Casey Schoff ’24, a Duke I&E Certificate student, shared how his interests and goals have been shaped by his Duke experiences, startup internships, and connections in Duke’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Have your career plans changed since coming to Duke? What factors contributed to your plans?
My career plans have changed drastically since coming to Duke. When I entered as a freshman, I was dead set on going into investment banking and working on Wall Street. However, as I learned more about the industry, I began to realize that it didn’t suit me well, and instead became more interested in using my economics background to analyze environmental issues. Interning at a climate tech startup my freshman summer confirmed my passion for sustainability and piqued my interest in working for early-stage companies working to tackle climate change. My sophomore year is when I began to focus on clean energy as an opportunity to put my skills to use to make an outsized impact. A mixture of work on Duke Energy Club consulting projects and a work study through Duke’s Energy Initiative gave me my first exposure to the industry, and I was hooked. Overall, I think Duke’s wide variety of resources contributed to my ability to stay flexible in finding the right career path.
Tell us about your startup internships. What have you enjoyed about working with startups?
My freshman summer I interned at Ecolytics, a small pre-seed startup with a proprietary software that helps companies track and reduce their carbon footprints. It was about as early stage as it gets, as the team at the time was only the founder and one other intern! Last summer, I interned at a startup consulting firm, Patomak Global Partners, working on regulatory strategy projects for fintech and cryptocurrency firms. What I loved about working at both startups was the exposure to a wide variety of different roles. Especially with Ecolytics, I did everything from market research, to social media marketing, to web design, which I think is particularly valuable for a student my age who is trying to figure out which roles I enjoy the most. I also enjoyed the personal feel of startups, as both summers I made meaningful connections with my coworkers without the internal bureaucracy of larger companies.
How did your Duke I&E courses and experiences prepare you for startup life, and what did you have to learn on your own?
My freshman year internship was before I had even decided to pursue the I&E certificate (in many ways, it inspired me to explore that option), so I had to learn a lot on the fly about how startups operate. I think it made taking I&E 352 even more valuable, as the class put a lot of what I had been exposed to into context and clarified what sorts of things are standard among all new ventures. That class also prepared me well for my time at Patomak Global Partners, as I was able to have informed conversations about business strategy with the company’s founder and CEO. It was incredible to hear about how his journey had striking similarities to some of the case studies from the class, and I learned a ton from hearing his story. I think in both situations what I had to learn on my own were the company-specific operations. I mentioned how many startups have similarities, but working for different ones, I realized there were substantial differences in culture, and I had to learn how to play a different role for the different companies.
Considering your Duke I&E courses and experiences, what have been your most valuable takeaways?
I can say that my most valuable takeaway from my Duke I&E courses and experiences is a newfound confidence. It has been an incredibly empowering feeling to go from knowing nothing about startups as a freshman to now knowing that if I had an idea I wanted to pursue, I am confident I could take the right first steps and get the ball rolling. And I think that’s the hardest part. A lot of people have ideas, but they just don’t know where to start. I think the best thing I have gotten out of Duke I&E is the basic business understanding and network of faculty and founders that could help me commercialize an idea when the time is right.
In what ways has the Duke innovation and entrepreneurship network supported you?
I think the best example of the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship network supporting me is that the founder I worked for freshman year, Hazel Horvath, was a recent Duke graduate. Having that common ground with her made me feel much comfortable asking questions and admitting when I didn’t know things, which helped me get much more out of the experience. Another way I have felt supported is by the flexibility of the I&E staff. This semester, I was really hoping to take a class on energy technology, but it had never been approved for an I&E credit in the past. After a few quick emails with faculty, I was able to explain that this class provided valuable technical background for my interest in clean energy technology startups, and they were 100% for it! The flexibility to really tailor the certificate to my interests and the fact that the staff trusted me to know what was most useful for myself really made me feel supported by the Duke I&E community.