As a practicing rabbi and founder of a tech startup, I’m a professional paradox.
Being either an entrepreneur or a rabbi would be demanding enough, never mind the apparent contradictions between the two roles. A rabbi is a communal anchor, a trusted and reliable figure of authority who supports congregants through turbulent times, whereas the world of startups is the antithesis of security, relying on high-conviction decision-making, vulnerability, and trust. Rabbis are often perceived as traditional, while startup entrepreneurs are the epitome of innovation. Tech embraces disruption; rabbis, by and large, do not.
Yet my career path led me to pursue both vocations in tandem. I chose to pursue both paths and would hate to give up on either. Today, I’m both the COO of a startup I cofounded—YuLife, a tech-driven insurance company helping businesses promote mental and physical well-being—and a communal rabbi at London’s Golders Green United Synagogue.
Far from being oxymoronic, I think there’s a vital symbiosis binding my two careers together. It’s more than a great conversation starter both at the office and in the synagogue—I strongly believe that my training and experience as a rabbi has equipped me with the key skills necessary to thrive as a startup entrepreneur (and vice versa!). Here’s how:
Building a community
Both roles are ultimately about building a community. In a community, you must communicate with and engage people from all walks of life in order to sustain a positive common culture. Let’s take the synagogue where I work, which has a membership of around 500 families, who come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some are close friends, and others I barely know—but I must relate to everyone as equals and inspire them to take responsibility for their community.
Similarly, entrepreneurs are part of a wider ecosystem, which I liken to a community. Investors, employees, business partners, clients, and colleagues all have a critical role to play in making the industry ecosystem flourish. No entrepreneur has ever prospered by working entirely alone—our market relies on the ongoing exchange of ideas.
There are clear benefits for companies that adopt community frameworks for themselves. Employees, especially younger generations and newer recruits, frequently don’t feel a strong sense of affinity toward their employer. In 2018, Deloitte found that some 61% of Gen Z employees expect to leave their current workplace within two years, with just 12% expecting to stay for five years or more. With employee churn sometimes costing companies upwards of 150% of workers’ annual salaries, employers who foster community spirit don’t just enjoy better camaraderie and office culture. Their bottom lines also look significantly better.
Storytelling: from Moses to marketing
Communities are bound together by shared narratives—which is why, at their heart, both rabbis and entrepreneurs are storytellers. Your brilliant and innovative startup idea is worthless if you can’t convince investors to fund your company and customers to buy your product. To make that happen, you create a narrative: What pressing world problem do we address, and why are we the solution?
I learned the power of narrative during my rabbinic training. As a rabbi, I constantly strive to make ancient texts relevant in today’s context. And while those texts may not change, the challenges and opportunities we face—and therefore the questions we ask when reading them—do. Being a rabbi and being a successful entrepreneur both require an understanding of how people experience the world around them and how you can harness your expertise to respond to their needs.
“Empathy” is a key word that I’ve always seen as essential to my leadership style. It’s a core value that I acquired during my years as a rabbi but which undoubtedly helps me run my company.
Empathy is hugely compelling in a business context, largely thanks to the simple fact that companies that demonstrate care and understanding are more likely to thrive. Some 87% of U.K. office workers say that they are more likely to stay with employers who look after their well-being—in other words, by showing care for their staff, companies are directly promoting employee loyalty.
At YuLife, we provide tools for employers to help incentivize their employees to live healthier lifestyles. Our rationale is that once people are empowered to safeguard their physical and mental well-being, they’ll also become happier and more productive in the workplace. I’m not sure I would have realized just how important those attributes are without the prior experience of demonstrating care and empathy as a community leader.
Leading through adversity
It’s when times are tough, as they undoubtedly have been throughout 2020, that a community’s resilience is truly tested. I’ve had to use all my experience to help congregants and colleagues respond. At the synagogue, I’ve needed to guide people through one crisis after another: being apart from loved ones, financial insecurity, illness, and death. The startup world is also on very rickety ground: Company bosses have had to confront market volatility while attempting to keep up workplace morale from the other end of a Zoom call.
Being a rabbi has taught me to deal with a wide variety of unexpected changes and challenges that affect congregants’ personal lives. In regular times, the impact of my experiences as a rabbi made up an essential part of my business persona; this year, more than ever, they have proved vital in helping my company respond to an unprecedented period of crisis.
Sam Fromson is cofounder and COO of the tech-driven insurance company YuLife. In previous roles, he was an investor at a family office, and vice president of business development and operations at UK SME Lender InvoCap. He is a rabbi and father of three.