Tackling Jews’ economic woes, one business card at a time

August 25, 2011

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(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Shalom Klein says simple networking has already helped Jewish businesses' bottom lines.

It's hard to feel like there's much any of us can do to help fix our economy these days. But in north suburban Skokie, an unlikely young man is taking a stab at it by playing a sort of business matchmaker within his Jewish community.

If you encounter a 22-year old college graduate at a job fair these days, you'd expect to hear a tale of woe. Endless job searches, fruitless leads, and a mountain of college debt. Well, not so with Shalom Klein. 

At a job fair at North Side College Preparatory High School last week, he was the guy soliciting resumes. Often from people much older than him, which he says felt a bit weird sometimes.

Klein's appearance belies his young age. He wears a beard, a suit, he has a yarmulke on his head in the tradition of observant male Jews, and he carries a leather-bound folder.

Klein's here to recruit people like Don Richie — a technical writer — and also some of the companies here, to his job fair. It'll be Thursday night in Skokie. It's called The Business Event. It's the culminating event of an organization Klein started a year ago, called Jewish B2B Networking.

Klein questions Richie about what kind of work he’s looking for.

“Well, I’m a technical writer,” Richie said.  “Really, so instruction manuals...?” “That's right,” Richie said. “Oh, you know what a technical writer does. That's great.”

Klein started it to hook up small businesses in Chicago's Jewish community. Most of them are on Chicago's North Side and Skokie.  It's his own sort of Jewish "stimulus plan."

“Having gone to school in Rogers Park, living in Skokie, I see Devon Street, I see Dempster, and I see the all the vacant storefronts, I see the crime that's going up, and I completely attribute that to the strain of businesses and the numbers of people that are unemployed,” Klein said.

Klein's fix: networking. It may sound simplistic, but he thinks it leads to jobs and economic growth. 

“I don't have a background in economic development and job creation, I'm not a career coach. But I've come up with more of the ... I guess the on-the-street version of how to address the problems.”

In fact, Klein's background is in something entirely different. He went to college to be a rabbi. There's another reason he seems an unlikely candidate to take on these big issues:

Klein had to apply for a job himself when he was working in New York, but count himself as fortunate as he works in a family business.

Klein works at his dad's accounting, bookkeeping and debt-collections firm. He'll probably run it after his dad retires. So he's never had to worry about unemployment like many of the people he tries to help. But Klein says the idea for Jewish B2B came from expanding his family business. He went on a big networking spree to find new small business clients.

“I realized that so many of our clients, friends, and family, needed to connect with each other. A realtor needs a photographer to take pictures of their listings, a photographer needs a lawyer, a lawyer needs an accountant. It was just a matter of connecting the dots,” he said.

Klein started with a smallish networking event at a Kosher restaurant in Skokie. He expected about 20 people to show up. Instead, nearly 80 came.

“And the next day I walked into a coffee shop, and I saw two meetings going on from the day prior. And I knew I hit on something big,” he said.

Klein expects his latest event will draw 2,500 people. Among them –some heavyweights: Congressmen Jan Schakowsky and Robert Dold, and Illinois Lt. Governor Sheila Simon.

Klein admits there are some mornings he wakes up and is like, How did I get here? “I don't know what it was. I don't know what it was exactly that brought so many people together. I know how to plan an event. I know what food to order, I know where to do it, I know how to promote an event.”

One more thing: the business card exchange. Before leaving, this WBEZ reporter gave her card to Klein.  Klein in turned pulled out a nearly one-inch stack of cards.

“Every single day I meet with a lot of people. Today, Odette, I think you're my 12th meeting of the day,” Klein said.

It was only 2:00 p.m.