Halfway there: Netflix. Stanford d.school. Cognito. Ecologic. UniversalGiving.

Brendan Quinlan/ June 8, 2018/ 2018

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We are halfway through Duke in Silicon Valley, and I have found the key takeaway of the program to be speaking with those that have personally dived into the startup and venture capital culture. Our class gets this exposure through interaction with the guest speakers at our Plug & Play classroom and site visits to diversified firms in Mountain View and San Francisco. Several of the people that I meet are also Duke alumni, for example the panelists at the Netflix office, which further exemplifies the strong Duke community embedded in the company culture.

Since I am going into the finance industry, I came into this program with the desire to learn more about the innovative technological side to finance as well as the strategic funding component of scaling a startup. During our visit to the Stanford d.school (https://dschool.stanford.edu), we stood in a large, open circle and were asked the question, “What does innovation mean to us?” I responded by saying that innovation to me is the synthesis of different industries in efficient processes that add value. I gave an example of how we see technology seeping into the finance industry particularly through the lens of blockchain, automation, electronic trading, P2P lending, among others. During a group lunch with Chris Morton, the president and COO of Cognito (https://cognitohq.com), an identity verification and anti-fraud solution company, I was able to discuss my ideas on the intersection of finance and technology and hear his feedback. Chris shared that many of his customers are financial institutions who demand his company’s products due to the value of identity and anti-fraud security with online payment data and transactions. I was also intrigued to hear that one of his co-founders used to be a trader and applied some of the technical and analytical skills that he acquired on the trading floor.

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It was also interesting to hear how many company founders and venture capitalists started off their career working in finance and now apply the financial modeling and analytics skillset in their current role in Silicon Valley. To illustrate, one of our guest speakers Julie Corbett was a manager at RBC, Royal Bank of Canada; now, she is the founder and president of Ecologic Brands (https://ecologicbrands.com), an environmentally sustainable packaging company. Her insight on her transition between working in finance and starting her own company strongly resonated with me. Julie explained how having a background in the finance industry gave her the skill in analyzing and researching companies, including both private and public equities. For example, her packaging company collaborates and partners with a variety of industries, including beauty and beverages. When she was working with beverages, she saw the potential in investing in the acquisitions of smaller brands such as SmartWater and IZZE by large corporations such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola due to people’s shifting preferences toward more natural drinks versus soda. In addition, at our site visit to UniversalGiving (http://www.universalgiving.org), I saw how it was necessary for entrepreneurs to have an understanding of financial and investing knowledge because the company runs on vetting and obtaining capital from investors and funders. When I asked the founder and CEO Pamela Hawley about UniversalGiving’s goals in rebuilding the company website, she responded by explaining the importance of taking advantage of new technology such as UI/UX design to scale the brand globally with (1) a more efficient online platform, (2) cleaner back-end code, and (3) an organized access to an NGO database. An improved and technologically adaptive user experience would then give UniversalGiving a stronger standing when presenting to investors and funders who provide the company with the capital needed to pursue its Corporate Social Responsibility programs and projects worldwide.

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After widening my perspective of the innovative community in the Bay Area so far, I am looking forward to spending more time talking with early and late-stage entrepreneurs throughout the rest of the DSV program. We have the unparalleled opportunity to have face time with Duke alumni and corporate partners, and I will definitely be taking advantage of it.


Pansy Tseng is a rising junior from Southern California, and she is studying Economics, Finance, and Visual & Media Studies at Duke. With a strong interest in expanding her global perspective, Pansy will have participated in Duke in Geneva, Duke in New York: Financial Markets & Institutions, Duke in Silicon Valley, and Duke in Los Angeles during her undergraduate career. Her YouTube channel documents her study abroad experiences as well as her dance choreography and involvement in Duke Business-Oriented Women, NYC Web Design Conference, and LA Art Exhibition. During Duke in Silicon Valley, Pansy hopes to explore the intersection of media technology and finance, particularly through the lens of venture capital and FinTech. She is excited to synthesize this industry knowledge as she joins the Summer 2019 Sales & Trading team at Barclays Capital in New York City.

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