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Student Entrepreneurs Gather for Inspiration and Community at Program Launch

On Saturday, February 29, small groups of students sat clustered around conference tables in the Blue Devil Tower at Wallace Wade Stadium. It was the weekend, and it was early—yet the students were buzzing with energy, talking about the issues they most cared about and the problems they were working to solve.

The group of 55 students represented the inaugural cohort of the Student Founders Program, a university-wide activity group for Duke students interested in launching their own ventures. While numerous entrepreneurship clubs and programs exist throughout Duke, the Student Founders Program is the first to bring all Duke student innovators, entrepreneurs, and founders under one umbrella, providing education, mentoring, resources—including an option to participate in a summer accelerator—and community.

The event was led by the Student Founders Program staff: Howie Rhee, Managing Director for Student Programs at Duke I&E; Steven McClelland, Executive in Residence at the Pratt School of Engineering; Amy Linnane, Managing Director of Experiential Programs at Duke I&E; and Katherine Black, Senior Program Coordinator for Experiential Programs & Social Innovation at I&E.

In creating the program, the staff was inspired by medical residencies, which allow students to practice in their specific fields, and the experiences of student-athletes, who balance their normal student responsibilities with a heavy practice load and travel. They worked to provide entrepreneurial students throughout Duke with opportunities to realize their vision—along with a community, like an athletic team, that would provide structure, training, and inspiration.

Kicking off the event, the staff offered some simple advice: have fun. “If you’re not having fun, there’s really no reason to do this,” said McClelland, who returned to Duke after founding his own companies and working for Yahoo and Twitter.

The other resounding piece of advice? Talk to people. Student Founders Program participants attend weekly practice sessions where they learn and address specific issues they’re experiencing with their ventures—but those sessions are smaller, and this was a chance to meet everyone in the program. “The real purpose was to get them here talking to each other,” said Linnane.

The majority of the students in the program are undergrads—but they’re joined by MBA students, PhD students, law students, business students, and more. Rhee, facilitating a large-group introduction activity, pointed out potential overlap in students’ projects and interests, connecting those with mutual interests in AI, neurology, hotel management, and more.

In a small group exercise, students shared their “massive transformational purpose,” the passion driving them—in one group, these ranged from addressing climate change, to solving the housing crisis in parts of Africa, to improving education among underserved populations, to providing solutions to aging populations.

Recent alums who will serve as mentors were also in attendance, including Kasper Kubica, founder of Carpe, who went through the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program. (Melissa & Doug is now an invite-only subset of the Student Founders Program intended for students farther along with their ventures, with participation conferring additional resources and funding.)

“I really feel like most of the reason I’m where I am is because of Duke I&E and the resources Duke provided,” Kubica said.

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