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Students Reflect on Virtual Silicon Valley Experience

A (Virtual) Introduction to the Nation’s Hub for Entrepreneurship

This year’s Ronald & Carrie Ludwig Duke in Silicon Valley program looked different than in previous years—namely, it wasn’t held in Silicon Valley. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the four-week, one-credit program was delivered virtually, allowing students to experience Silicon Valley’s evolving hybrid environment from all over the world.

Students developed an in-depth understanding of how new enterprises are formed via speakers, case studies, lectures, and simulations, informing their team projects creating and pitching their own innovative ideas. Given the many changes brought about by the pandemic in how people work, the students’ innovation challenge project focused on designing the workplace of the future.

Throughout their four weeks together, students explored key concepts including lean start-up, corporate design thinking practices, and prioritization methods. With guest speakers from tech giants as well as late-stage startups, students delved into topics like negotiation tactics, work culture, marketing, product design, product management, AI and ethics, and tech policy.

Yunha Kim '11 in her Silicon Valley office with a dog sitting on the chair beside her
Yunha Kim ’11, founder and CEO of Simple Habit, in her office

The students also met with upwards of 20 alumni of the program now working in diverse fields, something Kevin Hoch, Managing Director for Education for the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I&E) and director of Duke in Silicon Valley, said sets the program apart.

“There is a strong and supportive DSV community within each cohort and across years,” Hoch said. “I’m always amazed by the willingness of our DSV alumni to give back to the current students—they want to continue to nurture this supportive learning environment.”

Speaking with young alumni helped students develop their understanding of the many possibilities of life after Duke. Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Greg Victory, who also serves as Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Career Center, led students through a mind mapping exercise to help build their self-awareness and envision possibilities for their life and career journeys.

Dilys Wang ’24 said the talks with program alumni gave her a new perspective. “I realized that through this program, I can gain so many important skills that will be applicable no matter which career path I choose—there are endless possibilities for how I can apply my passions.”

The Benefits of Virtual Programming

This year’s virtual format made it easy for speakers to participate in the program, resulting in a high volume of outside speakers from companies including Walmart, GitHub, Ancestry, Facebook, Andreesen Horowitz, Neuralink, Apple, Splunk, and more. The format also supported more in-depth engagement by some guests, such as Betsy Rives and Sam Slater of Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services (REWS) team, who attended class three times as coaches for the students’ project imagining the workplace of the future.

“The students found it incredibly meaningful to have this ongoing interaction with people on the frontlines of innovation in the workplace,” said Kathie Amato, Duke I&E Senior Faculty Fellow, who taught the course.

Rob Chesnut, former chief ethics officer of Airbnb, on a Zoom call with students
Rob Chesnut, former chief ethics officer of Airbnb

According to Amato, the virtual aspect of the course also allowed for “a deeper learning experience related to the exploration of ethics in entrepreneurship.” Students read and engaged with Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution by Rob Chesnut, former chief ethics officer of Airbnb. Chesnut later participated in a class session, joined by Jillian Manus of Structure Capital, to discuss the importance of integrity in innovation, entrepreneurship, business management, and venture funding—a conversation Amato called “a highlight of the course.”

As Naman Parikh E’24 put it, “Although we couldn’t visit Silicon Valley in person this time, we got a rich exposure to its people and practices.”

Takeaways for the Future

Reflecting further on the program, Parikh said that he learned lessons beyond what he had anticipated. “I can proudly say that my 4 Cs—Confidence, Competence, Character, and Collaboration—have blossomed beyond expectations.”

Baran Yildirim ’21 agreed, saying that his broader communication skills had evolved. “Discussions are a key component of Duke in Silicon Valley. Whether during a practice negotiation, a speaker Q&A, or a group work session, there’s always an underlying focus on the importance of effective dialogue. Looking back at the earlier presentations in the course, I can see how much I improved within the span of just four weeks.”

Dilys Wang ’24 described internalizing what she had learned about design thinking and the need to deeply understand potential users. She said, “If we don’t encourage people to tell stories and ask questions even when we think we know the answer, we may misunderstand our stakeholders and prevent ourselves from developing accurate empathy.”

On a larger level, Wang said, “[The program] gave us amazing insight into the world of innovation,” Wang said. “We gained a foundational understanding of the mindsets, skills, and resilience necessary to be an innovator. We all want to change the world, and this time in DSV has taken us multiple steps closer to understanding how we can do so.”

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