By Katie Jansen | Photos by Katherine Black
This story was originally published on Duke Today.
Sarah Thelen walked in Friday evening with an idea, and she walked out Sunday afternoon with a draft of a business plan and $500 to pursue the idea.
Thelen, along with three teammates who chose to help her with her business STaRT Impact Sourcing, was the winner of the first Social Impact Startup Weekend hosted at The Bullpen by the Fuqua School of Business Net Impact Club.
Through STaRT Impact Sourcing, Thelen and her team proposes to connect with underemployed and unemployed individuals, particularly those from groups underrepresented in the tech industry. Then, through free six- to 12-week training sessions, the business will prepare workers for contract positions with small businesses and tech startups.
Thelen comes from a tech background, and this idea started among herself and a group of colleagues at a previous job. But then Thelen moved, and she was left thinking about how to get it off the ground in her new city – Durham.
She decided to go to public policy school, and she is now enrolled at Sanford.
“Coming to Duke, with all its passion for entrepreneurship, was vital for me,” she said.
And then when she heard about Social Impact Startup Weekend, the decision to register was “a no-brainer,” she said.
Thelen figured she would come in, pitch her idea, and see whether it interested anyone.
More than 40 people attended from seven Duke graduate schools, as well as other graduate schools in the area.
Fifteen to 20 people gave 30-second pitches on their ideas for socially responsible businesses, and then other attendees could vote on which ideas they wanted to work on.
Thelen said her idea received “the bare minimum” of votes, with three people she didn’t know signing on to work with her. But as the team – Fuqua student Kasey Haas, N.C. State Ph.D. student Mian Wu and N.C. State graduate Satyam Patel – shared their experiences through the weekend and helped flesh out Thelen’s idea into a more well-rounded company that would serve more marginalized groups.
For example, Haas has worked with people with disabilities and said she saw Thelen’s idea as an extension of the work she had already done.
“She completely opened my mind to those with disabilities,” Thelen said, “especially those on the autism spectrum. Those folks are often well-suited for tech work.”
Not only will STaRT Impact Sourcing help those who needs jobs, Thelen said, but it will also help employers as they search for talent to meet their diversity goals.
“One of my battle cries is to get more women into tech,” she said.
STaRT Impact Sourcing was determined the winner by a panel of three judges, with Durham Urban Food Foraging, a “dumpster-diving” food tour company to combat food waste, and Synergist, a company that trains MBAs to become nonprofit leadership, taking the two runners-up positions.
Now that Thelen’s idea has its first funding, she said her next steps are to follow up on critiques from the judges. She needs to get a better sense of her market and determine who would really want to start a new career in tech.
The most important thing, she said, is going out to talk to people – both those from underrepresented groups and those in hiring positions at startups.
“We can’t develop this service in a box,” she said.