Written by Denise Prickett

Throughout his Duke undergraduate career, Tito Bohrt developed and launched numerous companies, including ShelfRelief, a peer-to-peer used textbook marketplace, and SaleSource, a company working with Citrix to place fresh American talent in his homeland of Bolivia. During his free time, Bohrt focuses on his Beat Admissions project, which helps college hopefuls get into their dream school.

Bohrt is a founding member of Duke’s InCube (now The Cube), and in October 2013, while still a Duke senior, he donated $10,000 to the Duke Forward campaign in recognition of the role Duke I&E has played in helping him translate his ideas into impact.

Our Conversation with Tito Borht

Duke I&E: You’re a native of La Paz, Bolivia, where your father is an entrepreneur. You had already started several small-scale businesses when you were in secondary school. What led you to choose Duke for your university experience?

TB: I remember renting out my Game Boy Advance and doing some other things to make money while in middle school and high school. When I picked Duke I didn’t do it because of a program or a major; I went by feeling.

I toured 14 universities in the U.S. before deciding what my top choices were. My favorite was a university in Atlanta, so after graduating high school, I went to that university for an ESL program. I was excited to get to college early, but after a couple of days I hated the place. The tour had been amazing, but it is only a small snippet of the reality of the school. I didn’t feel like I fit in, so I went to the admissions office and withdrew my application.

At that point I was confused about where I really wanted to go. If my favorite school after the tours had suddenly become a no-go, how could I know that the others were good? Luckily, Duke invited me to the Latino weekend. I came here for three days and loved it! I’m so happy that I ended up choosing Duke. I’m now one of the proudest Duke alumni, and I have a passion for helping fellow Dukies.

Duke I&E: As an undergraduate at Duke, you had an uncommon perspective: your goal wasn’t a pre-professional program or graduating and getting into investment banking, but rather to create your own start-ups while still a student. You were quoted in The Duke Chronicle saying, “ShelfRelief is Plan A, and I have Duke as Plan B.” How did the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative help you achieve Plan A?

TB: When I got to Duke, my plan was to pursue a biomedical engineering major, work for two years, get an MBA, and hopefully by the time I turned 30, start my own business. Just being at Duke, meeting other students who wanted to start businesses and connecting to alumni, was a tremendous help. Howie Rhee [Managing Director for Student and Alumni Affairs at the Duke Innovation and Entrepreurship Initiative], Fabio Berger [a co-founder of ShelfRelief], Michael Bernert, Sidney Primas, Idan Koren, and Taylor Mingos [all Duke student entrepreneurs] were the first ones to inspire and help me.

I quickly changed my mind and decided I could start a business that provided value to society and a profit for myself. I read some productivity and business books, and it really didn’t seem that hard. Duke is just such a unique place. People are there to help, from David Needham [Professor with Tenure in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Pratt School of Engineering] offering me to do research to de-color llama hair to hearing from Taylor Mingos about his entrepreneurial journey. It was all these people who helped me make entrepreneurship Plan A and grades Plan B.

Duke I&E: You participated in the Duke Start-Up Challenge for ShelfRelief and SaleSource, and you were one of the founding members of InCube (now called The Cube). What advice would you give current student innovators and entrepreneurs about how to make the most of their Duke experience?

TB: I usually tell incoming freshmen that if they are coming here for academics, they are doing it wrong. If you just want to learn a subject, there are many websites that have classes from elite institutions—you can learn all the class material easily, and the ability to rewind is great.

What you can’t get from online courses is the connections, the people, the inspiration, and the direct advice to your particular situation. Having a mentor who has gone through what you want to go through is invaluable. I only learn from people who have done what I want to do and have figured out a way to do things better. If you want to be a doctor, go shadow a doctor for a week: wake up at 6 a.m., go wake him up, make him breakfast, and just shadow him all over the place. If you find his days fulfilling, then go ahead and be pre-med; if not, shadow someone else.

I knew what my dad’s life was like, and I wanted mine to be the same. When I thought I wanted to do BME, I didn’t realize that most BME majors spend a lot of time in a lab. I would be so unhappy if I had to do that. There are careers and majors for everyone; the key is to find out what lifestyle you would enjoy the most and work really hard to achieve that.

Duke I&E: One of the signatures of a Duke education is “knowledge in the service of society.” ShelfRelief pledged to give all of its first-year profits to S.O.S. Children’s Villages in La Paz, providing school materials and scholarships for orphans in Latin America. Were you able to achieve that goal? Are there other organizations serving the larger social good that you hope to support?

TB: We donated more than $500 to S.O.S. Children’s Villages despite ShelfRelief losing money the first year. The commitment to help others shows what type of business you are building. If you want to do business just to make money, your chances of success are low. You have to want to help others; business is about adding value. I wanted people to know that ShelfRelief wasn’t there to take their money and make a huge profit. It was there to help them out with their books and hopefully make money at some point.

SaleSource is the same way: we hire recent college grads and pay for their flights down to Costa Rica; we give them a place to stay and train them to be able to perform the job well. Instead of minimizing costs, we try to maximize smiles. The happier employees are, the better they perform. Trips to the beach, bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, and other events make our employees love the experience. And they know that if they perform well, they’ll get a job in Raleigh. Our clients also love this because they get a better ROI and excellent employee satisfaction while these employees are in Costa Rica. Everyone wins.

I personally like supporting nonprofits that are doing a good job. S.O.S. Children’s Villages was first; Duke I&E was next. I want to keep supporting those who are doing a great job.

To learn more about ShelfRelief, click here.

To read about more Duke entrepreneurs, click here.

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