I had just finished an interview with another potential employer when I learned about Aish’s "Future Jewish Entrepreneurs: Enterprize" program. The program was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to New York City to network with powerful Jewish executives from Fortune 500 companies and to compete in ‘Apprentice’-style business challenges with top Jewish business students from across the country—at a price of only $199. Not bad for an itinerary highlighted by meetings with Cantor Fitzgerald, Alliance Bernstein, Jana Partners LLP, JP Morgan, and several coaching sessions with successful industry leaders.
I was initially unsure if I was a good fit for this program. Enterprize seemed geared towards current Jewish college students with specialized business backgrounds. I am currently not a student and I do not have a business background—I am a recent May 2011 graduate from the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Arts & Sciences, where I earned a double major in Economics and International Relations. I do consider myself a top student with a 3.8 GPA and successful internship experiences at Wells Fargo and the European Union Parliament in Brussels, Belgium; however, I knew that this program would attract candidates with equally as impressive backgrounds, more business experience, and an entrepreneurial flair.
Nonetheless, I trusted Rabbi Asher Cohen, who had never led me astray, and enrolled in Enterprize as a last-minute candidate. I considered Enterprize a test for me as a recent graduate readying himself to enter a competitive marketplace. I anticipated that working with top business students would challenge me in a new way by forcing me to use my intelligence to solve complex business problems. My hope was that the experience would also help me develop stronger business acumen, network with employers, and provide me with team-related business experiences to discuss during job interviews. Most of these hopes were realized and most of my preconceptions were accurate.
What I did not anticipate was the vital importance of being immersed in a group of people who shared a common Jewish background.
My Unaffiliated Upbringing
I grew up in a non-religious family in Unionville, PA, in a homogenous white community. My mother is Jewish and my father is Catholic. I never went to church or synagogue, and I never had a Bar-Mitzvah. I was never affiliated with a Jewish community, and I had no idea how many large Jewish communities existed. Moreover, I did not understand what it meant to be a member of one of these communities. My only knowledge of Judaism came from our annual family celebration of Chanukah, followed by a Christmas celebration several weeks later. To me, the Jewish culture and religion were vague concepts that I did not understand completely.
The hatred I experienced caused me to retract further from my identity as a Jew.
Despite my lack of religious affiliation, a few narrow-minded peers in high school identified me as “The Jew” based on my nose and dark features. During high school, I was challenged by discrimination and fierce anti-Semitism. I dealt with this by training extensively in the martial arts and toughening up through my engagement in hard-hitting sports like ice hockey. Unfortunately, this deep-seated hatred I experienced during those years caused me to retract further from my identity as a Jew.
So, how is it that I ended up receiving a call from a Pittsburgh rabbi regarding a Jewish entrepreneurial program, given my non-religious upbringing?
As a 22-year old, my understanding of Judaism and my involvement with the Jewish community had only just begun. During the final semester of my senior year at Pitt, my Jewish roommate encouraged me to enroll in Aish Fellowship Classes. During these classes, led by Rabbi Asher Cohen, I explored for the first time Jewish religion and culture. This whirlwind of newfound knowledge expanded my mind, made me feel passionate about my background, and enabled me to identify with other people like myself. My final semester of senior year culminated with an eye-opening two-week trip to Israel through birthright and the designation of my Jewish name, ‘Abraham Rafael.’
Birthright was truly wonderful, but it was during the Enterprize trip when I fully identified with my Jewish heritage for the first time. This is because I lived in an Orthodox Jewish community for the duration of the trip while working on team challenges with a group of students who shared my background. The business challenges required us to work together to solve some of the most complex problems facing the Jewish people through creative business solutions. This unique element combined both the growth I was searching for personally as a Jew and professionally as a business person; therefore, it made a profound impact on my overall development. Most importantly, Enterprize enabled me to develop close and meaningful relationships with many of my Jewish peers, with whom I will remain life-long friends. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity and wholeheartedly encourage any Jewish college student, regardless of his or her academic or religious background, to consider this program.
The Enterprize Experience
To be completely honest, during the Enterprize orientation, I was a bit intimidated. There was a student who was a mathematician, another a stock expert who had been trading since the age of 13, a 26-year old who had generated $300,000 in capital to produce his own product, and several others who were CEOs of their own marketing firms- and still in college. Despite my academic success, for one of the first times in my life I felt that I might be outmatched. With my liberal arts background, I wondered if I belonged in this group of highly specialized business majors and even questioned my efficacy in the business world with my degree.
But my outlook changed when I unexpectedly fell into a leadership role during the first team business challenge. The moment came while our team was discussing the Challenge One proposal topic on a bus into the city. The challenge was to create a survey to discover more about one of the five main issues our program had collectively decided were most relevant to Jewish people today: assimilation, stereotypes, the Arab-Israeli conflict, public perception, and the Jewish identity. My group had decided upon the Arab-Israeli conflict, but we had not identified a clear research question we wanted to answer through our survey.
Pressure was mounting, and there wasn’t much time until we had to hit the streets of New York to survey citizens for our market research. We were huddled in a circle when one team member looked at me, exasperated, and said “So, what are we going to do?” I then felt the eyes of the 5 other team members lock onto mine. At that moment, I felt a new sense of responsibility to my team as I conveyed to them several ideas I had developed regarding our survey project. That single moment afforded me an opportunity to become a leader and make a unique contribution to the program.
Ultimately, my group decided to analyze whether the media’s portrayal of the Arab-Israeli conflict was adversely affecting the public perception of the Jewish people as a group (and not just Israeli Jews). We found that people tended to describe Jews with more negative adjectives than Palestinians (eg, ‘hostile,’ ‘non-compromising,’ ‘elitist’) after seeing recent media coverage of the conflict, and that the media portrayal of the conflict had an adverse affect on the public perception of Jews. Our efforts culminated in a first-place finish, which felt incredibly rewarding. After this successful first challenge, I knew that my being on this trip would serve a real purpose.
In the next eight days, we were faced with several more team challenges and two individual challenges. We developed business plans, marketing proposals, advertising campaigns, revenue models, and even created our own entertainment company, ChoZen Inc. We presented to panels of high-level judges and were evaluated on components like teamwork, creativity, and our marketing strategy. Most importantly, we developed close relationships with one another by working to achieve a common goal. In between challenges we experienced the glamour of New York City—we visited Times Square, toured the Empire State and Bloomberg Buildings, saw Wall Street, and experienced the local night life. On Friday night, we had a memorable Shabbat dinner and reflected on the important aspects of life.
Enterprize was a lesson in integrity, ethics, teamwork, and life.
In the end, Enterprize wasn’t just about winning the internship, networking with employers, or meeting fellow students to forward our own career goals—it was about expanding our minds, taking on exciting new challenges, and getting out of our comfort zones. After all, it isn’t every day that you are required to go into an executive board room and give a 60-second elevator pitch to one of the country’s 100 richest men!
Enterprize was not just a business challenge; it was a lesson in integrity, ethics, teamwork, and life. The steadfast guidance provided by rabbis and members of the business community made the program as much about the development of values and character as about business skills. The integration of business challenges with principles of Judaism as a way of life provided a unique perspective that distinguished the Enterprize program from other internships and leadership programs.
What I gained from this program was a new sense of self-awareness and a new confidence. I learned I was a natural leader and good under pressure, and I also developed the confidence to tackle complex problems and provide meaningful solutions within a team setting.
Thirty very different Jewish men embarked on this trip, but after 10 days of exciting challenges and experiences, we came out as one cohesive group—sharing a sense of unity and a true camaraderie. Enterprize changed me because it allowed me to share my personal experiences and background with like-minded individuals, and to test myself amidst fierce competition. Ultimately, Enterprize enabled me to prove to myself that I can and will be a successful leader in the business world. It was a defining moment in my personal growth as a businessman, as a person, and as a Jew.
Aish Connections provides multiple opportunities for Jewish college students throughout the year, including weekly programs and events in New York and Albany, 10 day trips to New York City and trips to Israel including Taglit-Birthright. To find out more about these opportunities visit www.aishconnections.com/programs