Start of something big: New S.F. nonprofit to incubate first batch of entrepreneurs

The usually quiet office bustled with energy and enthusiasm — an inevitability when entrepreneurs get together to brainstorm and swap ideas.

But this was no average business meeting. It was a select group of Jewish entrepreneurs — each chosen to participate in a relatively new venture called UpStart Bay Area — who were getting together for the first time.

UpStart Bay Area, formed in July 2008, is a nonprofit that wants to ensure the success of young, pioneering Jewish entrepreneurs by cultivating and nurturing them.

It just selected its first cohort of five Bay Area projects and initiatives, and the leaders of those five had a March 24 orientation meeting at the UpStart Bay Area office in downtown San Francisco.

“They all spoke about not only what they could get from this experience, but what they’re excited to bring to other group members,” said Toby Rubin, UpStart’s founding director.

“To see the trust already being formed was electrifying.”

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The new UpStarters meet each other at their first gathering March 24. They are (from left) Ryan Cohen, Sara Heitler Bamberger, Sarah Lefton, Zelig Golden and Ilana Schatz. photos/stacey palevsky

Julie Wolk and Zelig Golden are among the first group of “UpStarters.” For the past year, they have worked together — as volunteers — to organize and lead Jewish-oriented outdoor programs. Now, they want to take it to the next level.

“We’ve become so passionate about it that we want to make it our careers instead of what we do on the side,” said Wolk, whose current full-time job is with the Rainforest Action Network, while Golden works at the Center for Food Safety.

“But it’s been difficult to figure out how to make that transition.”

Thanks to UpStart, the pair will now have access to mentoring and consulting from UpStart’s staff as well as assorted expertise from other professionals in the Jewish and secular world. This, they hope, will help them create an official — and funded — nonprofit organization, tentatively called Wilderness Torah.

Wolk and Golden can spend up to three years under the tutelage of UpStart, whose goal is to support and sustain new Jewish ideas and to expand the circle of Bay Area Jews engaged with Jewish life and learning.

A volunteer panel selected five initiatives from a pool of 12 applications. The five “that rose to the top,” Rubin said, are diverse, ranging from Jewish learning to social justice, from socializing to multimedia arts. They are:

• Fair Trade Judaica — a Web site that seeks to increase the availability and purchase of fair-trade Judaica products.

• G-dcast — a Web site that raises Jewish literacy by telling the week’s Torah portion in four-minute cartoons.

• Mitzvah on the Rocks — a periodic cocktail hour in San Francisco for young adult Jews that donates the cover charge and 10 percent of the evening’s bar sales to an Israeli nonprofit.

• Wilderness Torah — an initiative that merges environmentalism and Jewish spirituality through outdoor celebrations of Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot and Tu B’Shevat. Eventually, they intend to start a farm-based Jewish education center.

• Bay Area Learning Initiative — a pluralistic learning center that will train people in classical Jewish text, and prepare them to lead learning circles.

“We’re trying to buck the stereotype that serious interaction with Jewish text is something only Orthodox people do,” said Berkeley’s Sara Heitler Bamberger, the founding director of the learning initiative.

The UpStarters are at various stages in their development. Some have not even crafted a business plan yet, while others have already secured funding.

UpStart intends to recruit a second group next year, assuming the agency can secure funding to do so, Rubin said.

UpStart is one of three such incubators in the United States, along with Jewish Jumpstart in Los Angeles and Bikkurim in New York. Each bends to its particularly community’s needs.

“What’s hard for entrepreneurs of any stripe is feeling like you’re doing everything yourself in isolation,” said San Francisco resident Sarah Lefton, of G-dcast.

That challenge is particularly pronounced for her, since her colleagues live in Canada and New York.

“Even though [the UpStarters] aren’t all working on one project, we’re all going through the same sorts of issues: forming a 501(c)3, writing a business plan,” Lefton said. “It’s nice to have community around that.”

Stacey Palevsky