The ROI Community: Connecting and creating to shape the Jewish future

Innovation has become one of those buzzwords applied to ventures ranging from an educational technique to an iPhone app, from an environmental startup to an unusual approach to arts and culture.
December 4, 2015

Innovation has become one of those buzzwords applied to ventures ranging from an educational technique to an iPhone app, from an environmental startup to an unusual approach to arts and culture. This wide definition, coupled with the word’s overuse, causes some to roll their eyes. For others, the word suggests potential — the opportunity to apply fresh ideas to generate change.

For the last decade, I’ve been a consultant for the ROI Community, a pre-eminent training ground and network for Jewish innovators. Founded by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman in 2006 with some additional funding partners and now entirely funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the network has connected more than 1,000 creative young Jews in upward of 50 countries. Its hallmark ROI Summit (held annually except for a 2014 sabbatical) has yielded professional partnerships and collaborations (and marriages and children), and a network of trusted advisers upon whom participants can call for support and advice. ROIers are everywhere, from Uruguay to Germany, Australia to China and throughout the United States. (See sidebar for profiles of some Los Angeles ROIers.) 

“ROI was born in the context of Birthright Israel and the questions about follow-up and what’s sustainable, how to keep people connected to Israel,” Justin Korda, ROI executive director, said in an interview. “We used the term ‘innovators,’ but what we meant were those who were creating new pathways to connect and live Jewishly — young people who were creating community for themselves and their peers in a bottom-up way.”

“The essence of ROI — how to gather great young Jewish minds from around the world, give them skills training, network them and help them go back into the world to enhance the Jewish community and the world at large — is an idea that Schusterman has had forever,” Sandy Cardin, president of the Schusterman Family Foundation, said in an interview at this year’s summit in Jerusalem.

ROI’s bumpy start

When I arrived at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in Jerusalem in 2006 for ROI 120, as it was known in that first year, I had been assigned the somewhat undefined role of “new media track facilitator,” moderating conversations for young Jews making inroads in Internet-based projects — from Sarah Lefton’s G-dcast (then a single cartoon based on a Torah portion, now an educational technology company) to Ariel Beery’s and Aharon Horwitz’s PresenTense (then a magazine, for which I was an editor, but now an international innovators’ fellowship). 

Other track facilitators included Miri Eisin, then spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces; Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal; Eytan Schwartz, winner of “The Ambassador,” an Israeli reality show that focused on creating better PR for Israel (think “The Apprentice,” sans Trump); and others. Every morning, we facilitators met to try to develop the program. We understood the event’s vague framework was modeled like a youth Knesset (hence the 120 members) and that its funders, which included Birthright Israel and the Schusterman Family Foundation, were hoping to find some kind of unified vision for the Jewish future. 

Korda (the only full-time staff member who has attended all nine summits) remembers ROI’s first year as an experience in which “a lot more went wrong than went right.” Although initially conceived as a follow-up gathering after Birthright and other programs (participants were ages 18 to 36), Korda said, in reality, the event became, “Let’s bring everyone together and see what happens, without one concrete plan for what would happen the day after.” 

ROI’s greatest asset, according to Korda, was that Lynn Schusterman (see sidebar for interview), the primary funder, “realized this was one of those moments when failure could be the greatest opportunity for learning. She eventually made it possible for us to do a deep dive into what was and wasn’t good about it, and move forward from there. We had absolutely no idea then it was going to look like this today.”

Adaptation: ROI evolved

“ROI is much more evolutionary than revolutionary,” Cardin said. “We adapted and changed based on the times, the people and the feedback from participants. This is something of which we are very proud, and it’s a hallmark of the program that we respond to advice and constructive criticism.”

As the Birthright partnership receded, the age range for participants was extended to 40. The network grew, the team expanded and the vision was clarified. (For the record, from 2006-14, I consulted for ROI in various communications-related roles. Although I was not paid as a consultant for the 2015 Summit, ROI paid for my transportation to Israel and accommodations.) 

“It took several years of trial and error, soul-searching and hard work to shape the ROI program into the ROI Community,” Schusterman explained. “In the first few years, we got to see the power of these gatherings and the resulting connections that spanned the globe. It inspired us to think about how we could transform an annual gathering into a year-round community.” 

Finding ‘Connect and Create’

In the early years, ROIers often returned to their home communities feeling shell shocked, unsure if the energy and enthusiasm shared at the summit could translate to those who hadn’t experienced it. They knew the group’s acronym, for the business term “return on investment,” in this case with the investment being the money spent to develop Jewish leadership programs and the return being the alumni of those programs. They knew the goal was to encourage “Jewish innovators,” but it took five years into the experiment and a brand strategy process for ROI to come up with a simple but significant slogan: “Connect and Create.” 

“This captures what the mission is,” Korda said, “us wanting to connect our members and create new things in the world, and hoping that they will connect more and more people Jewishly and create new ways to experience those connections.”

How much does community cost?

Let’s lay it on the table: ROI had a big boost from the start by being underwritten by Schusterman, a billionaire who believes so strongly in the experience that she is willing to make a major, ongoing financial commitment to support it. The public filings available on ROI Community reveal its annual budget as close to $4 million, which includes the summit, micro-grants to participants (in 2014, just over 600 of them) and the staff of 10. Summit participants enjoy the perks of ROI, including a mostly paid round trip to Israel and five days in a lovely hotel, with all food and drink covered; but some wonder, couldn’t this money be used for something else? 

This financial tension represents a challenge for bootstrapping Jewish innovators, and Korda addresses it head-on if you ask him, or even if you don’t, pre-emptively mentioning it in his opening speech at ROI. “We have been criticized in the past about some of the grandiose programming, but we take a no-apology approach,” he said. “We’re transparent about what we’re trying to accomplish.” 

“This is how people should be treated and engaged,” Cardin said. “We want to model the kind of engagement, the kind of demonstration of appreciation, sharing of values that we hope people will encounter in every engagement with Jewish life.”

For Korda, the high-quality treatment is an important part of ROI’s professional presentation. “From the materials to the way we think about making use of people’s time, we try to be professional and we really value humor. We know that human interactions aren’t always perfect, and the fun and playful is an important ingredient in creating community.” 

An ‘Open Space’ for conversation: Crafting the crafted gathering

The ROI Summit is designed to reflect the sponsoring organization’s desired outcomes. Through networking and facilitation methodologies — including such “technologies” as Open Space, Speed Networking and Case Studies — the program helps participants focus on opening creative outlets, creating safe space and providing large group and small “pod” opportunities for interaction. 

If you’re wondering what kinds of questions today’s young Jews think about, here is a partial list. These are just a few of the topics posted during Open Space at the 2015 Summit — original syntax and wording is preserved: 

What are our hang-ups about our money? Do Jews lack a clear narrative? How to scale from the idea phase? The continuity of the Jewish people. How to create a unified brand of Jewish community that most can resonate with? How can we push the established Jewish community to change and engage the next generation? How do we work with people we don’t agree with or view as “the problem”? How to make Israel a world-class place for artists and musicians? How can we increase Arab voter participation? Can interfaith marriage save the Jewish people? Let’s talk about BDS (please come with open hearts). Why should I give an F@#) about Israel? Fighting assimilation? How to improve Jewish dating? How to create a professional environment that makes space for personal profit? Disabilities — how can we collaborate more and include all? Is cultural Judaism bad for Jewish continuity? How can we create a collaborative and more productive nonprofit sector? Why do we feel like impostors and what should we do about it? Future of venture capital? How to balance the individually driven ego and the need for leadership and action? How to ensure that the “unsexy” causes still get funding? 

It’s easy to generate excitement around a summit of creative 20- and 30-somethings; but after participants have returned to their countries of origin, maintaining momentum is a challenge. Post-summit meet-ups happen, but the flurry of Facebook activity eventually wanes as people return to their lives. ROI’s solution is the idea of ROI 360: After a five-day, intensive summit, how can ROIers continue to “connect and create” during the other 360 days of the year? 

Having strong connectors in the ROI office helps keep ROI connections alive. Elissa Krycer, an Australian-born olah (émigré to Israel) has been working as ROI Community manager since 2010 and always seems to know where everyone in the network is and what they’re doing. She especially loves connecting ROI network members converging on events in the larger community — from Jewish conferences such as Limmud and Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, or secular experiences such as music-tech-film festival South by Southwest in Texas, and Midburn, the Middle East’s version of Burning Man — where they can reunite with ROIers and connect with new people outside the network, widening their connections and creative impact. 

Another increasingly important benefit of ROI 360 — for participants, for the network, as well as for communities around the world — is the foundation’s continued support, including micro-grants, Grassroots@ROI Initiatives and Connection Points gatherings. 

The micro-grants are another example of a successful ROI pivot. ROI originally offered large grants to a select pool of ROIers, creating massive competition and an intensive grant application process. Today, ROI offers two grants of up to $1,000 each to ROI members per year to be used for purposes such as “Go Professional” (professional development courses), “Go Network” (funding toward conference participation) and “Go Digital” (technology grants). The grant application process is much simpler and ROIers are encouraged to collaborate, sometimes receiving additional grant incentives for collaborative projects.

“These investments and others have helped ROIers launch new initiatives, transition startups into established organizations and take on significant leadership roles at the local, regional and international level in the Jewish community,” Schusterman said. 

The reporting system for micro-grants also provides “an ongoing connection” back to ROI headquarters in Jerusalem, Krycer added. “We invest in people’s professional development through micro-grants, and they send a report. This rekindles the connection.”

Two other modes of ROI support rely on ROIers’ initiative and community leadership: Grassroots@ROI Initiatives fund ROIer-spearheaded local events or programs; and Connection Points gatherings are major immersive events launched by ROI members partnering with non-ROIers to make an impact either locally or on a specific interest group, for instance, Eighteen:22, a summit for LGBTQ community leaders worldwide, held in Salzburg, Austria, in August; and The Harvest, a gathering of farm and food professionals for dialogue on creating healthier, more sustainable communities, held at the end of September.

“ROI is full of talented entrepreneurs and professionals, and we want to help each of them tap into the incredible power the collective has to offer and to contribute what they can,” Schusterman said.

Measuring impact

ROI’s Connect and Create mission continues through a community of thousands of individuals worldwide who, its leaders hope, will impact millions. “We will continue to make ROI as supportive, diverse and beneficial as possible and to meet the evolving needs of the members and communities we serve,” Schusterman said. 

To do this, the Schusterman Foundation and the ROI Community are expanding their partnerships to include the Genesis Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Natan Fund and others to help ROIers move their initiatives forward, and in generally strengthening the funding opportunities available for innovative approaches to Jewish connection, especially those spearheaded by younger people.

One major challenge with a network as large and global as the ROI Community is tracking the outcomes. To explain, Korda invokes network theory, which features three network circles: the personal network, an immediate group of 10 to 15 people; the performance network, the people on whom you rely to get projects done day-to-day; and the strategic network, a much broader outer circle of acquaintances who can be sourced to find new collaborators to accomplish something specific. 

“The idea of the strategic network involves people finding the right connections or advice at the right time, that leads to new partners, funding or jobs. These quieter connections create the paradigm shifts,” he said.

Korda explained that there is tremendous overlap among many projects, as well as wide variations in the depth of ROI-helmed experiences. Among ROIer-created projects are cutting-edge online content such as G-dcast, which uses short videos to engage people in Jewish content, or haggadot.com, a site where users can upload, find and share content toward creating their own personalized Passover haggadot. (Both of these companies’ founders are close friends of mine from ROI, but the examples were Korda’s.) On the other hand, ROIers are also involved in deep service learning programs, such as Tevel B’Tzedek in Nepal and Innovation: Africa. 

When looking at a program that “reaches 20 people in a deep way, or 20,000 people a week online for up to 10 minutes,” Korda asked, “how do we compare and determine who’s having a bigger impact in the world?” And even those 20,000 people for 10 minutes might have an experience that deepens over time and ends up equivalent to other “immersive” experiences. “A 10-minute video can be an important gateway, and we never know how the deep-impact program will affect someone in 20 years.” 

Although program overlap represents a challenge to getting a “proper number” of people impacted, Korda said, “Ultimately what we want is maximum overlap. We want people engaging in haggadot.com and then finding out about Moishe House [communal housing and programming targeting Jewish 20-somethings] and jewcology.org [website for the Jewish environmental movement] and everything else, and getting more deeply engaged.”

Cardin explained that ROI is not, as some may perceive, a closed circle with no access for outside people and organizations. “ROI is a laboratory: We hope that what comes out is something from which every community learns and borrows. It’s a vehicle for positive change in the Jewish community writ large. We want every Jewish community to feel like you’re part of ROI. If the theory of change is right and we do it right, the community itself will become leaders of the local communities and create that change.” 

Korda, too, sees the impact beyond the immediate network, even imagining a world where ROI’s work is being done by other community entities. “We have a limited number of [summit] spots every year, but the spirit of what we do, connecting and creating in meaningful ways that lead to positive change in the Jewish world, if it can spread, we’re happy to see it spread. If every organization was working more effectively to attract more and more Jewish people, modeling the kinds of values that are important, and there would not be a need for ROI because it’d be taking place elsewhere … that would definitely be a success.”

Looking to the future

Korda recently relocated to the San Diego area for a year to be closer to family and to experience a different area of ROI’s global network. “There is a lot of fantastic ideation in headquarters in Jerusalem, where the staff primarily sits,” Korda said a few weeks before his move. “Now I have an opportunity to stay involved in the strategic direction and get more involved in local programming on the West Coast and to put a little bit of focus on Latin America.” (According to roicommunity.org, more than 130 ROI members are in Latin America.) 

Korda works from Encinitas, at the North County Hub at the Leichtag Foundation, which he called “one of the most exciting Jewish experiments on the West Coast,” mentioning that this area has “lots of Jewish initiatives relevant to ROI and its constellation.”  

Korda isn’t just the executive director of this constellation; he has his own Jewish innovation story, dating back to high school attempts to program “outside the organizational structure to energize young Jewish students on college campuses.

“We got a few donors in the community to put in a few dollars, but more importantly was their vote of confidence that offered a huge amount of push, energy and motivation. That’s how Lynn’s gone about doing things,” Korda said. 

“One of the things we did for the members in the ROI Community is to give them a push, our vote of confidence, our thanks for putting in the time to make the Jewish world a better place.” 

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