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Innovation@Duke

The latest news and stories from Duke’s innovation and entrepreneurship community

StartupConnect Goes Virtual, Supported by Former Duke Students’ Startup

Every year the StartupConnect Networking Fair draws hundreds of students from across Duke to visit with startup employer representatives, many of them Duke alumni. Co-hosted by I&E, Pratt, Fuqua, and the Career Center, the event allows students to find internships and career connections and learn what it’s like to work at a startup.

But in 2021, organizers faced the same challenge complicating networking events worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic—how to make the event virtual in a way that would still facilitate authentic personal connection and conversation. “My colleagues and I care deeply about exposing our students to internship and job opportunities at startups, and historically this event has been the primary way we do that,” said Anna Jacobs, Program Manager at I&E. “It was important that we found a way to host the event even in these bizarre circumstances.”

A Platform to Support Authentic Student-Employer Conversations

Enter Helena Merk and Brian Li, co-founders of Glimpse. Merk chose Duke “to escape tech” after growing up in the Bay Area, attracted to what she called the best biomedical engineering program she could find at the Pratt School of Engineering.

Yet at Duke she found herself running in tech circles, attending hackathons, joining preprofessional tech group Catalyst, and co-running environmental tech conference Blueprint with Li, her future Glimpse co-founder. Merk left Duke her sophomore year to join a connected vehicles company, but she quit her job—and Li left Duke—when they gained a spot in famed accelerator Y Combinator with their idea for Glimpse.

Glimpse Co-Founders Helena Merk and Brian Li
Glimpse co-founders Helena Merk and Brian Li celebrate their acceptance into Y Combinator

They pivoted repeatedly with the platform in efforts to better connect people in a way that could impact healthcare, the environment, and beyond. Ultimately they focused on how to build and maintain strong relationships—and counteract high rates of loneliness among Gen Z—with a platform that could support one-on-one conversations and matching the right people to talk in a common group or cohort. “The problem we’re after is around and has been since before the pandemic,” Merk said.

While Glimpse isn’t explicitly a recruiting platform, Merk says it serves that purpose exceptionally well. “People looking for jobs now aren’t looking for a 9-to-5, they’re looking for a new home. They want that environment to be amazing. This has become so much harder online, where you can’t go out to lunch.” Whereas a standard career fair gives extraverts the advantage—according to Merk, “It favors the stereotypical confident white man”—Glimpse levels the playing field, filtering opportunities in advance and enabling employers to connect with the most qualified and interested students.

“As we organized the event, we were thrilled to find a platform that helped bring the event to life while also supporting a Duke startup. It was a joy to work with Helena and the Glimpse team,” said Jacobs.

Taking StartupConnect Online

To prepare students for virtual networking and help them take best advantage of their discussions with employers, organizers also hosted a virtual panel the week before the networking fair. “We wanted to give students an opportunity to get honest answers about what startups are looking for when hiring, what it’s like to work remotely for a startup, and what to expect in the virtual recruiting process,” Jacobs said.

The panel discussion included Merk, Milagros Brown ’01 (founder of After November), Alcide Honore ’00 (co-founder and CEO of Billseye), and Ryan Carey (founder of BetterOn) and was moderated by Matt Alston ’17 (former product manager at Uber and current fellow at On Deck).

Conducting the StartupConnect Networking Fair virtually made it more feasible for employers to attend without traveling, enabling 35 startups to be part of the event, including many spinouts from Duke. Students met with representatives to discuss their work and opportunities in a broad range of industries: machine learning, medical devices, event styling, biosciences, data architecture, corporate sustainability, mindfulness, payment services, nutrition, in-space propulsion, and more.

The majority of the ~175 students who attended the networking fair reported afterwards that they had set up at least one job or internship interview afterwards.

“There was a diverse group of companies, and it was really interesting to hear the different opportunities that were available,” said Nick DeCapite ’22.

All of the employers who attended indicated having set up at least one interview and as many as ten.

“As a fellow Dukie (MBA ’18), my team has enjoyed connecting with and hiring students through this collaborative event for several years,” said Olivia Klupar, founder and CEO of Voyij. “This year’s event was no different. While the format was new, the Glimpse online platform did a great job of fostering dialogue through one-on-one timed interactions that encouraged ‘lightning round’-style conversations in a fun and casual setting.”

Year-Round Startup Opportunities

While the annual StartupConnect Networking Fair draws a large audience of employers, other StartupConnect workshops and events throughout the year connect students with local and global opportunities related to innovation and entrepreneurship. A database of current opportunities for Duke students includes internships, full-time jobs, and other opportunities; employers can submit opportunities using this form.

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