Move Over, Student-Athletes—Duke Launches Program For Student-Founders

Duke kicked off its Student Founders program with an event on Saturday, Feb. 29.

Practice makes perfect. Athletes know the saying well. Student-athletes especially, as they put in extra hours a week to practice the sport they love. At Duke, entrepreneurs can now do the same.

The Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative has created the Student Founders Program, a place where student innovators and entrepreneurs can connect with their peers and work on their ideas.

The program held its first kickoff event on Saturday, where around 55 Duke students spent the day engaging with each other, alumni and program leaders to learn more about scaling their individual projects.

Throughout the semester, the students have attended weekly coaching sessions where they work on their ideas, similar to athletes going to practice.

At the kickoff event, they got to focus more on interacting with each other and doing customer discovery.

One student, Donald Groh, gained a new perspective from his fellow student, Austin Carroll. Groh’s idea is to help make mid-range hotels more efficient, and Carroll used to work in the hotel industry. Together, their conversation helped Groh better understand what he needs to do in order to make his project viable.

“Being an entrepreneur can be so isolating,” Carroll said. “You’re not really sure of all the resources out there, but this program really puts a bunch of people together that really have different experiences.”

Amy Linnane, managing director of experiential programs for Duke I&E, started the program along with Steven McClelland, executive in residence in the Pratt School of Engineering; Howie Rhee, managing director for student programs at Duke I&E; and Katherine Black, senior program coordinator for experiential programs & social innovation.

“The real purpose was to get them here talking to each other,” Linnane said. “The only things we’re asking of them are commitment, optimism and determination.”

The program has so far attracted a laudable diversity among founders.

About 150 students applied to the program, and about 80 attend the weekly coaching sessions, she said. The program also includes making grant funding available to students and a summer accelerator program where students can work on their projects in a more concentrated way.

Phoebe Kiburi, a Duke senior, attended the kickoff event in hopes of learning from other students.

Kiburi, who is from Kenya, wants to create a textbook exchange program in her native country and ultimately improve access to education there. She networked with other students to get their feedback on the work she’s done so far.

McClelland was pleased that the students were willing to show up on the weekend and engage so well with each other and the activities at the kickoff event.

When McClelland, a Duke graduate, came back to the school after working for companies like Yahoo and Twitter, he was looking for a way to have entrepreneurs gain experience while still in school. He liked the ideology of the medical department in regards to residencies letting students practice in their specific field. He also liked the dedication of student-athletes to their chosen sport—and the resources that the school dedicates to them.

Based off of the two, he helped found the program. Originally, they were only expecting 40 or 50 students to sign up, McClelland said, so they’ve been pleased with the level of interest.

“For me, I think you learn so much when you’re trying to solve a real-world problem,” he said. “Regardless of whether you’re successful, it’s worth it to understand what people need, then build a solution.”

The plan is for the program to continue next year, and hold similar kickoff events each semester.

About Laura Brummett 38 Articles
Laura covers tech and startup news for GrepBeat. She is a business journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill, minoring in studio art and history. Reach her by email at or find her on Twitter @laura_brummett.