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Duke Students Immerse Themselves in Silicon Valley Startup Culture

After two years of virtual delivery, this year’s Ronald & Carrie Ludwig Duke in Silicon Valley program was back in Silicon Valley, the nation’s hub for entrepreneurial activity, with a hybrid format.

Students gained in-depth understanding of enterprise formation via speakers, case studies, lectures, and simulations that informed their own design thinking projects in partnership with startup STOPWATCH, which delivers normalized data to consumer packaged goods companies.

With guest speakers from Stych, Faire, Meta, AirBnB, Sprinter Health, MiResource, Ancestry.com, Microsoft, ThirdLove, DoorDash, and more, students delved into topics like negotiation tactics, work culture, marketing, product design, product management, AI and ethics, and tech policy.

Students working on a team design thinking project

“It was wonderful to be back in Silicon Valley,” said Kevin Hoch, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship’s Managing Director for Education. “A core strength of the program is building the student cohort community through in-person classes, program activities, and our residential model. Visiting the companies in person enables students to engage with all their senses, providing an in-depth understanding of the area’s culture.”

The cohort got to see the San Francisco Giants play at Oracle Park—and got a tour afterwards from the team’s Senior Vice President, Bill Schlough, who shared his career journey. The students were able to practice the “yes, and…” mentality that supports innovation when they took the stage with the BATS Improv Theatre in San Francisco, developing skills related to brainstorming through improv exercises.

The virtual components of the four-week, one-credit program provided additional value, enabling students to engage with not only alumni based in Silicon Valley, but also those working for companies based in the area but located across the country.

“One of the hallmarks of the Duke in Silicon Valley experience is the stimulating dynamic created by bringing Duke undergraduate students together with Duke’s alumni base working in tech and startups,” said senior lecturing fellow Kathie Amato, who taught the course. “This year excelled in that regard, as every guest speaker session and company visit was filled with engaging and thought-provoking conversations as alums shared their experiences in response to the rapid-fire questions coming from the well-prepared students. Just as the students were inspired by their interactions with the alumni, the alums were equally inspired by the intellect, drive, and passion to make a difference they saw reflected in the student cohort.”

Penelope North ’25, who is studying biomedical engineering, was inspired by a talk by Deborah Liu, CEO of Ancestry.com, in which Liu asked the class to imagine themselves in the future.

“If the ambition and thirst for knowledge in the room felt so forceful now, imagine the success stories that will populate it in a decade,” said North.

Learning Lessons for Later

Bari Gruber ’25 was particularly impacted by the story of Ravi Gupta, partner at Sequoia Capital, who addressed common fears surrounding lack of passion or groundbreaking ideas. “He assured us that these fears are completely normal and the answers to these questions come with time—there is no rush to have them figured out,” said Gruber. “All of the Duke alumni that took the time to speak with us were not only incredibly helpful in teaching us about the world of entrepreneurship, but also kind and eager to share their experiences with us.

Cultivating a Culture of Collaboration

Muaz Bin Kashif ’24, who is studying computer science and statistical science, dreams of one day starting a software venture of his own with his father, a software engineer in their home city of Islamabad.

Bin Kashif was particularly struck by an activity where he and a classmate carried out a mock business transaction, only to learn that had they collaborated and shared essential information, they could have both gained much more. “Silicon Valley is far from a mere collection of corporations competing against each other in a mountainous desert,” Bin Kashif said. “It is where talent thrives and passion prevails. Where the lone wolves struggle and the pack succeeds.”

“Kelly Hirano, a Director of Engineering at Meta, mentioned the way his friends were able to help him in his pursuit of early career opportunities; Fred Ehrsam, founder of Coinbase and Paradigm, underscored the importance of seeking out the perfect co-founders; Max Cohen, CEO of Sprinter Health, noted how well his VP of Operations, Ariana Afshar, complements his strengths and weaknesses as they expand their startup; and Mackenzie Drazan, CEO of MiResource, highlighted how pertinent Duke’s academic and professional resources were in supporting her business while she operated out of her college dorm. These are the stories I will recall and take inspiration from as I embark on my own entrepreneurial journey.”

Thinking Like a Founder

Liza Goldstone ’25 is studying to become a mechanical engineer and wants to devise assistive technologies that increase accessibility. “To facilitate our learning in the course, Professor [Kathie] Amato purposefully curated experiential opportunities,” Goldstone said. “We participated in online simulations that positioned us to make decisions regarding time, money, and human capital as a founder would.”

“As I step into my full potential as a thoughtful design thinker, collaborator, and leader, I intend to hone these skills and reference DSV’s lessons often to help shape my future.”

Duke in Silicon Valley Takeaways (Liza Goldstone ’25):

“The strategy of formulating concise ideas from a bounty of information appears repeatedly throughout the design thinking process. Curating daily takeaways has been an exercise in contemplation and synthesis, extracting key nuggets from the knowledge we have acquired over the past two weeks.”

  • Day 1: Establishing psychological safety is crucial to fostering productive teamwork experiences.
  • Day 2: Empathy allows us to connect to our users and understand their true needs.
  • Day 3: When conducting customer interviews, we want to evoke responses that reveal not only the things people do, but also how they feel.
  • Day 4: The goal of an interview is to elicit stories. Achieve this with broad asks and follow-up “why” questions.
  • Day 5: Entrepreneurship is about thinking beyond “what is,” escaping the bounds and limitations of current solutions.
  • Day 6: The resources one has control over as a founder include time as well as financial, human, and social capital.
  • Day 7: Consider the advice shared with you… and take it with a grain of salt.
  • Day 8: When negotiating, be curious. Aim to understand your negotiating partner’s interests and collaborate to find a solution that brings the most benefit to both parties.
  • Day 9: Product-market fit is achieved when the product offering profitably meets target customers’ needs.

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