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Student Founders Persevere, Pivot, Adapt During COVID-19 Crisis

Published: 2 months ago | 0 comments

Mahek Chhatrapati MBA ’21 speaks animatedly into his computer camera, giving a status update about his work on a fintech startup to help millennials with saving and investing.

Behind him in the background is a whiteboard, heavily scrawled over. He’s currently exploring his customer base, working on surveys for potential users, and finalizing a pitch deck, all while in self-isolation like the rest of his fellow students—some still in Durham, some back in their childhood bedrooms, and others in temporary living arrangements.

The Student Founders Program cohort is made up of students from across Duke—undergrads as well as graduate and professional students—interested in someday launching their own ventures, whether commercial, social, artistic, or beyond. The program confers education, mentorship, community, and resources including small prototyping grants.

Typically students attend small weekly practice sessions to report on their work, provide mutual feedback, and participate in tailored activities and workshopping to support their ideas and projects. During the COVID-19 crisis, with the previously in-person sessions now on Zoom, each group begins its session with a personal check-in, each student sharing how she’s doing on a 1-10 scale.

Student Founders Program Zoom

This particular session is attended by six students—there are around 60 in the entire program—and all of them report hovering in the 6-8 range, seeming fairly cheerful.

The staff members running this session are Howie Rhee, Duke I&E’s Managing Director of Student Programs, and Amy Linnane, Duke I&E’s Managing Director of Experiential Programs. Rhee says that particularly now, it’s vital to have personal conversations in the small groups that help to build a sense of community.

“I’d estimate that a third of the students are struggling, and they’ve been significantly set back by COVID-19 and the current situation. A third seem relatively unaffected, and then you have that final third who are actually pivoting or their work is even more important in the current climate.”

Showcasing a COVID-19 App

Andres Montoya-Aristizabal shares his screen for a demo of his team’s app

One student who has focused on the crisis is Andres Montoya-Aristizabal T’22, who discussed an app he and his team had created—a contact tracing tool to help notify people who have potentially been exposed to COVID-19. While he has since stepped off that team, Andres still gave the group an overview of the app, which was one of 18 teams spotlighted in a recent Facebook hackathon.

As the students moved through their updates and discussed their ideas—ranging from using small-batch protein production to tackle antibiotic resistance, to customized wellness plans accompanied by Indian herbs, to a food delivery service for elderly people in Thailand—they offered each other feedback and ideas, often using Zoom features like the chat box.

Rhee and Linnane chimed in occasionally with questions, suggestions, and potential contacts for students to interview—for example, suggesting the CTO of a major consumer credit reporting agency as someone who could help Patrick Pierson-Prah, MBA’21, with his work establishing more comprehensive data on the creditworthiness of consumers in Ghana.

Even acknowledging the significant difficulties of continuing their work in the face of COVID-19, the students remained optimistic about not just their projects, but the innovative possibilities that could arise from the crisis.

“It’s during these times that opportunities and ideas are often created, even going back to the ’08-’10 financial recession, that was when Airbnb, Uber, and Slack emerged,” said Chhatrapati. “This program’s brainstorming sessions help facilitate the out-of-the-box thinking necessary to identify gaps in the market.”

The application deadline to join the Fall 2020 cohort of the Student Founders Program is September 4.

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