exterior of NYU Bronfman Center

NYU Bronfman Center

Not long after Nir Tsuk launched the new Institute for Impact & Intrapreneurship at NYU’s Bronfman Center—which, he notes, seeks to "bring the language of entrepreneurship to people or places that are usually less exposed to it”—he received a request to offer a program for sex trafficking survivors.

“We said, ‘Yes, of course,’” Tsuk recalls. “It took us a fraction of a second.”

The effort fit seamlessly into the institute's mission of empowering untraditional entrepreneurs and providing tools for both conventional start-ups or for innovation enterprises within large, venerable organizations. Over a two-week pilot program in July at NYU's Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, 28 women from 18 different countries participated in an intensive “ELab”—only the second such program for the burgeoning institute.

Classes were taught by leading experts and practitioners and covered topics such as time management, self-care, public speaking, and personal finance. NYU Department of Nutrition and Food Studies Professor Lisa Sasson taught a course on nutrition; Ken Ng (Stern ’84,’89), previously the chief executive officer of Electrolux’s Asia Pacific major appliances branch, taught a course on cash flow. Participants will also be enrolled in year-long mentorship program as they aim to start their own businesses.

The request to teach entrepreneurship to women who have survived forced commercial sex work came from Restore NYC, one of the nation’s leading nonprofits focused on helping people who have been trafficked. The organization, which offers housing support and economic empowerment programming, was responding to its own survey data: 78 percent of its clients have said they are interested in starting a business.

headshot of Nir Tsuk

Nir Tsuk

Everyone can benefit from entrepreneurial skills, says Tsuk, who previously served as a visiting professor at Osaka University, as a strategist at Idealist, and as managing director of Ashoka Israel. “Entrepreneurship is not a field or a subject or a topic,” he says. “It’s a language. It’s a kind of literacy to know something about entrepreneurial skills or to be exposed to ideas about the culture of innovation.”

Tsuk spoke with NYU News about the thinking behind the two-week program and plans to expand it around the country and the world.

How were survivors selected for the program?

This particular group of participants had said they want to start their own business. There was an application process—we want to make sure we give the right tools to the right people. If someone would like to be a nurse in a hospital, that’s fantastic, but it would probably be a waste of her time to have her with us for two weeks. We wanted the participants to have entrepreneurial plans or aspirations.

What kinds of businesses do the women want to start? Do some of them already have their own businesses?

One had a catering business, and another had a beauty salon. One person wanted to open a photography agency, another wanted to create her own brand of shampoo for people of color, and another person wanted to do something in the field of urban tourism—organizing walks around the neighborhood.

How was the program structured?

We identified main subjects—such as entrepreneurship and business planning and finance—and then broke those down into smaller topics: four 90-minute units each day. We taught them about cash flow and professionalism and public speaking—it wasn’t just problem solving and ideation and creativity. We also tried to make sure we weren’t only covering hard skills but also soft skills, so we did mindfulness and self-care and nutrition. As the Bronfman Center focuses on ethics, values, spiritual life, and social change, we wanted to make sure that these elements would be prominent too.

What was the response from participants?

I’m an excitable person to begin with, but this was one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in my career. I’ve been teaching almost too many years, and this was the best group of students I’ve ever had. They were dedicated and eager to learn and creative, and they fought to be there. They really want to succeed. One of the things people talk about when they discuss trafficking is how these people become invisible. It was important to have this in a prime location at NYU. We wanted to say, ‘You are so visible; you are at the center of the world.’

Do you plan to expand the model?

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of trafficking, but, luckily enough, there is no shortage of NYU global sites either. One of the exciting things about working at a global network university is that we have permission to go anywhere. Our partners at Restore are eager to expand and we will let the need lead.

What are your goals for the new institute at the Bronfman Center? What exactly is intrapreneurship?

I’ve been in the entrepreneurship business for almost 20 years. The older I get, the more I realize that, to a certain extent, we’ve created a monster. Too many young people—and I’m being a bit cynical—create startups that solve problems that are only in their heads, and for which they are the founders, CEOs, presidents, and only employees. I’m not sure we should always create new organizations. One of the ways I define entrepreneurship is as finding new solutions to old problems. You can do that by creating new startups, or you can do that inside existing organizations—that’s what intrapreneurship is. The feeling at the Bronfman Center was that we wanted to be more creative with innovation.