Student Founders Showcase Businesses in Annual Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Pitch Session
The vast majority of entrepreneurs draw upon their own experiences when finding problems to solve, and Zakiya Alta Lee MBA ’22 is no different.
“Seventy-two days ago, I had my first child,” she said, beginning a pitch for her company, Kiburi. Surveying the landscape for educational entertainment she might one day show her daughter, Lee—who is Black—was disheartened. “I like MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman just as much as the next person, and they did amazing things for our society,” she said. “But we need a full picture of the Black experience to help combat negative long-term outcomes.” Through engaging media content including games, puzzles, and stories, Kiburi will highlight contributions of Black leaders all over the world.
Lee is part of this year’s cohort of Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, Duke’s premiere program for student entrepreneurs. The program was established in 2013 by Melissa Bernstein T’87 and her husband, Doug, co-founders of toy company Melissa & Doug.
The Student Founder Program, run by Duke I&E in partnership with Duke Engineering Entrepreneurship (EngEn), supports all students across Duke who seek to launch a venture during their time here, whether commercial, social, artistic, or beyond. Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs now serves as the program’s advanced track, conferring additional benefits and funding.
This year’s Melissa & Doug cohort is comprised of eleven students, both undergraduate and graduate/professional, representing diverse backgrounds and courses of study at Duke—computer science, chemistry, global health, philosophy, business, medicine, engineering, and more.
During the cohort’s recent annual pitch session—led by Howie Rhee, Managing Director of Student Programs for the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E)—presenters showcased their solutions for a wide range of social, educational, and health problems:
- Blooket is an educational website that adds a deeper level of gamification to live review games.
- GrantEd is a software platform designed to connect Black and brown students with scholarships and financial aid.
- Bundal is a mobile app that “bundles” all your contact information to share at once.
- Dinvite is a chat-integrated mobile app that helps groups more easily and quickly organize where and when to eat out.
- Kiburi is an interactive educational online platform designed to enhance learning and increase positive representation of Black leaders for young learners.
- Climb is a platform that automatically manages users’ crypto portfolios.
- RISC Ratings is a rating and certification organization that promotes supply chain resilience for critical medications to prevent drug shortages.
- PIEL is an all-natural skincare line that utilizes simple mixtures of powerful botanicals; it is the first skincare brand to be safe for both bacterial acne and fungal acne.
- EQ Software and Golf EQ use artificial intelligence to recommend equipment to golfers.
- CONTACT Line is a nonprofit organization that supports individuals by providing free, face-to-face comprehensive support for anyone experiencing loneliness via video call.
After the pitches, guest investors convened to discuss the presentations and select the companies to whom they would extend investments and/or mentorship. These guests included Jonathan Drillings, Partner at Riverside Acceleration Capital; Ramy Brook Sharp, President and Creative Director at Ramy Brook LLC; Robert Ravanshenas, Senior Associate at Maven Ventures; Dimitri Zarboulas, CEO of Primordial Design, Inc.; Jake Stauch, serial founder and current head of product at Verkada; Tatiana Birgisson, founder of MATI Energy and current Head of Marketing & Operations for OpenStore; and Alan Ma, co-founder and VP of Business Operations for CasTag Biosciences.
Session Highlights & Takeaways
Students’ companies have already made extensive progress.
- Blooket (Ben Stewart T’23), an educational website with various methods of increasing engagement, had 30K users at the beginning of last school year; the week of the demo, it had 10M users.
- GrantEd (Jasmine Chigbu SoM’22), a scholarship platform for Black and brown students, is projected to have 1M users and 100 university partners by the end of 2023.
Whether by using innovative technology or addressing the problem at a different stage, founders are looking to stand apart with their solutions.
- “Our system replaces that necessary interaction with a golf professional, so it can be used by golfers of all abilities.” —Damon Burrow BME PhD ’25 (Golf EQ)
- “[A competitor’s solution bought by IBM] doesn’t really look at the root causes of drug shortages, which typically are further upstream, like the concentration and manufacturing of certain raw materials or manufacturing plants that are running 24/7 but then have a quality issue that delays production for a month.” —Stephen Colvill MBA ’22 (RISC Ratings)
Founders identified a real, pressing need based on their personal experiences and education.
- “Most if not all acne and skincare products on the market are antibacterial or contain ingredients that feed the yeast [from fungal acne] unknowingly.” —Colette Brooks T’22 (Piel)
- “Underlying every conversation [at the crisis line I volunteered for] was a single thread; people were incredibly lonely and these people felt like they had an enormous weight on their shoulders but no one else to turn to for help.” —Ying Yu T’23, CONTACT Line
- “When you go to a hospital, you expect that life-saving, life-sustaining drugs that you need for your treatment will be there when you need them, but that’s just unfortunately not a given.” —Stephen Colvill MBA’22, RISC Ratings
Group Feedback and Mentorship Are Paramount to Success
“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback every step of the way, which has helped me get much better at prioritizing how I spend my time during venture development.” —Baran Yildirim E’21 (Climb)
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet and discuss ideas with fascinating people, each with their own experience and perspective. By challenging and building upon my ideas, these connections have helped me avoid pitfalls and develop my intuition for product.” —Lakshya Bakshi E’21 (Dinvite)
“Whenever I was facing a difficult decision or problem I was able to turn to a mentor that helped guide me in the right direction.” —Ben Stewart T’23 (Blooket)