Aharon Horwitz on Social Entrepreneurship

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Haegwan Kim: What’s your personal definition of success.

Aharon Horwitz: A good question. My personal definition of success is, I think, helping other people achieve… helping other people and my community achieve its potential is success for me. I think that’s the kind of thing that motivates me most to wake up in the morning is to see people with important ideas for the world and see my community, which I care about deeply, actually live up to its potential and implement and do the things that it aspires to do.

HK: Why do you help others?

AH: I feel like that’s very much a decision you make at some point in your life, whether you’re going to be a person who’s driven by some sort of outside meaning and some sort of vision of a redeemed world, or a world that’s going to be better in the future, or whether you’re just kind of carving out your survival niche. And because of the way I grew up in my family and the values that I was taught, I think helping others, or rather, helping others be inspired and motivated to work for bigger picture ideas has always been a part of who I am and my life.

HK: Is that the reason why you focus on the social entrepreneurs?

AH: Yes. I think the social entrepreneurs, for me… see my problem is I don’t know what the big idea is. You know, what’s the one idea Israel needs to kind of be a good society, or what’s the one idea that really will help alleviate some of the major problems that we’re facing as a globe? I have no idea what the answers are to those things. I’m not educated enough, nor am I smart enough, nor am I wise enough, but I meet people every day who believe that they know what the answers are.

So I figure that if I build a framework that can help enough of those people, at some point I will have gotten involved in it, and along the way I get inspired and see their answers as potentially giving me ways to impact directly. So that’s why I’ve been focused on what PresenTense does, which is helping social entrepreneurs get off the ground.

HK: So you define yourself as an accelerator for them to go further?

AH: Yes. I think of us as a jumping off point, meaning connection point with… it’s like someone who has an idea often needs to… everybody needs a place to plant their feet firmly in order to jump. You know if you’re standing in the water it’s very hard to jump because you can’t get any purchase on the water. You know the water is not stable; it’s not strong. If you’re standing on land you can jump. And I through co-creating it with Ariel Beery aspired to create a firm ground for the people in our community and our environment who want to take a jump at something. And that was what the idea was, because otherwise, you don’t know who to meet, who to talk to, where do I go to find a business plan, how do I get the financing, how do I really define what the needs are. We can help you with those things; that’s what we do.

HK: Without any intention, can I ask why you focus on the Jewish community primarily?

AH: You know you talk about business, the idea of narrowing and having your own focus, so I think that humanity often defines itself in the form of communities. You know there’s a community of skateboarders; there’s a community of a particular church, or a particular religious group of something like that. I think that throughout history the Jewish community and the Jewish people has been a strong, coherent presence that’s very fluid at its edges and interacts in many ways with different people. It’s the community I grew up in, and I believe it’s a community that has resources and potential and infrastructure to actually achieve mission that’s way beyond itself. So in terms of me looking for a place that can, you know, further values in the world… it seems like a very strong position for that. I believe that it sees itself on some level as having a mission.

So for me that’s a very good starting place and I think that that’s why the focus is there. Now, what I like to do is find the Jewish community working with people who aren’t Jewish, or bringing in Jewish entrepreneurs who are interested in working outside of the Jewish community, because I think if you’re just about yourself then you’re not really worthy of existing. And the same thing in Israel it’s a little different because in Israel it’s not just Jewish, it’s Israelis, which are Jewish, non Jewish, Arabs. You know we’re interested in all of them. In America, amongst America’s gigantic plurals we decide to focus in on the Jewish community infrastructure, but we have fellows and entrepreneurs; they’re doing things that are very much non Jewish oriented.

HK: As a social entrepreneur, I want to ask you about how you measure your success?

AH: We’ve tried a lot of measurements for success and it’s very hard to measure success, and so we have layers of things. So on one level when we look at an individual venture we try to understand what are the metrics that it set for itself. So if we have a venture that is developing a new piece of educational technology, while they’re at PresenTense in our incubator, in our accelerator, in our programme, they’re creating metrics.

And so we want to understand, okay, are they hitting their metrics and are we helping them facilitate the chief end of those metrics. As PresenTense, what we’re actually looking to do is to re-shape communities, and we want to create a world where every individual – no matter what they’re about, no matter what their job is, their profession is – is spending some time of their day focusing on investing in solutions to problems that face the globe and our local Israel and the local community. So that’s, for us, where we’re going. We look at how many volunteer hours do we have going into our ventures. Is that increasing every year? How many people in the community who previously were not doing anything good for the world are now investing three hours a month in giving accounting advice to a social entrepreneur that’s trying to reduce hunger. That’s, for us, the way that we’re looking at success.

HK: This is kind of the thing of how, but I want to ask you about, as technology and the internet and other tools are developing, what is the future of social entrepreneurs, and what is the possibility of social entrepreneurs in the 21st century?

AH: What I think is going to happen is that there’s going to be global alliances and global missions, in a sense, but there’s going to be a lot of local implementation. And the local is going to be very important, because I think that no-one knows better what they need than the people living in a particular space. So what I think the technology is going to do is to create opportunities to learn and see models and connect, and here and there there will be some very big global effort.

But a lot of the action is going to be just on the local level with local people with their own flavour doing their own kind of activities and their own social entrepreneurial things which is an issue because you have to think about scaling… we find many of our entrepreneurs have no interest in scaling. They’re not driven by markets; they’re not driven by business needs where they want to maximise profits. They have a target population in their local community and they want to fix that; they are not interested in going to 15 other communities. And an important thing to realise, is that, when you need to build an infrastructure of that, takes global models and global know-how, but gives local actors really the power to just do it in their own way and not expect them to kind of drive some big picture of change.

HK: You have a long history and have done many venture business with non-profit and social entrepreneurs, so I was wondering what would be the key element to be a successful social entrepreneur? Is there common feature in them?

AH: You need to have one foot in the world of idealism and one foot in the world of pragmatic operations, and it is so important to be aggressive when it comes to building a product that generates revenue. And I think that most social entrepreneurs come in with passion and with a great deal of idealism and they want to achieve something. What they’re missing is a saviness when it comes to saying, I need to generate revenue to be able to keep my mission alive. So the successful social entrepreneurs that we see are the ones who are tenacious and committed and never say die and will go to the end of… work 24/8, you know, to achieve their mission. But they also say, okay, let me take what I’m doing and let me figure out revenue sources. And that’s, I think, an important thing.

Usually old non-profits have the people give them money and then they have the beneficiaries and those are two separate people, right. Philanthropists give me money and I feed poor people. That’s the classic model. Here, we want to say, take your beneficiary and make your beneficiary also your partner and your funder, so that you create a healthy cycle of operations. And that’s the key thing is to figure out, how do I find people who want to pay me for the services that I’m offering. And it’s a challenge; it’s really hard, but if you can do that… because a lot of issues with start-ups on the non-profit space is in the mezzanine. You know, early stage, sure, you can get some seed capital, you know, get some funders, you get excited and you’re sexy, and they come in and put some cash into you, and you’re doing great and you’re flying.

The minute you hit like three, four years, you’re normal now; you’ve been around, you’re boring. You’ve got a mission, it’s not exciting any more; it’s not the new thing. At that point you can’t find the capital to take it to the next level. And so there you need to have earned revenue and you need to have a business model that works. You need to have a good team in place, and I think that that’s where we see the success.

HK: Final question, talking about your personal thing, again, what would be your advice to be successful in general?

AH: Never refuse to meet with anyone, as a piece of advice. I think that one of the most important things that we did, myself and Ariel, in the early days was we so appreciated people being willing to meet with us when we were just random people who were calling up, saying, hey, we want to understand how you do what you do and we want to run an idea by you, and that people were willing to give us even 15, 20 minutes of time – very busy, very prominent people. That, I think, was a lesson for us that at any point in your life… you could be offering something to someone who is going to do something very important and you should never withhold that and you should always be giving. And if you’re always giving you’re going to get and the people you meet with will tell you the ways to get things done. You know, the knowledge is out there, the more you are willing to talk with people and the willingness you have to just get out there and interact with people and always be open to the new ideas and the new potentials, that I think is one of the key things it takes to be successful.

Aharon Horwitz is the co-Director of PresenTense Group.

Haegwan Kim
Haegwan Kim is a writer who was born in Osaka, Japan in 1989 and grew up near Tokyo where went to a Korean school for 12 years.
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