo diets, features dark chocolate cocoa nibs, vegan chocolate ganache coconut cups and “Best Dates Evahh” with organic coconut.

Is she an entrepreneur yet? “Right now, I am one in training. There is so much more to learn. At first, I cooked for the love of it. I got overwhelmed with the business and marketing end because I just wanted to cook,” she said, noting her accelerator mentor helped break her out of her comfort zone.   

Senior Select Seal

Alison O’Neil

During a visit to Massachusetts, Alison O’Neil, 58, heard that an older friend had lost a severe amount of weight. She went to check on the 82-year-old. Down 30 pounds, she was standing in the kitchen struggling to open a bottle. “All I really wanted was some cranberry juice, but I couldn’t open the bottle,” her frail friend replied.

Senior Select Seal was born of that moment. With a background in psychology, medical esthetics and aesthetic rehabilitation, O’Neil realized that products can be made easier to open for people with arthritis, lack of mobility and issues with motor skills.

Her mission is to prevent failure to thrive syndrome in senior adults through a commitment to ease life as people age, by assuring that products and services meet standards that ensure a life worth living.

One challenge O’Neil has faced with Senior Select Seal is society’s attitude about less capable consumers. One kitchenware company told her they were “not interested in the product looking like it is for old people” after testing a can opener prototype. However, O’Neil pushed forward because, if seniors can use a product, it will work for any person with a disability.

Her company’s tagline: “A wise choice for any age,” includes all conditions such as loss of vision, taste, touch or smell. Loss of appetite, as she learned from her elderly friend in Massachusetts, is a safety issue.

Israeli Charm Bracelets

Karen Zion

Conception to accelerator was a fast and furious road for Karen Zion, 39.

When she spoke with AJT, her schedule was packed with long days at work followed by late-night chats with her husband; working through the weekend days; and skipping social events.

One caveat to entrepreneurship, Zion warned, is the ability to become obsessed with a business idea. “It can take over. Every waking minute you find yourself thinking about it. I need to maintain balance. All of [the innovators] are passionate and believe in what we are doing,” she said.

Her passion for the Jewish homeland is the charisma behind Israeli Charm Bracelets. She witnessed how much her Israeli husband and 7-year-old daughter loved Israel during a visit in May; she also saw the memories fading in her daughter’s mind after their return.

“The underlying philosophy is to ensure we keep building a connection to Israel with the next generation. When we create memories and family traditions, like a grandmother passing jewelry to her granddaughter, we strengthen ties back to Israel,” she said.

With her Israeli sister-in-law, Zion hopes to produce an array of charms that will appeal to young girls at Jewish day camps as much as young adults returning from Birthright Israel. Charms are laser-cut images of Israeli landmarks, animals and maps.

“The overarching themes are making memories and building bridges between Jewish Americans and Israel,” she said.

Awareness Space

Liat Philipson

Melding her business background and her personal meditation practice is 47-year-old Liat Philipson’s dream. One year ago, she woke up with a vision for meditation studios that cater to the overwhelmingly stressful lives of working Americans, similar to a trend she witnessed in New York City.

While working in advertising and marketing in Israel, putting in 60- to 70-hour work weeks, Philipson felt burned out. She turned to yoga and meditation.

“My friends are miserable. They have no time for their families,” she related. “They like their jobs, but if they had emotional support, it would be better. Why not dedicate a beautiful room in every school, hospital and office to pause? A place to sit quietly and do a mindful meditation.”

Companies are aware that employees need a wellness component, Philipson said, yet they seem to address only the physicality like losing weight or smoking cessation. Yet, companies like Google and Apple are offering on-site meditation instruction.

Awareness Space dedicates a room for employees to recharge and reconnect, using a platform of mindfulness tools and on-site/online support.

Being an entrepreneur is in Philipson’s blood. Both of her brothers are entrepreneurs, and she grew up with a mother who broke the glass ceiling in Israeli architecture.

“My mom always had unique ideas about the way she wanted to build her business. She was a woman in a man’s world. She pursued her vision to work with the biggest companies in Israel, which was unheard of 40 years ago,” she said, noting that both her parents inspired her to pursue her dreams.

Through the accelerator, Hub Central’s Sharon served as Philipson’s mentor. “She’s available, has great ideas, she’s reliable and she pushes me in the right direction. If she doesn’t have the resource I need, she will find it. She brings a balance to the business side of my idea.”

Her biggest takeaway from the accelerator is to stay flexible. While she believes in emotional wellness, Philipson understands she has to learn what clients want and potentially shift based on their needs.


Lani Preis

Parents today are navigating a complicated world of device usage and increasing concerns around their children’s mental health, security and safety. For that reason, Lani Preis, 40, and Marla Zafft, 42, are on a mission to create well-designed products that help kids build communication skills and relationships, foster independence and encourage responsibility.

Through their company chick*u*do, established in 2016, the pair developed an artsy technology contract to serve as a visual reminder and remove the element of parental nagging. Four categories keep kids on track: etiquette, health, security and privacy.

The art-turned-contract is a reminder of the responsibilities that come with access to technology. Parents can use the contract to establish rules for tablets, cell phones or social media.

Marla Zafft

Zafft said her goal for the accelerator was to re-energize ideas and structure to the business. She and Preis are self-employed consultants and busy moms, so adding a structured timeline forced them to think through steps and revisit ideas.

“You don’t build a business plan in a vacuum,” Preis said. “We tend to plow ahead and not to revisit. When we go back to review, it gives us new energy and new focus. The accelerator has helped our business development,” she said.

“A few months in I thought, ‘I can’t wait to show my kids that we can change paths.’ There’s something beautiful about being 40 and not having it all figured out.”   

Shira Books

Galia Sabbag

Galia Sabbag, 54, has witnessed the spiritual growth of many children in her 20-plus years as a classroom teacher. Now at The Davis Academy, Sabbag tells these real-life, inspirational stories to her students every year. From oral tales to the pages of a book, Sabbag’s fictional main character, Shira, experiences Jewish holidays and traditions that are relatable to elementary-aged kids.

“The stories are written in English and Hebrew to inspire grandparents, parents and educators to strengthen the Jewish future and L’Dor V’Dor,” she said, adding that the stories are about how children influence adults instead of the opposite.

Sabbag has written eight Shira books and has four more in the works.

Since 2014, Sabbag has written eight Shira books; she has four more in the works about Simchat Torah, Purim, Shavuot and Lag B’Omer.

Shira is a kindergarten-aged girl who Sabbag describes as “curious, creative, doesn’t take no for an answer and embraces her Jewishness.” The author chose a female main character because, as a mom of a daughter, she feels women should be empowered.

Sabbag said the accelerator taught her how to scale her business, advertise, market and publicize. “I got so many introductions and fantastic expert advice,” she said. “Whatever this ends up being, I have enjoyed the journey.”

Kick Can’t-cer

Tiah Tomlin

When her brother was diagnosed at age 32 with testicular cancer, Tiah Tomlin’s life came to a screeching halt. Tomlin, now 42, refocused on family and devoted herself to supporting her brother, his wife and their three young children. She moved to Atlanta and started My Style Matters with a friend.

After partnering with American Cancer Society in 2015, Tomlin was diagnosed with stage 2 triple negative breast cancer. Along the way, she noticed several gaps in patient care, serving as a catalyst for Kick Can’t-cer. It’s an organization that holds the hands of cancer patients in Greater Atlanta from diagnosis to remission.

After a patient is referred to Tomlin, she provides a care package, a wellness retreat, educational materials and coaching through lifestyle changes.

“We also provide education on mental health. We want survivors to know that it’s OK to have a selfish moment,” she said.

“We provide support services to make healthy choices to kick cancer — from transportation, haircuts, childcare, meals and companions to accompany patients during their treatment,” Tomlin said. “No one should fight alone.”

Tomlin learned about the accelerator from Hadassah member and breast cancer survivor Debra Sharker, with whom she volunteers. The pair met through Hadassah’s Check It Out breast cancer awareness program.

“Cancer doesn’t discriminate, and neither do we. Kick Can’t-cer is for all cancers, all people,” she said, recalling a recent visit to connect two survivors, thus expanding their support networks.

With 20 years of experience in the corporate world through pharmaceutical sales, Tomlin wants to learn through the accelerator and its connections how to secure grant money, connect with corporations for donations and build credibility.

The accelerator is coming to a close, but the innovators will continue to meet with their mentors and learn from each other. Galia Sabbag practiced yoga with Liat Philipson of Awareness Space prior to reuniting at the accelerator. She has already approached her massage therapist about Jamie Drummer Fox’s essential oils still. The accelerator proves two things: Jewish Atlanta is well-connected, and networking really does work.

For more information, visit The Exchange 2018 by Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. 

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