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New Jewish Camp to Teach Entrepreneurship to Teens

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You know it's a good idea when parents lament that they wish there was something like this when they were teens. That seems to be the general consensus among adults when they hear about Camp Inc., the new Jewish summer camp in Colorado with a focus on grooming the next successful business entrepreneurs.

Many of today's startup founders grew up attending camp, but they didn't have an opportunity to hone their entrepreneurial skills or learn how to pitch a new business idea to venture capitalists at those overnight summer camps. All that will change this summer as the first cohort of young campers descend on a beautiful camp in Boulder, Colo., prepared to start their journey as entrepreneurs. At the recent Leaders Assembly, the Foundation for Jewish Camp's biennial conference in New Brunswick, New Jersey, three of the leaders of this new venture seemed excited about the promise of such an endeavor.

Camp Inc. seeks to provide 7th through 12th graders with a unique Jewish summer camp experience that will spur creativity and invention through entrepreneurship. The ultimate goal of this camp for budding business leaders is to promote confidence, independence, leadership and philanthropy, all the while encouraging Jewish values in a dynamic Jewish summer camp community.

The ability of this new camp to become a reality so quickly is thanks to the Specialty Camps Incubator, which was created through a partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jim Joseph Foundation. The Jewish camp experience has been shown to have significant long-term benefits for young people and, thus, individual philanthropists as well as philanthropic foundations have made these camps -- both the ones already in existence and those being seeded -- a priority in their charitable giving in the past decade. This incubator was developed in response to the growing market and demand for overnight summer camps that focused on specific skill development while integrating Jewish culture.

As with entrepreneurial incubators in the business world, FJC's incubator accelerates the development of startup camps by providing the new camp directors with guidance, mentoring, training and collaboration to develop camps based on the highest standards in the camping industry. Management guidance, technical assistance, funding and consulting are all skills that are focused on in the planning stages for these new camps. The incubator launched five Jewish specialty camps in 2010, which all exceeded their enrollment benchmarks in the first two years. Four new camps will open this summer that took part in the second phase of the incubator, which is made possible by a grant jointly funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation. In addition to Camp Inc., the cohort includes Camp Zeke, an East Coast-based health and wellness camp, JCC Maccabi Sports Camp in the San Francisco Bay area and URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, which is a science and technology camp in the Boston area.

More than an MBA program for teens, Camp Inc. promises to teach practical entrepreneurship and real life start up experiences. It will be the first camp of its kind, and already the response has been overwhelmingly positive, says Josh Pierce, the Chief Camp Officer.

Pierce, 35, has a strong background in both Jewish camp and business leadership. After selling his event production company in 2011, Pierce teamed up with the Boulder Jewish Community Center where his friend Jonathan Lev serves as the executive director. Together with Camp Inc.'s COO Daniel Baer, the three men have traveled the country recruiting campers, as well as startup veterans to serve as mentors and teachers for their inaugural summer.

Pierce is excited to see the new camp open after investing countless hours in the planning stage, which has become a labor of love. "Not only have I been doing something entrepreneurial by starting an overnight camp from scratch, I will also be able to teach teens how to start their own businesses. There are non-religious camp programs that focus on entrepreneurship, but there's no Jewish experience like this and no overnight camp experience like this. With Camp Inc. we've successfully created both."

The camp is looking for current Jewish 6th to 11th graders who are creative, inventive and show problem solving ability. "Essentially, we're looking for tinkerers," Pierce explains. "Our camp will appeal to those teens who are constantly asking themselves how they can perform tasks more efficiently."

Camp Inc. doesn't plan to be any less "campy" than traditional overnight summer camps. In fact, it will offer all the great aspects and values that come out of typical overnight Jewish camp combined with a top notch business program. The idea is that Camp Inc. will model what life should be like for a young person running a startup venture. "We're on a residential camp property with an archery range, sports fields, high ropes elements, hiking and biking," says Pierce. "Just like a real life entrepreneur who needs breaks and a release from working on their company, campers at Camp Inc. will have plenty of time to enjoy our property's recreational activities."

Startup teams will be formed at camp with guest entrepreneurs who will visit each day to work with the campers and help these teams. Each week will culminate in a pitch day resembling the format of the "Shark Tank" reality television show. Entrepreneurs, angel investors and venture capitalists from Boulder and Denver will be on hand to field pitches from the campers. There are two pitch days in each session - the first will allow the campers to validate their idea and receive feedback from real-life entrepreneurs and investors, while on the second pitch day they can win prizes or seed money for their startup. Campers' startups can be a service or a product and can even be a nonprofit organization.

The camp will be co-ed and Pierce expects 80-100 campers in its inaugural summer, with a healthy balance of male and female campers. The first business specialist and the first bunk counselor hired are females. The business specialist, Abby Schneider, has a doctorate in marketing research at the University of Colorado at Boulder and teaches university level business courses. The bunk counselor, Carolyn Shillinglaw, is a social entrepreneurship major at Tulane University with a Jewish camping background from the Reform movement's URJ camps.

The leadership team envisions the first day of Camp Inc. to be like many other first days of overnight summer camp in which campers meet their peers. The entire camp experience at Camp Inc. mimics the real life world of a day-to-day entrepreneur. The startup team becomes the colleagues, the bunkmates become the family and the entire camp becomes the local Jewish community. At the core of the Camp Inc. mission is the value of giving back through philanthropy. Three days of the week the campers spend their days on camp property with a healthy mix of recreational activities, cabin time and startup planning time. Two days a week they will board buses to go on experiential tours to local companies in the Boulder area where they will meet with entrepreneurs or survey individuals and receive feedback about their products. Then there will be a full Shabbat experience in which they leave the specialty behind and celebrate the value of community and family. The camp leadership sees this as an opportunity to unplug and teach work-life balance in an entrepreneur's life. In fact, as Lev explains, "the Boulder JCC and Camp Inc. recently joined the National Day of Unplugging through Reboot."

While the camp is located in Boulder and plans to draw heavily from the local Denver and Boulder Jewish communities, campers are already registered from Florida, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Michigan, California, Illinois and Arizona. "The Foundation for Jewish Camp has been unbelievably valuable in helping to launch this new camp," Pierce says. "In addition to funding they have provided endless support from consultants and other professionals in the Jewish camping industry."

Specialty camps are certainly en vogue these days -- for both the campers and the donors who fund them. With this new focus on teaching practical business startup skills and entrepreneurship, no doubt even more successful businesspeople in the future will attribute their business acumen to their summer camp experience. "We're looking to create to the next generation of entrepreneurs that are connected to Jewish life," exclaimed Lev. "Who knows, we might just discover the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg this summer."

Rabbi Jason Miller is an educator, entrepreneur and technology writer from Detroit, Michigan. He's president of Access Computer Technology and blogs at Blog.RabbiJason.com.