The next generation’s version of ‘tikkun olam’

Thanks to creativity, ingenuity and the support of the Genesis Prize Foundation, Genesis Generation Challenge winners are achieving their vision of turning Jewish values into action.

Avi Deutsch, speaks at a LAVAN pitch event last year (photo credit: LAVAN)
Avi Deutsch, speaks at a LAVAN pitch event last year
(photo credit: LAVAN)
When a Genesis Prize Laureate is named, the glamorous ceremony in Jerusalem is just the beginning, not the end. This is because a tradition was started with Michael R. Bloomberg, the inaugural laureate, who with the announcement of his award in 2014, decided to pay the $1 million prize forward.
With his Genesis Generation Challenge, Bloomberg and The Genesis Prize Foundation did just that. Bloomberg put his $1 million prize into grants for young humanitarian entrepreneurs to use.
A data-driven man at his core, former New York mayor Bloomberg worked with the foundation to launch a competition that now, two years on, is fostering social ventures that are achieving real results.
For the nine humanitarian-minded enterprises that received grants as a result of the GGC, the $100,000 given to each of them went a long way.
Healthcare, technology, economic development and community investment are some of the areas of enterprise represented in the GGC, and its winners span the globe, with Israel, the US, Canada, India, Burundi and Kenya all represented.
On an individual level, the grants translate into more than 250 people engaged in social impact-driven work for the nine winning teams, and over 900 young adult Jews engaged in those projects, tapping into values inspired by their Jewish heritage.
“We are extremely proud of the results each of the Genesis Generation Challenge winning teams achieved. Investing in early stage social ventures is always risky, however we continue to be impressed by the impact all the teams have had, not only on those engaged in the work, but also on the beneficiaries,” commented Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation.
As an example, GGC winner Building Up, led by Marc Soberano, is literally building Toronto from the ground up.
His organization, founded in 2014, improves the lives of the city’s residents in two notable ways. First, the company retrofits low-income housing units with energy and water-efficient appliances, and second, gives its construction workers assigned to the project the educational and intellectual tools needed to be self-sufficient.
Inspired by his time in Winnipeg working for Ashoka Canada, a social impact company that offers workers tradebased skills, Soberano wanted to replicate that successful and inspiring model in Toronto.
Building Up employs disadvantaged individuals, each of whom has their own story – some have mental health issues, while others are new immigrants seeking a new life or ex-convicts looking to rehabilitate themselves.
“We pay them to go to a program where they attend classes to learn about nutrition and financial management, all sorts of life and hard skills that will allow them to gain a career in the construction industry,” Soberano explained. “For them, it’s been life-changing.”
Thanks to the seed money provided by the GGC, Building Up has generated enough success to secure additional funding from the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, where applicants go through a structured four-month curriculum.
Thus far, Building Up boasts that of its participants who graduate from these weekly skill classes, 80% find full-time work in the construction industry. Next year, Building Up hopes to expand their employees’ trade-based expertise and develop their skills in other labor fields like painting and carpentry.
When it comes to saving money with new, environmentally friendly appliances, each apartment unit stands to save roughly $100 annually in water and electricity costs. That $100 per unit cost reduction can add up to big savings, especially since the organization has installed over 2,000 water retrofits to date.
Soberano credits a big portion of Building Up’s success to the GGC, explaining that the prize money “gave us breathing room to develop our training and curriculum, and they helped us really get started.” However, the beating heart of this enterprise is dispensing tzedaka (charity) on a large scale.
“The highest form of tzedaka is to ‘teach a man to fish’ and allow someone to create wealth for themselves,” he said.
“That seems to be working and that’s really what drives us to keep going.”
Another GGC winner, LAVAN, is also looking toward the future, as its very purpose is to create the next generation of socially-responsible entrepreneurs whose work is grounded in the expression of Jewish values. Co-founded by Avi Deutsch and Vanessa Bartram, the company helps Israeli impact investors “to expand their capacity to deliver life-changing products and services to the world’s poor, sick, and marginalized,” according to LAVAN’s website.
Deutsch was inspired by his year in Rwanda, where he helped educate orphans. Unfortunately, he was dismayed that the project could help only a limited number of orphans and was just a “drop in the bucket” in terms of what really needed to happen on a grand scale.
“While the idea was very beautiful, we weren’t really moving the needle on this critical issue. That was very disappointing to me,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
Leaving Rwanda, the Israeli native was interested in pairing his humanitarian passions with the economic expertise he acquired as a research analyst at the Bank of Israel. That sent him in the direction of impact investing, which Deutsch describes as “using market- based solutions to tap into the power of capital to tackle different social and environmental challenges.”
Thus, the company seeks out Israeli innovators and finds the capital to get them off the ground.
Since its launch in 2015, LAVAN has managed to engage over 380 impact investors, social entrepreneurs and young professionals through events and workshops; advised more than 220 Israeli impact companies and supported six Israeli entrepreneurs tackling global challenges, according to the GPF GGC Evaluation Report.
Deutsch is aware of the massive leg-up the GGC provided his company.
“There is very little start-up capital out there for non-profits,” Deutsch said.
“I think had we not had their help, we would still have launched LAVAN no matter what, but the GGC grant gave us a significant leap in terms of cultivating resources.
“It’s also a reputational issue. You say ‘Genesis Generation Challenge’ given out by Michael Bloomberg, and it puts you in a whole different category,” he added.
Deutsch believes the GGC helped provide clarity to their overall interpretation of putting a vision of tikkun olam into action.
“The idea of using your finances – whether you have a lot or a little – and making a moral decision for the world is very much what Bloomberg’s Prize is about and we’re taking that to an untapped group so they can better the world,” he explained.
To that end, LAVAN has hosted workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to do good. Its start-up pitch event last spring, for example, resulted in funding for three entrepreneurs.
“I’d really like to see the Genesis Prize in 10 to 15 years. I’d like people to look back and say, ‘Wow, the Jewish world really led the charge on this,’” Deutsch adds.
The $1 million prize may not be much to Bloomberg (whose wealth far surpasses that figure) but to the hundreds of people who benefited from his award, it now means the world.
For more information about the Genesis Generation Challenge, please visit: