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Reflecting Back to Look Ahead: Relaunching UpStart’s Venture Accelerator

By Taylor Epstein

Originally published on eJewish Philanthropy

It’s that time of year, when so many individuals and organizations are reflecting on what came before, renewing commitments, and realigning priorities. Over the past six months, the UpStart team has been doing just that by envisioning the future of one of our flagship programs, The UpStart Accelerator. We’ve examined what we accomplished in the past and looked closely at where we can up our game to best support groundbreaking ventures in our field.

We’re excited to announce that on October 4, the application for the 11th cohort of the Accelerator (now called the “UpStart Venture Accelerator”) will be available. We are proud to offer a new program design that shows our renewed commitment to helping social entrepreneurs expand the picture of how Jews find meaning and how we come together.

Our Process

Before we share the new design, a word about how we got here: we launched our process to update the Accelerator by putting our participants at the center of it all, learning directly from our network of trailblazing social entrepreneurs, program alumni, and the coaches who serve them. Looking outside of the Jewish community, we analyzed best practices for accelerators and incubators in the tech and social entrepreneurship spaces.

With this research, we drafted a prototype of the new Venture Accelerator for our next cohort. This design was a combination of our best attributes from past years, mixed with new opportunities for growth. To make sure we were on the right path, we shared the prototype with people involved who understand what we are trying to do – current accelerator participants, alumni, UpStart staff, folks in the secular accelerator space – and integrated their feedback into the final design.

What We Learned and What We’re Doing Differently

The basic framework of the Accelerator aligns precisely with those in the wider field: engaging leaders in a short-term, cohort-based, mentorship-driven experience. The methodology we teach is similar: identify the change you want to make in the world, test out your ability to make that change, and then pivot along the way.

However, the new UpStart Venture Accelerator draws from additional best practices in the field, including refinements in how we vett participants to assure readiness, push for ventures to show evidence of success, and leverage our network of mentors. Our research honed in on four pressing issues for social entrepreneurs. Below is an analysis of those issues and how the updated program addresses them.

Time and stage are of the essence.

Entrepreneurship can be isolating, and the opportunity to engage with a community of peers and organizations at the same stage, facing similar challenges and opportunities, provides transformative learning. Additionally, accelerators and incubators in the tech space often take place over just a few months, forcing the venture to focus, commit, and quickly enact change.

The Venture Accelerator will put a finer point on organizational stage, ensuring that all participating ventures are at the same stage of growth readiness. We clarified our criteria and eligibility to make sure that we’re selecting a cohort who can get the most out of our curriculum, and who demonstrate a likelihood to bring their organization to scale. We also adjusted the program content (to help entrepreneurs better articulate a plan for sustainability) and shortened the time (from three years to 18 months) to activate growth quickly and effectively. In the meantime, we’ve expanded our suite of offerings to include programming for idea-stage organizations, ventures that are post-start-up stage, and our wider network of alumni.

Without adequate funding, ideas are just ideas.

UpStart cohort members have often received coaching to identify an opportunity to build infrastructure (like HR systems or CRM databases) but then lacked the funding to make it happen. In the past, our coaching would help illuminate the problem, and our $15,000 in grants would assist them in addressing small projects along the way, but the funds weren’t in place to really move the needle on large-scale systemic issues. Wider industry standard includes a financial investment as a major component of an accelerator or incubator. This investment validates the idea, enabling the building of core systems, and providing a launch pad to raise additional capital.

UpStart is thrilled to provide an increased financial investment for all members of Cohort 11. Ventures will receive an initial grant of $25K and up to $75K of additional unrestricted funding over the course of the program – for a total of up to $100K over the course of the program. This amount of funding will enable participants to develop both the “what is” and the “what might be.” They can begin implementing new systems and building infrastructure, while experimenting on creating long-term, sustainable success – without worrying as much about the short-term cash flow.

Entrepreneurs need to know where they are to know where they are going.

Best practices for accelerators and incubators include conducting an in-depth needs assessment for each venture to identify what success will look like by the end of their time in the program. Although our Accelerator has been rich with goal-setting, the new Venture Accelerator will include an updated assessment process that more clearly indicates current gaps and sets key milestones that lead to reaching their goals successfully.

By completing a multi-step needs–assessment and goal–setting process at the start of the program, we’ll get to the heart of the venture’s needs early on. We’re focusing on five tried-and-true areas of organizational design: Product-Market Fit, Team & Talent, Board Governance, Financial Model, and Branding & Marketing. The assessment will then inform a personalized learning arc for each individual venture. Participants will track benchmarks over the course of the program, revising their needs assessment every six months to mark achievements and set new goals.

Coaching and mentorship are critical for success.

Our UpStarters meet with an UpStart coach every month for one-on-one support, to learn new skills or tackle difficult situations in a judgement-free environment. Although past Accelerator participants universally name the individualized coaching as the most meaningful component of the Venture Accelerator, they have requested more time for this personalized learning. Incubators often leverage local experts, alumni, and staff to provide this curated one-to-one support, both for knowledge and to build community.

The new Accelerator will create additional opportunities for participants to connect with our wider network. Along with increasing hours with their coach, including an in-person site visit, participants will tap into the wisdom of our alumni network, a wide-ranging group of 40+ organizations across all areas of Jewish life. Additionally, we’ll actively connect participants to a wider network of funders to spark new partnerships.

At this time of celebration and renewal, I’m invigorated by our reinvestment in the leaders who are creating change today so that we have a better tomorrow. At UpStart, we’ve doubled down on our commitment to dream, build, and grow the next big ideas in the Jewish landscape. Our day-to-day work supports the entrepreneurs in our community who are striving for a more vibrant, just, and inclusive future. We can’t wait to meet our new cohort. Applications are open for two weeks only, starting on October 4.

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