It’s the question someone always asks if you’re a Duke student founder or aspiring entrepreneur seeking guidance and connections: “Have you talked to Howie yet?”
That’s Howie Rhee, whose stated mission since he began working at Duke in 2007 has been “to make Duke entrepreneurship awesome.” Rhee has provided tailored advice and support to thousands of students, and his genuine interest in people has resulted in him having an expansive network that enables him to tackle what Kasper Kubica ’17, founder of Carpe, calls “the single greatest challenge for us and for any startup—finding the right people.”
The students Rhee has coached have launched successful startups in industries ranging from healthcare, to fashion, to fintech, to mental health, to sports, and beyond. But now it’s Rhee who’s leaving Duke to build something new, having been invited to join a crypto startup founded by a former student.
While details can’t be shared publicly yet, Rhee is enthusiastic about the company’s potential. “I think crypto is a huge part of the future,” Rhee said, “and this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move forward with an incredible team solving a huge pain point that will help transition the world into a digital future.”
Rhee was a student founder himself, starting his first company, Twilight Games, while a junior at MIT. He co-founded IGC, then a leading games provider, which was acquired by Go2Net, and worked at various startups and spinouts before coming to Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in 2002 for his MBA. He took as many entrepreneurship courses as he could, even doing an independent study on strategies Fuqua could use to become a top entrepreneurial school.
After working at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, Rhee returned to Duke in 2007 as Managing Director of the newly formed Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Fuqua (CEI), working to support existing startups, provide students with outstanding entrepreneurship education, and contribute research data surrounding startup choices and outcomes. Rhee held that position until 2019, simultaneously joining the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E) in its infancy in 2013 as Managing Director of Student Programs. In this role, Rhee broadened his work to serve students not only at Fuqua, but throughout Duke, establishing and building a range of programs and opportunities for students working on entrepreneurial ventures.
With I&E Director Jon Fjeld and Duke alum T. Reid Lewis, in 2008 Rhee founded the Duke Global Entrepreneurship Network (DukeGEN), a network designed to help create dialogue, debate, and productive connections among Duke entrepreneurs; DukeGEN has grown to more than 10,000 members across its various platforms.
Rhee also worked with Fjeld to start the Program for Entrepreneurs (P4E)—now the New Ventures series of courses—in which undergrads work with graduate and professional students in multidisciplinary teams to explore potential markets for an innovation, evaluate the viability of a business model, and develop a go-to-market strategy and operations plan for a new commercial or social venture.
The StartupConnect Networking Fair, which Rhee grew in partnership with Janvi Shah ’15 and the Pratt School of Engineering, lets hundreds of students mingle with startup representatives from 30+ companies per year in a low-pressure environment.
With the launch of the Student Founder Program in 2020, Rhee collaborated with the Pratt School of Engineering to nurture and coach students from across Duke working on early-stage ventures.
He also previously managed the Duke Startup Challenge, in which large cash prizes are awarded to Duke startups by judges from around the world, and has advised student organizations including Hack Duke, the Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital Club, and The Cube.
Yet it has been through the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program that Rhee has worked most closely with Duke student founders. Created by lifelong entrepreneur Melissa Bernstein ’87 and her husband Doug—co-founders of Melissa & Doug, their eponymous toy company—the program is a year-long intensive fellowship in which students create their own companies, with the goal of continuing to grow and run them in the future.
“Howie has changed the lives of countless students with his gift of making them feel seen, heard, and supported throughout their entrepreneurial journeys,” said Melissa Bernstein. “I have never known anyone as willing to give unselfishly in connecting students to mentors and resources to transform their ideas into tangible products. Howie has become a compassionate presence in my life as well, and I feel incredibly fortunate to call him a dear friend after working side by side on Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs for over a decade.”
To date, alumni of the program have raised more than $50 million for their ventures. Recent alums include Samuel Fox ’18, founder of Seneca Devices, which makes medical and caregiver products; Ivonna Dumanyan ’16, co-founder of Fathom AI (acquired by Equinox Media), a wearable device that uses artificial intelligence and biosensors to prevent injuries in elite athletes; Suhani Jalota ’16, founder of the Myna Mahila Foundation, which employs women in Mumbai’s slums to produce local feminine hygiene products; and Kevin Gehsmann ’19, Clark Bulleit ‘19, and Tim Skapek ‘20, co-founders of Protect3d, which makes custom 3D-printed protective athletic gear.
James Wu ’18, a Melissa and Doug alum, co-founded AdaptiLab, an interview software company acquired by CoderPad in 2021. “Howie’s generosity and enthusiasm have gone a long way in building the Duke alumni network that supports student founders today,” said Wu.
“As an undergraduate at MIT, I found it hard to get mentorship on my startup, even though the school was well known for entrepreneurship,” Rhee said. “So at Duke I’ve tried to give every student I connected with useful mentorship, even if it was a five-minute conversation at a big event. My favorite memories are those points of authentic connection, meeting a kindred spirit and offering them some help in meeting their goals. My favorite thing is making a successful connection between two people in my network.”
While those who know Rhee are certain he will continue helping to “make Duke entrepreneurship awesome,” they also expressed excitement for him to immerse himself in his own startup.
B. Jefferson Clark E’78, MBA’84, a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, said, “It is only fitting that Howie once again join a startup to bring his incredible talents and energy to that enterprise.”
Duke I&E Director Jon Fjeld said, “It has been my very great pleasure working with Howie for these many years to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem and resources for students. Throughout this journey, Howie has brought his passion for entrepreneurship and his unique talent to connect people. He has left an indelible mark on the Duke community.”