The inspiration of innovation


In his 2012 State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma appealed to South Africans to work with the government to solve the country’s three biggest challenges — unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Shaka Sisulu with Guy Lieberman at the gathering.

Little did the President know that the following day, an American petroleum billionaire and philanthropist named Lynn Schusterman would come to Johannesburg to launch a first-ever gathering of the
country’s top 50 young Jewish innovators who have dedicated their lives to improving South Africa. In partnership with Sasfin Bank and the local non-profit organisation Jewish Interactive; the aim of the gathering was to recognise the entrepreneurial spirit of South Africa’s young Jewish adults, and to create a space for them to meet one another and collaborate on future projects.

Although South Africa’s Jewish community has reduced in the past 30 years, the event highlighted the important work being done by its creative and talented members. “Lynn is investing in the
most important asset in the South African Jewish community — its young adults and their innovative minds and talent,” said Seth Cohen of the Schusterman Foundation.
Last year, Johannesburg-based Guy Lieberman attended Lynn Schusterman’s annual ROI (Return on Investment) Summit in Jerusalem, which brings together 150 of the brightest and most dynamic young Jewish minds from around the world. When Lieberman noticed that he was the only South African participant at the summit still living in South Africa, he decided to establish a similar gathering back home. “Because much of the vision and ethos behind ROI was missing in the South African community, I initiated the Young Jewish Innovators Gathering in order to start this conversation,” he said.

The joy of Jewish living and giving
For over 25 years, Lynn and her late husband Charles have funded a network of foundations that support young Jews throughout the world and initiatives that directly benefit their hometown of Tulsa,
Oklahoma. The 73-year old grandmother of six began to invest in Jewish causes in the mid-1980s, after a close family member abandoned Judaism to become a Buddhist. “I have felt that if I do not get
involved in trying to create the joy of Jewish living, giving and learning, then it is not going to happen,” she said.
Schusterman is also one of the founders of Taglit-Birthright Israel, the enormously successful programme that has brought over 250 000 Jews between the ages of 18 — 26 on a free ten-day trip to Israel to connect with the country. She is passionate about inclusivity in Jewish communities, particularly of gay and lesbians and families where one parent is not Jewish.
Globally-focused and in tune with the enormous challenges facing young people today, she is very concerned about youth unemployment, whether it be in Tulsa or Johannesburg. “You have to have an education in order to have job creation. Education is the key to everything,” she emphatically stated.

“This is what Jews do”
The two keynote speakers at the gathering, Shaka Sisulu and Helen Lieberman, recalled why and how they leveraged their relative privilege to empower marginalised communities. Shaka Sisulu is the 31 year-old grandson of struggle icon Walter Sisulu, and is the founder of the Cheesekids organisation. He recalled how privileged black children during the apartheid-era were called ‘cheese kids’ by their peers because they could afford to bring cheese sandwiches to school. When Sisulu grew up and became wealthy through Black Economic Empowerment; he felt that he needed to help uplift others.
In 2007, he started meeting regularly with other young black professionals to improve communities in the townships. He eventually left the business world to fully dedicate himself to running Cheesekids,
which has grown to an 8 500 member-strong volunteer organisation. Sisulu believes that discriminatory legislation that previously barred Jews from entering certain professions made them even more
determined to succeed, which he dubbed the ‘quantum leap’. Using Jewish history as a model, he hopes that previously disadvantaged South Africans will see their past as a reason to succeed, rather than as an excuse to be demotivated.
“I do what I do because I am a Jew, and this is what Jews do,” said Ikamva Labantu founder Helen Lieberman, who was arrested by the police on numerous occasions during apartheid for working to improve the lives of township residents. Like Schusterman, she believes in supporting those who have a vision, without needing to take any personal credit for it. Her motto
is: “If you have a solution, and can teach it to me, I will help you make it happen.” Lieberman once assisted a community to build a school for over 6 000 destitute children living on a sand dune. This school eventually became the Mavumba School in Crossroads, which was the first place Nelson Mandela visited after his release from prison. She measures standards by the metric: “If it is not good enough for me or my grandchild, then it is not good enough for anyone else.”
Lynn Schusterman has set the bar high for South African philanthropists and social entrepreneurs of all races to create initiatives that benefit the poor, incentivise education, and bring entrepreneurs together to tackle the country’s greatest challenges. Her foundation’s model and ethos must be replicated here.

Find out more about the Schusterman Foundation at or on Twitter at @SchustermanFoun