In our opinion, the number one soft skill Duke students are apt to acquire during our four years here is networking — amidst countless coffee chats, informational phone calls, and literal events with the sole purpose of creating connections between students and mentors. However, the whole process can become, well, rather robotic and removed. That’s why our mentor Jeff Muti has been such a breath of fresh air.
We started off our call with Jeff very professionally: introducing ourselves and backgrounds, highlighting our appreciation for his time, the usual. Before the call, we had discussed amongst the two of us (Jimmy and Miranda) some of the questions we would like to pose to him. Our first, the most important in our eyes, was, “What do you hope to gain from serving as a mentor?” Too many mentorship pairings we’ve seen have been parasitic rather than mutually symbiotic.
And Jeff’s response to this question is when we realized this wouldn’t be one of the mentorship-style interactions we’d been used to. He essentially said, in language we would likely be scolded by the Career Center for repeating, that the Duke Giving body had referred him to become a mentor, he had participated last semester with a less than ideal experience, and found himself back in this position again as a last chance effort. In short, he had nothing to gain, but has a number of entrepreneurs whom he mentors in other spaces and thought he should do the same for some students of his alma mater. While both of us students quickly realized the need to impress Jeff enough to stay on as a mentor for future students, we also came to the realization a) that impressing Jeff in other regards (like overly professional jargon) wouldn’t be effective in building a relationship with him and b) he must really have something to offer as a mentor if Duke has been practically begging him to come back for another semester.
While Jeff’s successes have been abundant, his failures have provided him with the more interesting lessons in entrepreneurship, namely the importance of building his brand. He had reached out to friends, family, and connections as potential sources for funding for a venture in private equity; due to his reputation, a decent number said yes and provided the funds. However, the private equity firm went kaboom, and many of these family-and-friends turned investors lost their money. Fast forward a few years, Jeff had the business plan for his current venture, a phone-case manufacturing company focused on facilitating better supply chain operations between American companies and Chinese factories. Rather than hide from his former investors with his tail between his legs, he went back to this same network of friends and family to pitch his new startup. While he admits he received some cold shoulder responses, he still managed to get the funding he needed without institutional financing. The lesson learned here: people invest in people, and failure is a natural part of a person’s entrepreneurial path.
Over the course of our talk with Jeff, we learned many lessons from his experiences and his straight-shooter demeanor. But arguably the most important for us was the realization that while it is great to speak to Jeff in the capacity of students wanting to learn, it is even better to bring a concrete project or entrepreneurial venture you’re working on to him for feedback. He’s heard countless pitches and mentors entrepreneurs working on their own startups: asking him advice for the future is great, but his action-oriented nature leans more towards steps for the present. So, for our next steps, Miranda will use her individual call to run her Hacking4Defense startup pitch by him, given his military background, and Jimmy will use the opportunity to run ideas for expansion and new market acquisition in a growing startup he holds an exec position in, as well as seek to learn more about how Jeff identified niche opportunities, and start thinking about how those lessons might apply for the new venture he’s been thinking of pursuing.