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Seven Melissa & Doug Startups Snag 26 Investment Pledges at Demo Day

Published: 11 months ago | 0 comments

Duke alumni, students and staff gathered recently in Westport, Connecticut to celebrate Demo Day 2017 for the fourth cohort of Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs.

Each year, Melissa Bernstein (T’87) and her husband Doug host the event, which is the culmination of a year-long program aimed at helping students build their own startups. Demo Day gives students the opportunity to pitch the companies they have been working on throughout the program.  

Not only is the event an opportunity for students to share their progress, but it’s also an opportunity to obtain funding. Duke-affiliated investors are invited to attend, and a group of individual sharks had agreed to pledge at least a $5,000 investment to a student company.

Many of the investors decided to invest in multiple student companies, making the event the most successful in the program’s history. By the end of the evening, 26 investment pledges had been made to seven student startups.

“We couldn’t run this program without the support of our alumni,” said Howie Rhee, program director for Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs and managing director for student and alumni affairs at Duke I&E. “The entire idea for the program originated from one of our alumni – Melissa Bernstein herself. Since then, countless Duke alumni have offered support, mentorship and even funding to our student startups.”

Bernstein said she wanted to start the program because she wanted to provide the mentorship that she couldn’t find as she began her journey as an entrepreneur.

“When Doug and I started our toy company, Melissa & Doug, entrepreneurship wasn’t seen as a viable career path,” she said. “There was no one we had access to who had successfully done it, so we forged our own path. But it was a tough journey, and through Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, we try to make the journey a little easier for Duke students by providing support and a sounding board for questions and ideas.”

Since building their business from the ground up 30 years ago, the Bernsteins have created over 2,000 proprietary products and sold over a billion dollars in toys.

As the students pitched, it was clear that they’d benefited from the mentorship provided by the program and had been able to advance further in their companies because of it.

Alumni of the program who are still working on the companies they built as students also had the opportunity to pitch to raise awareness for their funding campaigns.

“The students represented well, and they did a good job of explaining the products and services they were offering in terms of problems that exist,” said Steve McClelland, an entrepreneur in residence at the Pratt School of Engineering who supports undergraduate entrepreneurship. “Investors were then able to connect with these problems and often had personal motivations to invest in a potential solution.”

The Melissa & Doug students who pitched during Demo Day were:

• Uzoma Ayogu (E’17), co-founder of Releaf, a platform that helps agribusinesses in Africa find customers they can trust;
• Courtney Bell (T’17), co-founder of Ungraded Produce, a produce delivery service that sources misshapen or surplus produce for its subscription boxes;
• Arjun Devajaran (T’18) and Vishnu Menon (T’19), co-founders of Nebula Learning, which seeks to incorporate computer science lessons into public school math curriculum;
• Mackenzie Drazan (T’18), co-founder of MiResource, a platform that works to match adolescents to the correct mental health services and providers.
• Sam Fox (E’18), who is working on a technology to help transfer patients from beds to wheelchairs;
• Frank Kosarek (T’19), founder of InspectX, a platform that connects used car buyers to expert technicians for mobile inspections before a car is purchased; and
• Ray Liu (T’20), founder of PeerKonnect, a peer tutoring platform that matches tutors to tutees.

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