Teen entrepreneurs compete in BBYO’s ‘Shark Tank’-style innovation showcase
This story was published in Kol HaBirah.
By Haley Cohen
BETHESDA (Md.) — Young entrepreneurs gathered on Tuesday March 21 at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Club to participate in Impact L’Atid’s culminating event.
Funded by pluralistic Jewish teen movement B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) and Federation’s United Jewish Endowment Fund, Impact L’Atid is an entrepreneurship training program that challenges teens to develop ideas for enhancing the lives of the Jewish community of Greater Washington. Over the past five months, eight teams, each consisting of one or two BBYO members, worked on turning their social innovation ideas into a reality. The teens then had an opportunity to showcase their work to the community in a forum modeled after the hit TV show “Shark Tank,” in which real-life entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of highly-successful potential investors. Scholarships for immersive Jewish experiences were awarded to first, second, and third place groups.
Taking home the third place prize, a $2,000 scholarship, were Vanessa Altman, a junior at West Springfield High School, and Jason Katz, a senior at Robinson Secondary. After becoming frustrated with not being able to find any modern Jewish board games, Altman and Katz created their own trivia game called Schmooze. The goal of Schmooze is to help Jews learn about and connect with Judaism in an interactive way.
The second place winners of a $3,000 scholarship were Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School sophomore Ilana Kaplan and eighth grader Daphne Kaplan, two sisters whose family tragedy inspired them to co-found Achpat Shabbat.
The Kaplan sisters explained that after their mother passed away from cancer in 2013, their community stopped bringing the family food once the initial period of mourning had ended. The girls and their father felt alone, especially during Shabbat, what should be “a magical time of relaxation,” they said. Achpat Shabbat would step in and provide comfort in the form of Shabbat meals for grieving individuals or families. The Kaplans are striving to keep the magic of Shabbat alive even in the most challenging of times.
Talia Cohen and Becca Block, both juniors at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, won the $5,000 first prize for their creation, Sabbaba. Sabbaba, which translates to “awesome” in Hebrew, is a Jewish subscription box that parents, synagogues, or Jewish organizations could send to college students. The purpose of the service is to keep students engaged in Judaism without requiring them to attend classes or events.
“Becca and I were discussing how we’re worried that when we start college next year, we won’t be interested in any of the Jewish outlets provided,” said Cohen. “We’ve seen some of our older friends get disconnected from Judaism when they start college so we know that there is a strong need for more ways to connect.” Each box would have a different theme, relating to an upcoming Jewish holiday.
Cohen and Block are certain that Impact L’Atid is only the beginning for Sabbaba. “We’re really passionate about it and hope to start marketing soon. We want to make a website and get some donors,” said Block. Cohen said that five years from now she hopes to see Sabbaba on the doorstep of every Jewish college student in America.
Other ventures presented included: Gemach, a database of scholarships for Jewish experiences; Equality Barometer, an organization to educate youth about worldwide gender inequalities; Jams for Israel, a pro-Israel music festival; JLGBT, a resource for LGBT youth; and Soul Food, delivering home-cooked meals to the homeless.
Winners were determined in part by volunteer judges and in part by a vote from the audience.
The evening also included keynote speaker Derreck Kayongo, founder of the Global Soap Project and CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Kayongo, a Ugandan refugee, grew up watching his father make soap. Aware of how limited a resource soap was across Africa and how this scarcity led to the spread of many diseases, Kayongo knew he had to make a change when he witnessed how much soap goes to waste in American hotels. The Global Soap Project recycles used hotel soap and redistributes it to impoverished populations around the world.
Kayongo shared words of advice to the aspiring entrepreneurs. “Part of entrepreneurship means hearing ‘no.’ Failing means you’re not there yet. Try something else. You’ve got to have faith in yourself and in others. You are responsible for the future of humanity. We need you to protect your Zionistic background, for Israel and for you as a people,” he said.
Haley Cohen is the senior community news intern for Kol HaBirah.