Golden Nuggets of Duke In Silicon Valley

Kevin Hoch/ June 2, 2022/ 2022

Have you ever stared into a pond and marveled at how effortlessly a duck can skate across the surface? If only the water was translucent, then you would see the fervent struggle that their two tiny legs are engaged in to keep the rest of the body afloat. This analogy was brought up countless times as we traveled through the depths of Silicon Valley over the past two weeks. Startup founders, CFOs, and Product Managers advised us to keep the cool of a duck on the surface, but paddle your heart out underneath to sustain your business. Whether it’s in a negotiation, a board meeting, or even a non-work situation, modeling the duck-in-the-pond seems to be a good strategy: remain calm, present yourself well, don’t let them see the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get here, and you will coast by. Thanks to the Duke in Silicon Valley program, I no longer feel like I am splashing among a sea of well-rounded, highly motivated, poised ducks effortlessly drifting across the water. By learning more about others’ tenured career experiences and discovering my own unique passions along the way, I now believe Ravi Gupta when he told us that “nobody actually knows what they’re doing.” At some level, we’re all frantically trying to keep afloat, but it’s those with “confidence in [their] conviction” that look better than the rest of us while trying.

            The following are nuggets of golden advice, conveyed through unusual or distinctive analogies, that I have harvested from the incredible conversations we were able to have last week:

Reed McGinley-Stempel, Stych: Visit after visit, founders would reference the difference between painkillers and vitamins, an analogy which, at first, I didn’t quite understand. Why was a passwordless authentication company or an early stage VC firm asking us, “who took their vitamins today?” I soon learned that using the painkiller-vitamin approach to a product is one of the best strategies in developing product-market fit. You don’t want your solution to be an added–but not necessary–benefit to someone’s daily routine. You want it to be so positively transformative, alleviating a customer’s pain so well that it becomes essential. I have found this framework to transcend the corporate world in guiding my everyday decisions. For example, as I roamed the drugstore aisles thinking about products I wanted versus needed, I faced a budgeted choice: a bigger bottle of Advil for my inflamed tonsils or collagen gummies for my poor nail health. I’ll let you guess which one left CVS with me.

Lauren Levitan, Faire: It wasn’t the crisp white floors or the cold brew andkombucha on tap that dazzled me about Faire, it was the energy. Lauren Levitan and her three coworkers, Jolie, David, and Grant, brightened the room with their excitement for Faire’s growing marketplace, the office comradery, and … cherry tomatoes. Yes, the warm-toned, bulbous fruit (it has seeds) that is the cornerstone of pizza and pasta. The analogy made no sense to us listening, but the Faire employees responded with “ah, yes” to Lauren’s reference. A cherry tomato, she describes, is a small act that, at the moment, seems miniscule in impact, but over time, reaps big benefits in its harvest. Making the decision to forego a fractional unnecessary cost right now can compound into hundreds, thousands, maybe millions in savings down the line that can be reinvested so much more productively into the value proposition of a company. Taking the lesson out of Silicon Valley, doing small yet effective efforts each day towards a larger academic, career, or personal goal can result in a net positive change unimaginable to the initial mind.

Deborah Liu, Ancestry:  “What am I leaving behind?” “What does your future self wish you did today?” Sitting at one end of the U-shaped classroom table, I scanned the room from Bari to my right all the way to Will across from me. As Deb asked us to “step out of today” and into the next 5, 10, 15 years of our lives, I can’t help but ponder what this room would look like then. If the ambition and thirst for knowledge in the room feels forceful now, imagine the success stories that will populate it in a decade. The Duke in Silicon Valley program has brought a group of eclectic, wildly contrasting personalities together through a shared excitement for the opportunities of the future and the hope that maybe we, as individuals or members of a larger team, will one day be the alumni who offer advice to future DSV students.

Penelope is a rising sophomore studying Biomedical Engineering at Duke University with a potential certificate in Science and Society. She hails originally from Dallas, Texas, but is now a North-Easterner living in Greenwich, Connecticut. Growing up, she always found biology to be the most interesting science and now seeks to integrate it with her passions for technology in bio or human health technology. She found Duke in Silicon Valley to be the perfect experience to expose herself to such industries and give her a real insight into opportunities beyond college. Also, as the new director of Duke Campus Enterprises’s Next Ventures division, she is excited to learn from and apply her knowledge from the I&E class to grow as an entrepreneur. Outside of school, she enjoys running marathons, reading, and researching for a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, which she will formally continue with a Bass Connections Team in the 2022-2023 school year.

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