By Lopa Rahman ’16
Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, Duke’s premier undergraduate entrepreneurship program, has helped students take their entrepreneurial ventures to new heights.
A year-long intensive program, Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs offers students a summer stipend, workshops, mentors, and the opportunity to work with Melissa and Doug Bernstein, the co-founders of children’s toy company Melissa & Doug.
Among the students in the program are juniors Kasper Kubica and Alex Elsea and seniors Ivonna Dumanyan and Suhani Jalota. Although their businesses are vastly different from one another, they have gained valuable insights from each other in the entrepreneurial learning process.
“In entrepreneurship, everyone’s path is so different,” said Kubica, a co-founder and the Chief Operating Officer of Carpe Lotion, an antiperspirant hand lotion. “It helps to talk to people and see how they did it.”
Dumanyan and Kubica noted that joining Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs helped them focus their time and energy on their startups, which have seen tremendous progress in the past year. Dumanyan is a co-founder and President of BioMetrix, a wearable device company that produces light, flexible, and specialized sensors for training athletes. The purpose of the sensors is to help athletes prevent injury by notifying wearers of injury-causing deviations in form. Dumanyan said the company’s products already have presales in the six figure range. Carpe Lotion launched its product over the summer and has been successfully selling its product through both its website and Amazon.com.
“It’s weird how few people believed in this company until the launch,” Kubica said. “The vast majority of people in my life were saying, ‘This is stupid’ and, ‘This isn’t going to sell.’ And now everyone has completely changed their minds because it is selling. Being part of Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs helped me legitimize that I was going to focus all my effort into the company above everything else because I had a reputable program standing behind me in that decision.”
Elsea said the greatest benefit of Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs is the mentorship aspect. All members of the program are connected with a group of mentors that they can lean on as they develop their business plans and put them into action.
“Anytime I run into a problem the first people I go to are all my mentors that Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Howie Rhee have connected me to,” Elsea said. “These are just the best entrepreneurs in the United States and the world. They want to help you so much, and it’s huge.”
Kubica, Dumanyan, and Jalota echoed this sentiment. Dumanyan said Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs helped her land meetings with professionals she would never have been able to get face time with through just a phone call or e-mail. Jalota, an innovator in the social entrepreneurship space whose company provides sanitary care products to low-income women in India, found that her mentors helped her come up with a focus for her business.
“I had five ideas and wasn’t sure what to do,” Jalota said. “They said you have to focus on one particular start-up. There’s no way you can implement all of those ideas. Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs has allowed me to channel my various kinds of energy into one stream.”
The connections Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs provides to students affords them a support system that can be hard to find in entrepreneurship, which is often highly individual.
“It’s no longer just me anymore,” Elsea said. “It’s me and every Duke entrepreneurial alumni building this company.”
The Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program is made possible by a generous gift from Melissa ’87 and Doug Bernstein and through their tremendous personal support to each student in the program.