Students, Young Alums Showcase Businesses Launched in Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Program
At the end of the Fall 2020 semester, 12 students and young alumni joined a Zoom call early to do A/V checks and ask last-minute questions about their pitch presentations. They had spent the last year creating their businesses, and close to 20 hours each practicing their pitches, gathering feedback from each other and Howie Rhee, Managing Director of Student Programs for the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E). They joked about each other’s uncharacteristically professional clothes and Zoom backgrounds—but the moment the first investor joined the call, they were all business.
Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, Duke’s premiere program for undergraduate student founders, was established in 2013 by Melissa Bernstein ’87 and her husband, Doug, the co-founders of toy company Melissa & Doug. Looking back, they say they made a lot of mistakes, so they began this program to support creative undergraduates and help them avoid similar mistakes when starting their own ventures.
The Student Founder Program, run by Duke I&E together with Duke Engineering Entrepreneurship (EngEn), now supports all students across Duke who aim to launch a venture, whether commercial, social, artistic, or beyond. Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs serves as the advanced track of the Student Founder Program, conferring additional benefits and funding.
This Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs pitch session invited I&E board members, as well as potential investors, to provide feedback and potentially make funding commitments on student ventures ranging from an adaptive testing platform for students to improve on weak topics (Ansh Nanda’s PerfectIB), to an app that helps users discover hidden gems in cities they’re living or traveling (David Yoon’s DayTrip), to a peer-to-peer marketplace for renting figure skating costumes (Dania Fernandez’s Kiss and Dress).
Here are highlights:
Students spent two weeks working to perfect their pitches.
In group feedback Zoom sessions, they worked to concisely and dynamically convey their businesses’ market opportunity, business model, progress to date, and competitive landscape—along with what they were asking for, with some students seeking only feedback and others hoping for investment.
Melissa Bernstein told the group, “You’re creating solutions that are not only helping yourself through engagement with others, but also impacting others, and that’s really incredible. […] I would never guess that you’re college age, because you sound like seasoned professionals.”
They’ve learned the value of telling their stories and showing how their personal experiences have inspired them.
Dania Fernandez, whose Kiss and Dress peer-to-peer marketplace allows figure skaters and their parents to rent designer competition costumes, used her own background to shape her pitch. “As a former competitive skater myself, I have a lot of custom dresses that I made some of my best life memories in,” she said. “I’d be reluctant to sell them and let them go forever.”
Vincent Liu’s MyTeaPal, an all-in-one tea journal, timer, and tracker app, encourages mindfulness through tea drinking—and was inspired by Liu’s personal passion for tea. “I brew tea every day and I brew tea in multiple infusions, rather than just one infusion with a tea bag, so it took hours to write down tasting notes for each infusion and how it tasted different,” he shared.
Daniel Getman, whose plant-based flavor enhancer Swii transforms nutritious foods, used a personal anecdote, saying, “When I first gave it to my nephew, it became impossible to stop him from eating Greek yogurt and tomatoes which only moments before literally made him gag.”
Students emphasized the need for their innovations.
Erikson Nichols—a Duke baseball player who worked in a neuroscience lab—founded MesnAR, whose mixed-media anatomical models use augmented reality software and 3D-printed technology to support neurological pre-operative planning and diagnostics.
He told the pitch audience, “Placing an EV drain into a lateral ventricle is one of the most common neurosurgical procedures. […] This is a blind procedure, meaning the surgeon isn’t fully opening up the brain and seeing the target, but rather using external markers to guide the drain from outside. Studies have shown suboptimal placement in up to 40% of cases, which often requires multiple passes and infection, hemorrhage, and revision rates varying between 5- 15% regardless of surgeon experience. Using this technology, a surgeon would be able to […] practice placing the drain at the optimal position within an exact model of the patient they’re going to be operating on.”
Ben Stewart created Blooket, a classroom website that makes education exciting with live games, enabling students to join the game on their own devices and using game modes specific to their learning styles and preferences. He showed investors videos of classes using the games—one in Indiana, the other in Northern Ireland—and engaging enthusiastically with their virtual learning.
This showcase enables students to potentially receive feedback, connections, and monetary support from entrepreneurs with close ties to the Duke community.
The pitch showcase included 10 investors who collectively pledged $50K to the students’ ventures. Among them were Ezra Kucharz, digital media entrepreneur and Chief Business Officer of DraftKings (who also served as Enrico Entrepreneur in Residence at Duke from 2017-2019 and now teaches Sports Entrepreneurship); Ramy Brook Sharp, creator of luxe fashion business Ramy Brook; and Chris Ng Cashin, partner at Bootstrap Advisors, who has invested in Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs students’ businesses each year since the program’s founding.
Students have benefited from the program’s community, even in a virtual world.
While the students and staff of the program haven’t been physically together in more than 10 months, they have only grown closer.
“The community and support I’ve gotten through this network has been amazing,” said Dan Hepworth, whose platform StudentSide enables authentic conversations between high school students and current students at their dream colleges.
“The most exciting part about all this has been having community when everyone has been separated,” said Esteban Suarez. Clair, his business, is a native app that helps musicians learn better with a community practice platform and innovative learning methodology. “It’s been really good having not only the mentors, but the friends.”
Reflecting on his work with MyTeaPal, Liu said, “It’s my first experience presenting to a group of investors, and it’s been such a wonderful journey […] seeing our growth in the past year and helping improve together. I definitely want to stay in touch with everyone and be on this entrepreneurship journey together.”
View summaries of all participants’ businesses in the program brochure.
Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs students are selected from the participants in the Student Founder Program; this program is open to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students across Duke who are interested in one day launching their own ventures. Learn more about the program.