Shea Di Donna and Nicholas Zaldastani

Brendan Quinlan/ July 21, 2014/ 2014

by Sierra Smith and Brian Bolze

It’s one thing to tour a company’s headquarters, but it’s quite another to talk openly with someone who has many years of first hand experience in the industry.  This past Thursday morning, we took a break from class and had the opportunity to listen to two Duke alumni share experiences from their careers and give us some valuable advice about how to make the most of ours.  One of those speakers was Shea Di Donna.  Shea graduated from Dickinson College with a duel degree in English and psychology, and worked as an analyst at Barclays before entering the world of venture capital.  In 2004, Shea started a company called The Art of Organization which offers organization services to both other businesses and personal clients.  She went on to work at True Ventures, where she started True University, an annual two-day conference in which entrepreneurs from various backgrounds come together and learn from each other’s experiences.  Most recently, Shea founded Zana, “a free platform for peer-led knowledge exchange on every aspect of furthering an idea, creating a startup, building a team, and scaling for growth.”

Through telling personal stories, Shea taught us seven lessons for us to keep in mind as we pursue our education, careers, and personal lives:


Lesson 1: Pursue your passion

Some of us are rising sophomores deciding what to major in, some are juniors looking at internship opportunities for next year, and some are seniors deciding where to apply for a job after graduation, or whether or not to go to graduate school.  What we all have in common is a big decision to make about our futures.  As we weigh our interests, input from friends and family, and social pressure, Shea encouraged us to stay true to what we’re passionate about and trust that we’ll end up where we need to be.  Shea pursued her interests of English and psychology, which, through an unexpected path, actually led her to work in venture capital, demonstrating to us that our passions don’t limit us but can actually lead us to new opportunities.


Lesson 2: Seek out opportunities

After getting a job in venture capital, Shea realized that it was not what she had expected it to be like.  She hadn’t had any previous experience in that field and had only formed impressions through what she’d heard by word of mouth, and, although she didn’t regret her decision at all, she would have liked to have a better idea of what she was getting in to.  She encouraged all of us to take as many opportunities as we can to learn about the fields we’re interested in and to accumulate experiences that we can draw on in the future.  This was one of my favorite lessons, and I’ve already started to see the benefits of it during our program.  As a computer science major, I’d unintentionally narrowed my career options to developing software at a large computer software firm such as Apple or Microsoft or HP.  However, after many site visits to places like Tesla and Survey Monkey, I’ve realized that there are so many possible opportunities for me in the future, and I look forward to finding unexpected places where I could intern in the following summers.


Lesson 3: Take worthwhile risks

One day Shea got an unexpected call from the CEO at Barclays, a man she’d never heard of from a company she was also unfamiliar with.  The CEO had read about an intensive honors research project Shea had completed not long ago as an undergraduate at Dickinson and admired her passion, dedication, and hard work.  He was calling her on this particular day to offer her a job.  Shea was very surprised, and even more so as she learned that the firm was in an industry that she had no training for.  She was reluctant at first to take the offer, but decided after some consideration that she should take the job, and the risk, and try something new.  It can be hard to take risks when you put something as major as your career or job in jeopardy, but as Shea demonstrated to us, sometimes they really pay off. Shea learned a lot at Barclays, and went on to work in venture capital for 12 years.


Lesson 4: Self Care & Personal Branding

Shea noted that, at the beginning of our careers, we might have a tendency to dedicate all of our time to our work, not knowing when enough is enough.  However, this often comes at the sacrifice of self-care.  Although it may sound cliché, it cannot be truer that you can’t take care of anything or anyone if you can’t take care of yourself.

In addition, Shea pointed out a key change that’s occurred in the job model: previously, people would enter a company at a low level position and slowly work their way towards the top of that company, and industry, over time.  People would used to stay put in their field, and dedicate time to gaining a better title.  Today, however, this “escalator model” is broken; people switch career paths much more often, sometimes completely switching fields, and thus resetting their position in the hierarchy of that industry.  This is something we’ve observed already from our guest speakers, many of whom have career paths that include experience in a variety of different industries.  With this change in mind, it is important as every to build up the brand that is you.  Educate yourself to the best of your ability, and network at every opportunity – both things we’ve all been dedicated to as we spend our time here in Silicon Valley, and that we’ll continue to do even after we leave.


Lesson 5: Create something of lasting value

One of my career aspirations has been to make a lasting impact on whatever industry I end up in, so this lesson hit home for me.  In one of our assignments for class, we read that one difference between a good leader and a great leader is that a great leader will make a large effort to ensure that his company or group continues to do well even after he or she is gone, and Shea echoed the value in creating something that lasts.  One lasting impact that Shea is especially proud of is her development of True University, a two-day conference in which entrepreneurs from various backgrounds come together and learn from each other’s experiences.  True University, which Shea developed while she worked at True Ventures, has now become an annual tradition.


Lesson 6: Leave things better than you found them

Lesson 7: Pay it forward

The last two lessons are tied together through the theme of giving back, something that can sometimes be easily forgotten.  We’ve all be fortunate to have many things in our lives, including a great college education and professor and mentors who are dedicated to our success, and these things have given us the ability to do something meaningful that can impact many others.


Shea left us with the recommendation that, if we’re going to spend a lot of time working on something, we should always start by asking ourselves, “Is this something the world needs?”  She also added two books to our summer reading list: The Startup of You and Hooked.


Following a truly inspiring talk by Shea Di Donna, we were introduced, on Thursday, to Nicholas Zaldastani, Managing Director of Zaldastani Ventures. Mr. Zaldastani grew up right outside Boston, MA and also attended Duke studying Civil Engineering and Economics, just like our professor, Matt Christensen. He later got a French Diploma from the University of Paris, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He worked over six years with Oracle and later went on to co-found Open Horizon in 1994. After that he started Zaldastani Ventures, where he uses his venture capital and entrepreneurial experiences to help early to mid stage start-ups build successful enterprises.

Mr. Zaldastani’s presentation consisted of a series of simple but profound phrases and concepts that really tied together the spirit of entrepreneurship. One of the strongest concepts he illustrated to us was the difference between passion and drive. He began by asking us which of the two were more essential to success, if we had to choose one. There was a fairly even split among the class, with a slight skew towards drive. However, he then described to us how passion is, in fact, the strongest component of a successful business or career. One of the interesting pieces to this was how passion pulls people in and inspires others to work hard, whereas drive is more like a bulldozer having to push yourself and others to achieve, which is far more exhausting. He then used this as a basis for why finding your passion is so indispensably important in choosing your career.

Another interesting notion Nicholas described to us was the difference between a starter and a finisher. He explained how almost all of the extremely successful startups in the past few years were all founded by two people, one being the starter and the other being the finisher. For example Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Co-Founders of Google, were not exactly best friends from the beginning. They bickered constantly and debated about everything, but shared a similar vision about the future and on innovation. Most importantly however, these differences kept them both in check, and allowed them to be extremely effective as a pair because they offset each other’s weaknesses.

Mr. Zaldastani’s advice was refreshing, creative, and ultimately inspiring. His experiences as an entrepreneur and the way he told his story was fascinating, and throughout the presentation none of us could look away. With all of the strategies and theories he illustrated to us, I feel all of us are much more prepared for the exciting and ever-changing entrepreneurial world going ahead.

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