Teens pitch the next great idea
This story was published in Washington Jewish Week.
By Dan Schere
Twelve Jewish teenagers from the Washington area attempted to launch their careers as entrepreneurs last week, participating in BBYO’s first Impact L’Atid social innovation contest.
Talia Cohen and Becca Block, juniors at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, took home the grand prize of $5,000 on March 22 to start their venture “Sabbaba” — a Jewish subscription box that family, friends and Jewish organizations can send to college students with Jewish items to help them maintain their religious observance.
Contestants — single or pairs —presented their ideas before an audience of 160 BBYO parents, friends, donors and others, after having worked with a mentor to develop their concepts.
Before the contest started, the students set up tables to present their project to the program’s attendees at Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club. Some tables included projects with food samples like the one occupied by Allie Kalik, a junior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. Allie and her partner, Sophie Schulman, came up with the venture Soul Food: Nosh for the N’shama, a program meant to alleviate hunger by delivering home-cooked meals across Washington.
“We were thinking about fun things we wanted to do and issues we cared about and hunger was a big part of that,” Allie said. “We kept on slapping together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and handing them out to food banks and that kind of stuff but we wanted to do something bigger, something where we could get out and connect with people so that’s why we came up with a mobile soup kitchen.”
Allie said the idea came to her and Sophie because “food is their favorite thing” and they wanted to do a project that addressed hunger but also incorporated their interest.
At another table, Vanessa Altman, 16, and Jason Katz, 18, showed off their Jewish trivia board game “Schmooze” that they created after much research and time spent designing the box, board and cards. The trivia questions are as simple as “Which direction do Jews light the menorah during Chanukah?” But Jason, a senior at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, said this is important for helping people learn about Judaism.
“Our synagogue had a very old Jewish trivia game and when it got messed up we thought, why not make our own — because if we enjoy it then other people will enjoy it?” he said.
During the formal program, which was done “Shark Tank” style, the mentors introduced their mentees and spoke about the experience of working with them before each student or pair gave an under-five minute presentation about their venture.
Audience members — the “sharks” — then voted with their phone for first-, second- and third-place winners.
Vanessa and Jason took third place for their board game while sisters Daphne and Ilana Kaplan took second place for “Achpat Shabbat” — a program to provide Shabbat meals to people who are in mourning or are experiencing hardship.
Each of the three winning groups took to the stage, with Talia and Becca holding a giant check for $5,000. The girls said they were “ecstatic” that their venture won and they are already receiving cards from professionals who are interested in helping them start their business.
Talia, 17, said their goal is to make sure Jewish students receive something during each Jewish holiday season that reminds them of their heritage.
“For example, the Rosh Hashanah box would be filled with an apple energy drink,” she explained. “The point of the whole venture is to get college students more interested in Judaism because it seems a lot of the time they’re drifting away from it while there’s so many distractions in school.”
Talia added, “My own siblings went to college and they had Hillel, but it was too time consuming and it was wasn’t really personal enough to pull them in. So, they didn’t really find the Jewish community they were looking for — so I thought a new product needed to be added out there.”
The event also featured a motivational speech by entrepreneur Derreck Kayango, founder in 2009 of the Global Soap Project, which recycles unused hotel soap and redistributes it to impoverished countries. Kayango spoke about his journey to the United States from Uganda as a child refugee and his rise to success. He encouraged the teens to not be afraid of failure and embrace the challenge of starting their own business.
“If a young boy from Africa can come here with less than $400, skinny as hell, learn to type on a computer for the first time in class, start from nowhere and end up with the largest recycling plant of soap in the world … you have no pretext,” he said.