Living Wonders, JKG Get Innovative Boost

Living Wonders, JKG Get Innovative Boost

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Two of the innovative providers of summer and youth programs in Atlanta are improving their operations and working toward better meeting the community’s needs in part by traveling every few months to San Francisco.

There, founders Noah Pawliger of Camp Living Wonders and Ana Robbins of Jewish Kids Groups interact with the leaders of two other organizations, Jewish Studio Project and Fuente Latina, as well as the mentors and trainers provided by UpStart Accelerator.

The four Jewish social entrepreneurs were selected last June, but Pawliger and Robbins had their doubts about flying across the country for mentoring.

“We were both kind of skeptical at first,” Pawliger said. “After the first immersive, our minds were blown.”

Robbins was a veteran of accelerator programs, including the one cohort of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s ProtéJ program in 2012-13, and JKG and Living Wonders were at different stages in their development. So she had reasons to fear that JKG would be more advanced than the other organizations.

But she found that UpStart is “awesome because it’s very personalized and tailored.”

The program came at a good time for JKG, which was completing a strategic plan and staffing up, including the addition of Maya Selber as chief operating officer.

“They gave us the opportunity to right-size our growth,” Robbins said. “Their approach is design-centered. They’re obsessed with the user. It’s such a good exercise for us to go through so we can know our target market and know what they need.”

UpStart Accelerator provides three years of training, network building and some funding. The curriculum teaches entrepreneurial tools and mindsets guided by Jewish wisdom and connects participants with advisers, experts and alumni for a lifelong support network.

The organization has a good record of finding and mentoring Jewish innovators. UpStart has 16 current participants and 13 alumni organizations, and seven of those 29 nonprofit groups are among the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in North America, as recognized by this year’s Slingshot Guide. Other UpStart alumni are former Slingshot honorees.

“When you’re in a business that requires so much consistent attention — all day, you’re so into it — that kind of business is always on and always new,” Robbins said. “It was hard if not impossible to walk away from the company and think intentionally about how I wanted to grow it and strategically move.”

It’s never a good time to go to San Francisco, she said, but “the benefits are so huge. … We get the extra space to think big.”

Pawliger said UpStart mentoring on budgeting, business infrastructure, grant applications and financial sustainability have made a big difference already for Living Wonders. He said the organization is still small, but it feels more solid and not like a one-man show.

Part of that feeling comes from the collaboration, resource sharing and feedback among the four organizations in the UpStart cohort.

“It’s just been a really energizing and amazing learning experience,” Pawliger said.

A crucial element for UpStart participants is zeroing in on the value proposition they offer to their communities. Pawliger said that work helped one of his board members truly understand the camp’s purpose in helping young people with special needs succeed in a world that isn’t designed for them. Robbins said UpStart helped her narrow her audience while also recognizing that her twentysomething staff members are part of the target market and among the beneficiaries of the independent Hebrew school system.

Pawliger and Robbins have more than two years left in the program, but they’ve already raised the idea of UpStart opening a regional office in Atlanta. The organization launched a Chicago office last year and has mentioned “ambitious plans for further growth and expansion.”

Pawliger said Atlanta is a hub of innovation, the “Palo Alto of the Southeast,” and the Jewish community is on the cusp of many great things.

Robbins isn’t sure the rigor of UpStart would be right for many Atlanta organizations, but she said the time could be right for a second group of Jewish startup innovators to go through Federation’s ProtéJ, which provided mentoring and peer support and culminated in a “Shark Tank” program. She said Atlanta has a pent-up demand for such a program.

“I am very vocal about the fact that I think Atlanta is an interesting and unique community innovationwise,” Robbins said.

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