The Power of Community: Achim’s Center for Entrepreneurism

Bnei Brak’s Achim building.

In the heart of Bnei Brak’s busiest district, construction of Achim’s work center at 86 Rabbi Akiva Street is fast underway. Hamodia got a sneak peek at the new premises under construction, modeled after Achim’s successful Yerushalayim workspace commons.

“Achim’s goal is not just to enable chareidim to earn a parnassah,” says Achim Global Chairman Motti Eichler, who showed us the premises, “but to promote chareidi entrepreneurship.”

In line with the international trend of shared workspace facilities but adapted to the specific needs of the chareidi community, the brilliantly designed work center offers chareidi freelancers, entrepreneurs and small business owners the opportunity to launch or expand their businesses by leveraging a synergistic networking environment.

The Bnei Brak work center is in prime location, on the top floor of the tallest building in the vicinity, with a beautiful rooftop deck and breathtaking view of Gush Dan. The center offers open space workstations for those who just need use of a computer, private and larger offices, a fully outfitted cafeteria and business lounge, and conference rooms equipped for global teleconferencing. Members need not worry about overhead expenses such as maintenance and utilities, and are free to focus on growing their business and doing what they do best.

Indeed, members of Achim’s Yerushalayim work center, which has been in operation for a year, report an increase of 30% in business since joining, baruch Hashem. Members can leave any time, when they’re ready to move on and can stand on their own two feet, making space for more entrepreneurs on the waiting list wishing to join.

The Bnei Brak work center is due to open this summer, with applications for membership being accepted for review beginning after Pesach.

In addition to workspace, Achim provides business development consulting, workshops and courses, as well as assistance with finding angel investors and securing loans, enabling chareidi entrepreneurs, businessmen and e-traders to find their way in the industry and earn a decent living. Achim also has its own loan fund to help entrepreneurs get started.

Achim Global’s network

“There is much talent and many bright ideas among young chareidim,” explains Eichler, “but people need guidance.” He notes that many try opening a business, at times even investing large sums in their new venture, confident with their friends’ and acquaintances’ assurance that their idea is the next best thing. Unfortunately, their plans often fall through, leaving people in massive debt and clueless as to what went wrong.

“Our aim is to ask entrepreneurs the right questions, to pre-empt the pitfalls of launching a new business. We offer targeted training for entrepreneurs, and put them in touch with experts in their particular field, who can mentor them on the ins and outs of the trade and get their businesses up and running.”

Typically, when we approach a successful businessman for a donation toward a worthy cause, we get a positive response. Who wouldn’t want to take part in tzedakah? But when a young entrepreneur approaches a successful businessman for expert advice given his work experience, assistance is far less common.

That’s where Achim Global comes in, connecting entrepreneurs with experts in their field, all over the world. “In the chareidi community,” notes Eichler, “there are gemachim to meet almost every need. And as the world becomes more globalized, with people no longer living in the same shtetl from cradle to grave, we are seeing more and more international connections – in Torah, tzedakah, and chessed. In all of those aspects, baruch Hashem, the world chareidi community is united and people are all willing to help each other. But there is one area where I think we can improve, and that is in the field of giving sound business advice. Obviously, we’re not expecting people to give out trade secrets and business connections. But sometimes, all it takes is a tip, a suggestion on what to do or what not to do, a contact, and we’ve helped someone attain parnassah with dignity.”

Sheltered Employment

The beauty of Achim is that it enables members to fully utilize their capabilities while still working in a heimishe environment, without having to give up anything from their yiras Shamayim or chareidi values. Working with like-minded people, where people feel comfortable, makes them more productive.

“Our dream is to enable entrepreneurs to connect with people in the wider world while staying firmly ensconced within the chareidi environment,” says Eichler.

As an example, a few days after Shavuos, Achim is hosting a network-and-collaborate event, where some 40 entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry will have the opportunity to meet with Deputy CEO of Strauss Group, Israel’s leading food and beverage corporation, as well as its Director of Innovation and the Director of The Kitchen – Strauss Group’s food tech hub. Strauss Group understands the value chareidi entrepreneurs can bring to the industry, and are coming for an open discussion of ideas and initiatives. The entrepreneurs, in turn, will be able to develop personal connections with managers in Strauss Group, for further follow-up.

“An entrepreneur on his own would never make it into Strauss, let alone be able to sit with its senior executives,” says Eichler. “Here, there’s power in numbers, in a community of entrepreneurs.”

A similar event was held earlier this year, where over 200 entrepreneurs who attended Achim’s Expert Day had the opportunity to sit with representatives of 30 leading high-tech companies and venture capital funds, including KPMG, Mobileye, Intel, OurCrowd and JVP, among others, for one-on-one mentoring sessions. The event was held in collaboration with Made In JLM – an organization promoting startups and high-tech innovation – and included lectures on technology and business, from legal issues to finances to business and technological development, as well as investor management.

The Secret to Success

What is the secret to Achim’s success?

“Teamwork,” says Eichler, “or, more accurately, an ethos of mutual responsibility for mutual benefit.”

At Achim, it’s only natural that people help each other, in recognition of one another’s talents. On a typical day, Avrohom the freelance graphic designer might be in need of Yanki the web programmer’s services, who in turn needs Chezky’s expert advice on tax returns as a US accountant.

“A few months ago,” says Eichler, “we had an applicant who wanted to rent a quiet space to take an online computer programming course. He didn’t want to bring a computer into his home and thought this would be a good option. Officially, the space is for people who are working. But he persisted, and after much debate we eventually accepted him. Within several weeks, he had completed the first level of his course and other members were asking him to do some programming work for them. After a short while, he was inundated with work just from Achim members.”

Future Plans

What’s next?

Eichler envisions frum companies from overseas collaborating with businesses here, which will undoubtedly help many families earn a decent parnassah. “There is so much talent in our community, it’s just a matter of making the right connections and introducing the right people to each other. The hope is that this exchange of business knowledge will, b’siyatta diShmaya, continue to benefit all involved, and will allow many more people in the community to earn their parnassah in an honorable fashion.”

On a Personal Note With Marc Schimmel

On the rooftop deck of Achim’s Bnei Brak workspace commons, amid construction in full swing, Achim President Marc Schimmel shares a few words.

What inspired you to go specifically into this type of philanthropy, of helping people set themselves up in business?

It’s not just a question of what but of who: my parents.

I was brought up in Golders Green. Meshulachim asking for handouts were a daily occurrence. My parents always gave, and tried to do so in the most dignified way possible. Rather than have people knock at the door when my father might not be home, my father would host an open house once a week. We had around 100 people waiting to be looked after.

My father greeted every meshulach with a big smile and warm shalom aleichem while my mother would serve tea and cake; the least she felt she could do was to give them a break from the tiring task of going from door to door to collect desperately needed funds to marry off a child or just to put food on the table. We always felt bad because we could only help them in a small way; we couldn’t solve their problems.

I was naïve, thinking that if one had more, one could give more and truly make a difference in the lives of these people. As times improved and my father was able to give more, I realized that it didn’t really make a difference; we still couldn’t solve their problems entirely. Of course, one has to continue to do what one can to help; but I understood then that much more energy and thought must be invested in how one gives, in order to enable people to support themselves. That’s the inspiration for what we do now. Our goal is to solve the problem, by helping people find parnassah, so that b’ezras Hashem they will be able to support themselves and their families in the future.

How so?

About 12 years ago, Motti Eichler and I started Bereishis — an HR company specializing in job placement for chareidim. We assessed which businesses had a manpower shortage which they had difficulty filling from the wider community, and offered them an excellent solution —bright, capable and responsible chareidim in need of a job, who were so grateful to be able to work that they became highly dedicated employees. And because they are so dedicated, employers are willing to meet their demands: separate work centers for men and women, a Badatz kitchen, whatever employees need to feel comfortable. Many of the companies we work with provide services for the chareidi community, and so it makes sense for them to hire chareidim. To date, we’ve placed over 15,000 people.

What kind of jobs could they obtain without training? How much could someone earn in an entry-level position?

Obviously some training is required, because they’ve never been in the workforce before and they don’t know the rules of engagement. While we specialize in placement, there are other excellent organizations, such as the Kemach Foundation, which sponsor training programs. We have some very successful collaborations with Kemach, both through our Kivun Center for career guidance and our work center in Yerushalayim. So there is some training required, but the payoff is that now they’ve got a parnassah. This has a huge impact – not only on them and their families, which they can now support with dignity, but on the chareidi economy at large. On average, these employees earn a starting salary of NIS 7,000 a month. Multiply 15,000 people by NIS 7,000, and that by 12 months, and you’ve got NIS 1.26 billion generated annually. This new money is then fed again and again into the chareidi community, be it at the local grocery, the shoe store, or cheder tuition, filtering through and creating greater wealth all around.

Quite an operation. Seems Bereishis is achieving its mission. What, then, motivated you to expand and establish Achim Global?

Bereishis is great for people seeking employment. But we also want to encourage entrepreneurism, so that we can create a natural ecosystem for work and employment within the community. So two years ago we started Achim Global – an international business networking organization that connects up-and-coming entrepreneurs with established businessmen who serve as mentors and help them make the connections necessary to get their ideas off the ground.

As I mentioned, Achim also has a work center in Yerushalayim, which we established together with Kemach and the Jerusalem Development Authority, where entrepreneurs and small-business owners can share office space on a monthly basis and collaborate in our workspace commons. We offer business courses and our advisers help with formulating business plans as well as securing bank loans. We have our own loan fund, too, to get entrepreneurs started. In Yerushalayim we presently have 100 members, and in the Bnei Brak branch we’re expecting 200 members, beginning the summer of 2018.

What are your criteria for membership?

We screen applicants very carefully, and only take people who are looking to work in a chareidi atmosphere. It’s for people who need it, but who can also contribute to it. We’re looking for businesses that can help each other and synergize for mutual benefit — people who share our ethos that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A lot of freelancers, entrepreneurs and small-business owners are operating out of a miklat [bomb shelter] or working at their kitchen table — not ideal for holding meetings with potential clients or business partners, and not conducive to self-motivation. At the work center, they can get a work station, a private office, and even a conference room fully equipped for teleconferencing with contacts abroad. And above all, they get to work among like-minded individuals.

How did the idea for a chareidi workspace commons develop?

Everything I know about business I learned from my Dad. I began working for my father as soon as I came out of yeshivah. He was one of the early leaders in the field of urban regeneration in the U.K., together with his close friend and partner Reb Gedalya Ostreicher, z”l. In the 1950s, the Greater London Council was encouraging industry to leave London, because of pollution. London was left with huge sprawling factories that no one knew what to do with. My father would take these white elephants, split them into small units, and rent them out cheaply to light industrial users – garment manufacturers, leather goods manufacturers, photographers, printers. Over 1,000 such small businesses found their home there.

The tenants were all small businesses who had their commercial ups and downs. My father taught us to support them through their hardships. “Go and talk to the tenant who’s having trouble paying,” he would instruct us. “See if they need help downsizing or perhaps just a rental holiday till things get better. Speak with them. Understand their business, understand their needs.” It wasn’t just about collecting rent; it was about supporting small businesses, with an understanding that their success would eventually lead to our own.

That gave me the knowledge and understanding to do what I do today.

How do you see the workspace commons idea working in the chareidi community?

I think it’s a natural fit, because the values in the workspace commons are the same values inculcated in the chareidi community. People are brought up with the ethic of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha. Within a square kilometer in a chareidi community, there are dozens of gemachim, from pacifiers in the middle of the night to heaters to chairs for simchos. The revolution is that we’re applying this understanding of sharing for mutual benefit to the business sector.

If you put 100 entrepreneurs in one room, it’s guaranteed one will have valuable information and insight to share with another. In fact, our Yerushalayim members have reported a 30 percent increase in business since joining the community. The Jewish connection is already there; we’re just creating the platform to enable these connections to happen and be strengthened in the business sector.

Here’s a good example: We were approached by a chareidi electronic engineer, who couldn’t find employment in a chareidi work environment. He was highly qualified, but didn’t want to work in an environment that would compromise his standards of Yiddishkeit. So we put him in touch with a young chareidi entrepreneur who’s developing glasses for blind people. The glasses are able to “view” the room and give instructions through a sensor located on the temple, which gently guides the individual where to go.

This is a win-win situation – a chareidi engineer who needs a job, a chareidi entrepreneur who needs an engineer, not to mention the wonderful work being done to benefit the blind community.

I can see you’re sparing no effort in the design and landscaping of the Bnei Brak workspace commons, and I know you’ve done the same for the Yerushalayim branch. Why is the high-end feel so important?

Our message is clear: When you do something, you do it right. You can, and should, maintain your chareidi standards; but you shouldn’t compromise on your business and professional standards. A beautiful, well-designed office space makes you feel better about yourself and what you’re doing; it makes you happier, and ultimately being happier makes you more productive in business. The image you give – not only of yourself but to yourself – sends a clear message about how much you value what you’re doing.

Are there plans in the pipeline for more work centers?

Yes. We’re looking at establishing workspace commons in major chareidi centers around the world. Then we’ll be able to link chareidi entrepreneurs across the globe. The benefits could be enormous.

Of the many people you’ve helped over the years, is there a particular story that sticks out in your mind?

Many such stories, but I’ll share one from my youth. Years ago, when I was about 15 years old, a young man from Eretz Yisrael came collecting in Reb Chuna’s shul in London. Reb Chuna asked me to look after him, so I brought him home for breakfast at my parents’ house after shul. I later took him collecting, introducing him to my friends’ parents.

I noticed that his suit was completely worn out, so I took him to the factory of our local Jewish suit manufacturer, Mr. Bodner, z”l. Mr. Bodner was an especially kind man, and immediately gifted the young man with a new suit and coat. The young man stepped out of the suit factory looking – and feeling – like a mentch. He collected what he could, and went back to Eretz Yisrael. Eventually he went into business, and became quite successful.

A few years later, he came back to Golders Green with a little book in which he’d written down the names of the people who’d given him donations years before. He paid them all back.

How do you see the future of this type of philanthropy?

There is so much to be done, and so much that is already being done by so many to help improve the economic standing of chareidim. What we are doing is only a tiny part of what needs to be done and of what is being done, but lo aleinu hamelacha ligmor.