If there’s one thing Sparc founder Laurel Djoukeng loves doing, it’s helping people—including himself—reach their full potential.
Three years after Djoukeng began his career in 2008 as an investment analyst on Wall Street, Djoukeng started a nonprofit in New York City called the Catalyst Network Foundation, which helps inner-city high school youth with professional development and career preparation through skill-building workshops and networking events at Fortune 500 companies.
Djoukeng’s resume wouldn’t tell you about two other passions he has: working out and giving tours to people visiting the city. But short of using word-of-mouth, Djoukeng had no way to advertise his skills to people who may be interested beyond his friends.
A number of Djoukeng’s friends—many of whom were bankers or consultants on Wall Street too—were in the same boat. They had a side hobby they loved doing but they had no way to market it themselves, so they frequently badgered Djoukeng to connect them to someone else in need of their services.
“People don’t have the platform to express their true selves, and do it for a living,” Djoukeng said. “A lot of people have a greater passion that they do separate from their day job, and they just haven’t had the ability to market it and monetize it.”
To help people market their skills and connect with other people, Djoukeng founded Sparc in 2018 to provide a platform where people with complementary interests can find each other and connect via a live “engagement.” The host who creates an engagement decides how much it costs to participate, with Sparc retaining 5% of each engagement’s cost. The platform is free to join, with a more advanced “enterprise” subscription available where users can view in-depth metrics, similar to LinkedIn.
Sparc is participating in this summer’s Melissa and Doug Accelerator at Duke. Djoukeng earned his MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School in 2020.
Djoukeng’s long-term vision is for anyone to use Sparc for any kind of engagement and to empower people to monetize their side hobbies and passions. However, right now Sparc is focusing its growth on connecting college students with employers; the majority of its 2,000 current users are college students.
College students are drawn to the platform to attend career recruiting and info sessions held by companies like Google, Facebook and IBM, and they are incentivized to stay on the platform to make money by hosting their own tutoring sessions for high school students, Djoukeng said. To bring high schoolers onto the platform, Djoukeng advertised the tutoring to parents of the 30 NYC high schools involved in CNF.
“We’re building it around the nucleus of a college student, kind of like what Facebook did,” Djoukeng said. “Because college students connect us to our two other cohorts—the companies and the high school students—with the hope being that those people will stay on the platform to teach a side skill or, for the high schoolers, as college students later themselves.”
Djoukeng launched Sparc while he was an MBA student at Fuqua. Since then, he has had a steady rotation of Duke undergrads working as Sparc interns. The first-ever engagements on Sparc were Duke MBA students mentoring Duke undergrad students.
Sparc is about to roll out a feature in a few weeks (just in time for when fall semester starts) to set it apart from other platforms in the career recruiting space like Handshake and Linkedin: by clicking a “make an offer” button, recruiting companies can send a bulk message to all student clubs of a certain type across colleges advertising an upcoming event on campus. This eliminates the need to go through various college’s career resource centers separately by connecting recruiters to the heads of clubs at any college directly and all at once.
“Google can quickly advertise an info session to, say, the head of the women’s engineering club at Duke, who can then propose three different days and times and Google can easily choose one of those days, or propose three other dates and times,” Djoukeng said. “This makes it much more seamless for a company like Google to facilitate a recruiting event or info session at any college because it takes out the middle man and they can communicate directly with the president of a specific club at any given time.”