Bringing it all together: Lessons from Silicon Valley

As our Duke in Silicon Valley experience comes to a close, I am ready to go home, but also reluctant to leave this amazing place and program. These past four weeks have been challenging, thought-provoking, exhausting, invigorating, incredibly valuable, and everything in between. We have spent days tested by Professor Azhar in class, bonding with my classmates on long bus rides to San Francisco, and picking the minds of industry leaders about everything from utilizing big data to enhance hurricane relief efforts to an algorithm that predicts the best bra size, and nights analyzing case studies, cooking with friends, and exploring the Bay.

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DSV 2018 @ Google

In the past week, we visited the robot lab at ABB, spoke with associates at Canaan Partners, were hosted at Google, networked at LinkedIn, and finished the company visits with Freestyle Capital. At each of these visits, Duke alums and others spoke to us about their company culture and their career paths, while also offering advice and answering our many questions. The fact that we have visited such a diverse group of companies, from tech giants to minute start-ups, from grocery delivery platforms to venture capitalists, has contributed to a comprehensive view of the many opportunities that Silicon Valley has to offer. Our concluding visit of the program was to a tiny office in residential San Francisco, housing the small venture capital firm Freestyle. The majority of us agreed this was a phenomenal company to end the program, because of their genuine passion for innovation that was evident in their talk. Although each company has given us a unique perspective on the technological industry and Silicon Valley, a few themes have cemented all experiences – the importance of failure, the unparalleled value of a good team, and a desire to remake the world.

The classwork for the last section of the course has been centered around designing a game, incorporating principles of design, customer archetypes, and ethnographic skills that we have learned throughout the past four weeks. My group’s game was designed for “Peter the Plotter”, a customer who enjoys individual games that incorporate strategy. In our second to last class, we presented our games, playing and evaluating all the other groups. Although my group’s game, Loan Shark, fell flat in the engaging and fun aspects, we succeeded in being the most individual, player interactive, and deliberate games, which aligned with our customer archetype. Creating a game was a great way to consolidate all of our lessons about design, innovation, and empathizing with the customers into a final project.

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While this program has given me a basic understanding of starting a company, it has also gifted me with a breadth knowledge of the lead tech companies, a network of gracious Duke alumni and other hosts, and an intimate understanding of the Silicon Valley culture and its culture of innovation. However, for me, the most valuable part of this experience has been creating lasting relationships with my inspiring, creative, and intelligent peers, many of whom I am positive will become industry leaders.

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DSV Week Four: Embrace the Impossible

“It’s not a course. It’s an experience.”

These are the words we see on the screen every day we walk in our class that teaches us how to build and sustain a successful enterprise. These words could not be more true. Since starting Duke In Silicon Valley, I have been introduced and exposed to many things inside and outside of the course that have made attending this program one of the best decisions I’ve ever made! I came to Duke in Silicon Valley not really knowing what to expect. I had never been to California. I had never even been on a plane! I was never exposed to tech companies or startups. All I knew is that I was open to seeing any and everything these startups-and San Francisco, I was still a tourist, ya know!- had to offer, and if it would help me find clarity on how I would fit in the tech, entrepreneurial, and business world. Besides the many new experiences it has granted me (I now know the toils of a CALtrain and bus commuter and have tried many new foods that I can not pronounce or spell thanks to my DSV roommate), my favorite part of this program by far has been the lessons and advice I have received from the inspirational individuals who were once in my shoes based on THEIR experiences. Here are some valuable and encouraging themes that have stuck with me from this week.

CAREER PATH–YOU GOTTA CREATE IT

We started the week off with a visit to Instacart where we talked to four Duke alumni. It was clear that the company had a great culture and took pride in cultivating it. There were posters of the company vision and values on the wall. During this visit, we met Ravi Gupta, CFO. Ravi spoke about learning from his experiences and the importance of not expecting life and your career path to be fully managed or handed to you. You have to put in work for what you want to do and create what you want to do. We all have heard how we should follow our passion, but Ravi talked about it with a different approach. He brought in the reality that some may not be able to follow their passion right out of school if they have other responsibilities, and that is okay. This really related to me, as I am constantly finding conflict between my passions and responsibilities. You can still create your career path and start doing what you are passionate about after putting in the work, and create a path that allows you to do what you are passionate about and also take care of responsibilities.

FIND YOUR STORY

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Zume Pizza boxes are sustainably made and can be composted!

This week, I was so inspired by the drive, passion, and focus of the people we talked to and learning what made those companies successful. Take Alex Garden, the CEO of Zume Pizza, for example. Alex was a high school dropout who’s drive allowed him to still secure a Microsoft internship and start multiple companies. Now, he hopes to completely change the food and delivery industry by using robots to make pizza, and ovens that cook the pizza while driving to the delivery locations. When he first came up with the idea, there was a lot of doubt from others in it, and it was difficult even finding someone to make the pizza ovens for him. However, they continued to focus, and not take no for an answer, and they achieved their goal. Now, he is making delicious pizza (my favorite was the buffalo chicken!) with  healthier ingredients and eliminating waste with their custom compostable box. The culture of having focus and drive seeps down from him unto every other member of the company we met, even the interns! They all had different backgrounds and majors and were each passionate about the projects they were doing to improve the startup. This really appealed to me. Many of these companies met plenty of “no’s”, which is very common in entrepreneurship. However, their ability to keep persisting and developing has led them to continue to be successful.

Perhaps one of my favorite conversations I have had with any Duke alumni so far was the one with Grant Kelly this week. He is a Global Supply Manager at Apple and has basically allowed his story to shape his passion, and ultimately his career path. As a child he grew up with Dyslexia, and was doubtful that he would be able to learn. He found solace in using a Mac computer which helped show him that he had a great ability to learn. Now he is working in what he considers his dream job at Apple, and studied what he loved and what challenged him; Economics and Music. His advice is simple, but deep: major in what you love and what you feel challenges you, and constantly question yourself on why you like doing what you are doing or why you are attracted to certain opportunities. Eventually, this constant reflection will allow you to articulate your story, figure out how you differentiate yourself from others, and why and how it relates to what careers you want to do.

Before coming to DSV, I was constantly thinking that in order to succeed in the business, tech and entrepreneurial world, I may need to have a tech major or minor. However, both stories from Alex and Grant have motivated me to stay true and confident with who I am, what I am interested in, and what I bring to the table.

BEING ENTREPRENEURIAL- THINK IMPOSSIBLE

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This HenryEO3 Ford quote has been mentioned by many speakers during this entire program. To me, this means people know what problems they want to solve, but it is sometimes impossible for them to fathom doing it in innovative ways. I think this week is where we really got to see the most innovative and seemingly impossible ways people have solved problems. This included seeing the meticulous work put into making TESLA vehicles when taking the TESLA factory tour, and hearing how much it helps the environment. It also included talking to Knightscope CEO, William Santana Li, who has created robots to help with surveillance and security of the United States, an area where little innovation has been done and where the government has not provided much funding. We visted ABB, another startup, that creates robots to improve efficiency in many different industries. All of these companies seem to be doing things before their time, but this innovation is definitely needed for the problems that we endure now. Three speakers this week spoke on how powerful it is to think about the impossible and work to achieve it, versus thinking about what has already been done. A huge part of this is being cognizant of your surroundings and the problems that arise around you, and thinking of different ways to solve those problems. Another question to get you to reflect on ways to be entrepreneurial includes a question that Nicholas Zaldastani’s dad started asking him every night; “What did you learn today that can make tomorrow better?”

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At ABB Robotics Lab

After this week, I have come to realize the importance of being a self-starter that constantly creates her own path, practicing reflection frequently to help with knowing your story, and constantly being aware of problems around you and thinking of creative ways to solve them, even if they seem far-fetched. Overall, this program has been amazing, and I doubt that I could ever do justice with trying to share all of the once in a lifetime experiences I have had so far. This program has exceeded my expectations. This has truly been a program to remember with so much advice and words of wisdom I will follow for a lifetime!

Ehime Ohue is a native of Santee, South Carolina, but has recently moved to Waldorf, MD. She is a rising junior majoring in Public Policy Studies with an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate.At Duke, She is a DuWELL intern, research assistant and a member of Nakisai African Dance Team, United in Praise Praise Dance Team, Movement of Youth, Every Nation Campus Ministry . She loves to learn new things, sleep, read, and catch up on her latest Netflix show addictions. She is participating in DSV to learn about developing her own venture and to gain exposure to different types of businesses to help her gain clarity on her career choices.

DSV Week Four: Learning the Difference between Management & Leadership

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“Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Up until Silicon Valley, I always thought of leadership as someone who directs others – who brings them to success. I used to think that everyone at Duke was a leader – I mean that’s a skill we all have on our resumes, right?

Well, to be frank, we shouldn’t. That is, not unless we’ve proven it. Just because we are the President of some organization or are the captain of a Club Sports team does not mean we are a leader. Did we inspire anyone in the process or did we just go through the motions of what we thought a leader should do?

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Apple’s new campus in Cupertino

This week we met individuals that are arguably the best examples of extraordinary leaders. Since I began the article with a Steve Jobs quote, I’ll start with our visit to Apple this week. At Apple we met Eddy Cue, who probably doesn’t need an introduction but for those who may not know, Eddy is the senior VP of Internet Software and Services. Eddy has been at Apple for almost 30 years now and stayed there during its earliest days when it was about to go bankrupt (hard to imagine). When asked why he stayed, his answer was immediate and simple: Steve Jobs. Steve was such a great leader that he kept Eddy motivated during a time where he thought the future of Apple was looking very dismal. Eddy explained that Steve pointed out characteristics in him that he never saw in himself and gave him confidence in those newfound skills. That is a great leader – someone who finds a way to inspire others in the darkest of times and to build relationships to constantly make their peers better.

In the beginning of the week we had the pleasure of meeting Ravi Gupta, COO/CFO of Instacart. Ravi has mastered the leadership skill of building relationships and creating a positive work environment. Ravi put together a panel of Duke alumni for us to talk with and the first thing I noticed was their relationship – his employees were making fun of him! Ravi then responded with a great comeback and the banter went back and forth. It really seemed like I was watching an episode of Friends! Ravi established a genuine relationship with his employees and they felt comfortable enough around him to joke around. By building these personal relationships with his employees he has created a work environment in which everyone is free to discuss their thoughts and opinions – even to him. A leader does not instruct or dictate employees, they encourage employees to curate new ideas and to present them with confidence. I could tell that Ravi exemplifies this characteristic – it was extremely noticeable that his employees loved working with him. I say with because Ravi mentioned that he does not consider his employees to be working under him; he considers them his equals.

We also visited Zume Pizza where we met Alex Garden, Chairman and CEO. Zume Pizza is revolutionizing the food industry utilizing robotics. While Alex could not talk to us for a long time since he had to catch a flight, I realized how effective his leadership is by talking to some of the interns. When asked what they liked most about interning at Zume, they all answered, “Alex.” The word I kept hearing over and over was “motivating”. They all agreed that Alex takes the time to give the best feedback possible – he will tell you exactly what you are doing right and wrong and what you can do to improve. They said that Alex forms a true relationship with each person in the company and cares about them deeply. His main goal is to make his employees better – he prioritizes the individuals in his company and not revenue. A leader makes it their mission to challenge their staff to make them better. Alex has gone to the extreme to even focus on establishing relationships with his interns – he is a true leader.

I’ve realized the direct correlation between a company’s success and its leader. These visits and interactions have made me reflect on the type of leader I want to be. I’m extremely lucky to have met these individuals because they now serve as my inspiration.

 

Elle is a rising junior from Stamford, Connecticut pursuing a major in mechanical engineering and a certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship. At Duke, she is an active member of Dukes and Duchesses, Alpha Phi, Duke Engineers for International Development, Club Volleyball, and Duke Admissions Ambassadors. Since coming to Silicon Valley she has realized her passion for entrepreneurship and hopes to find a career in product management. She will be traveling to Australia this fall to study abroad. 

DSV Week Three: Tell Your Own Story

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” -Rumi

I share this quote not only because Rumi has been the resounding poetic voice throughout our course with Professor Azhar, but also because its message, to tell your story, has been repeated by everyone we’ve met here in Silicon Valley.

As humans, storytelling is a natural format that communicates our passions, values, and uniqueness to each other, and as an entrepreneur connecting others to our story is integral to the success of a business. As we’ve visited diverse companies ranging from smaller ventures like Carbon to large corporations like Facebook, and heard from guest speakers in a variety of fields, everyone has their own story to tell.

For Pamela Hawley founder of UniversalGiving, a non-profit venture matching volunteers with quality giving and project opportunities worldwide, this story began with a trip to Mexico when she was 12. While on vacation with her family, Pamela witnessed the gap between extreme poverty in the surrounding country and the luxury lifestyle within her cruise ship walls, inspiring a lifelong commitment to philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. This narrative crafted the authentic passion for the company values embodied in her presentation, and created the 100% client retention rate that allows UniversalGiving to grow. Through connecting her story to her career, Pamela was able to build a company that engages target consumers and communicates a genuine mission.

On Monday, our class welcomed speaker Greg Badros who currently works as an advisor to tech startups at his company Prepared Mind Innovations. As he spoke to us about the importance of preserving company culture and practicing empathy across teams, he spoke in stories of his experiences at Facebook and Google, stories that informed his passion for helping others succeed today. He conveyed specific career experiences, for example relaying the story of the fellow Facebook employee who broke the glass frame of a poster reading “Move fast and break things;” these small stories built before us a business leader whose interest in helping others to achieve ambitious objectives became apparent from his career journey.

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Later on we visited ThirdLove, the revolutionary bra company that provides 59 sizes including half-cup sizes, 15 styles, and a personalized test to find the best fit. As we listened to founder Heidi Zak, she began with her own story of struggle as she became frustrated with the discomfort and inaccuracy of the traditional bra-shopping experience that causes consumers to wear the wrong fit or write-off their body type as simply unrepresented by bra offerings. Heidi harnessed this personal narrative to develop a brand inclusive of diverse body differences and sensitive to the comfort and personalized detail necessary to design the perfect-fitting bra. Like the other founders we’ve met, this ethos of her own story ultimately built a top brand connecting to a worldwide market and growing.

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Though I can’t quite tell you much about the game, Bill Schough alone, CIO and SVP of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, just might have converted me into a fan (sorry Dad but the Mets never really stood a chance anyway). As Bill brought us into a VIP meeting room filled with championship rings and a World Series trophy, he used a map to share his story and the different points of luck and passion for sports along the way that brought him to the Giants. Despite my embarrassing lack of baseball knowledge, Bill’s infectious enthusiasm in his career narrative made this visit one of my favorite so far, engaging me in a world of sports business I had never known before.

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Even at larger corporations like Facebook and Netflix, each employee began with their career journey leading up to their current role. As we continue to hear from different speakers and visit all different companies, I’m constantly thinking about all the pieces coming together to build my own narrative and my eventual career path. I hope one day to inspire the same passion with my story as these business leaders have inspired me.

 

Renée is a rising sophomore from Westport, Connecticut pursuing a major in Linguistics and a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. At Duke, she’s extended this entrepreneurial spirit to her role as a partner of Bull City Beds, a student-run mattress rental company. She’s also the Features editor for the Standard as well as a member of Business Oriented Women, Delta Sigma Pi (Duke’s professional business fraternity), and Alpha Phi. In her free time, Renée enjoys running, hiking, updating her playlists on Spotify, and watching Shameless.

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

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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.

DSV Week Two: Empathy in Design, Vintner’s Daughter, Carbon 3D

“Choose someone you hate. Now, put yourself in their shoes and reason why they would act this way.”

Many of the volunteers who took on this task at the start of class had a difficult time setting aside one’s emotional bias against the hated person.

Professor Azhar started our ethnography section of our course with this request. We learned that anthropological studies provided crucial data to understand the customers.

It was a transformative experience because it forced us to empathize with other people. You know, really REALLY put ourselves in another person’s perspectives and that is the core of what a business should do. Businesses have to understand every detail of what the customer wants, needs, feels, hates, and appreciates. The product should not solve a problem that is not validated by customers. This exercise was very useful in removing ourselves from the normal tendency to believe that we as a business know everything about the customers.

April Gargiulo, founder and CEO of Vintner’s Daughter, a skincare company, visited our class on May 31stto speak to us about her experience in the start-up field. The company is five years old and grew organically without any funding or marketing costs. She emphasized “brand over revenue” and how she wants to focus on making her one product to be a category-defining, game-changing product.

Her experience captivated the entire class. She started the company while she was pregnant believing that she could do anything as a mother. I was very intrigued by her intrinsic motivation. She was not motivated by money or glorious exit opportunities, but her passion and trust in the ability of her product to change lives. I believe in order to start a successful business, you have to have some sort of greater purpose and vision for the company.

She had a very unconventional way of running the company. She only has 11 employees and never spent any money on marketing. She rejects all investment offers in order to keep control of her company and maintain her vision, which is also very different from the goal of other Silicon Valley companies. She was not motivated by money at all. Most companies want global domination, or to be the next Facebook. Mrs. Gargiulo wanted to maintain organic growth, ensure high quality, and most importantly provide a game-changing product.

I realized how important it was to understand the gaps in the markets as well. The beauty industry is saturated with products made of cheap materials with high prices. Mrs. Gargiulo connected the need of the customer to maintain healthy skin with the desire of high quality, safe, effective products. I believe that connection is where her success lies.

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One of the most memorable company visit for me was Carbon Inc. Carbon Inc. was a revolutionary company. They were radically changing manufacturing with their 3D printing technology. What surprised me most about this company was definitely the technology. It felt like magic when they would pull the printed material out of the water, as if something was being created from nothing. As they told us about how the company started from a garage to an almost 300 person company today, we were all inspired to start our own ventures and pursue our dreams.

I felt as if Carbon Inc. was one of the most organized companies I have ever encountered. Everything was going at the optimal pace from manufacturing, business deals, and R&D. It appealed so much to me who loves organization and precision while passionate about the freedom to create any idea that comes to mind.

Duke in Silicon Valley has been a very rewarding program so far, and I have learned so much about how companies work and what they work for. It motivated me to eventually sit at one of these companies one day or even better make one of my own.

 

Mark Kang is a rising sophomore at Duke University studying Economics and Computer Science. He is interested in pursuing a career in product management and software engineering and eventually going into venture capital. He is the VP of Pledge Education for Delta Sigma Pi and a coach for Duke Tae Kwon Do.

DSV Week One: First Day of Class, Palantir, Stanford

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Duke in Silicon Valley has been off to a great start!  Starting off with the class with Prof. Azhar was a great and unconventional experience.  He put us on the spot and made us think unconventionally – all part of his goal to simulate what it’s like to be a part of a startup.  I think that we were all a bit anxious at first, but by the end of the class, we were all sold by his teaching style and excited to draw from his entrepreneurial experience moving forward with the summer.

Immediately following our first class, we headed to Palantir Technologies, one of the world leaders in software services and big data analysis.  We were able to get our first taste of a Silicon Valley tech company – employees laser-focused on their projects, unique interior design around the office, and all the snacks and refreshments needed to refuel after some hard work.  Though I was amazed by the environment we were in, what I found most captivating was the panel session we had with several software developers and data analysts.

I found it amazing to hear about Palantir’s mission and maturity process.  One of the more senior software developers pointed out that throughout his time, Palantir has evolved from a more rambunctious startup company to one with more structure and importance.  This reminded me that years ago, Palantir was just another budding company with a couple people working in a small office space with no concrete sense of direction.  This panel also reaffirmed that there isn’t an instant route to success; Palantir was founded roughly 15 years ago, and there were a lot of obstacles the company needed to overcome to get to where it is now.  Seeing how the company developed from just focusing on intelligence to a wide variety of services, I saw how important it is for a company to constantly innovate.  Palantir is constantly tackling new issues, and it is this mindset that enables it to keep growing.

What I find most admirable about Palantir is how they innovate with a purpose.  Outside CEO Alex Karp’s office is a leafy wall with the wooden phrase “SAVE THE SHIRE”.  Adopted from Lord of the Rings, the phrase essentially means “Save the World” and is Palantir’s unofficial motto.  Every single service they offer comes directly from a client’s needs – everything they do is to help people.  One of the software developers pointed out that when you work on a project on Palantir, you could be facilitating a disaster relief program that directly feeds children or saves drowning people.  To them, it doesn’t matter that their project isn’t mass-marketed; having a great impact on just several people is much more important to the company’s mission.  As someone with a dream to start my own company someday, I found this an extremely important value to keep in mind with any venture that I pursue.

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We also had the opportunity to speak with Tom Byers from Stanford University, who heads the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.  I loved hearing about some of the more detail-oriented aspects of entrepreneurship that he recommended every venture focus on.  He repeated the idea that every entrepreneur should keep the values of purpose in mind; focus on helping others in some way and improving the world. I found this especially inspiring in light of the fact of some of the ethical issues that have come up in Silicon Valley this year – an issue that Tom brought up as well.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve already learned so much about entrepreneurship and technology that I ever have before.  I’ve had an amazing experience being exposed to the professionals of Silicon Valley and am looking forward to the unforgettable month that lies ahead.

Bryant is a rising sophomore at Duke University studying Economics and Computer Science with an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate. He’s interested in finance and technology, hoping to find his niche in the intersection of these fields.  In his free time, he loves to play basketball and go to the beach.

Wrapping it up: Seven lessons from the DSV program

I cannot write this blog post without first expressing my deep gratitude towards those that made it possible. This program was transformative for me. I know it was transformative for other students in the program as well. Thank you to Kevin (Program Director), Megan (Assistant), Emilie (Assistant), Professor Azhar, all the guest speakers, the host companies, and the generous donors who make this program accessible to students of every background. This program is what Duke is all about.

Here’s a short blurb about the program itself: Around two dozen students are selected, and then participate in a month-long study away program to study the art of a business enterprise and to visit various companies in the Silicon Valley area.

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Not only did we visit various tech ventures, but we also explored companies focused in the food, clothing, and sports industries. As it turns out, Silicon Valley is not just about tech. Despite tech permeating nearly everything here, one of the biggest takeaways was recognizing the abundance of opportunities for innovation outside of consumer tech. One of the most iconic speakers during our trip, Alex Garden of Zume Pizza, told us that there is no reason why the same innovation occurring in the tech industry shouldn’t be happening everywhere else. Alex sees no excuse for why fast-food can’t be both quick and healthy at the same time. And we shouldn’t either… for fast-food, or any other stagnant industry.

In our last week, we finished up our final projects, listened to several guest lecturers, and visited companies across the Valley. Additionally, the last week included visits to LinkedIn, BlackRock, Google, and Canaan Partners for a company overview, presentation, Q&A session, and networking session.

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However, the purpose of my blog post here isn’t to be a testimonial of the program. Here are seven take-away lessons I gained from the experience that you might find valuable:

The Importance of Timing 

Timing is one reason why Apple hasn’t been able to reproduce the level of success it had with the iPod, iPhone, or iPad, in their recent products. Despite this, Apple places immense attention on timing product releases during impactful windows of opportunity. Eddy Cue, who is Apple’s Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services, believes Apple’s ability to time product releases appropriately is one of its key differentiators from the competition. Cue graduated from Duke in 1986, and played a key role in the development of the iTunes Store and App Store. He emphasized how much timing mattered in Apple’s success with consumer technology. For me, meeting Eddy Cue and listening to him was a lesson on the value of patience when assessing technological maturity.

Beware the hype

Machine learning. Artificial Intelligence. Algorithms. The Cloud. The list goes on and on. Everyone’s disrupting something in Silicon Valley. Sure. Here’s a secret about the best Venture Capitalists: they have mechanisms in place for filtering through the fakes. And fakes exist. There’s a limited supply of the talent actually capable of implementing such systems, let alone making them practically beneficial to a company’s bottom line. Still, the words AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) haven’t quite lost their edge. In fact, riding the AI and ML wave properly and backing it up with substance will prompt a room full of hundreds of people to give you their undivided attention.

Going beyond the job description

With a few exceptions, every accomplished individual we met went far beyond the expectations demanded of them. These individuals proposed improvements and fostered new relationships outside of work.

Never lose the culture

Startup culture is scrappy, innovative, and slightly rebellious. As companies get bigger, this innovative culture can be threatened. When I asked the team at ThirdLove about this, co-founder Heidi Zak made it clear that hiring people aligned with their culture is crucial to their success. For a bigger (unnamed) company in the Fortune 10, maintaining their culture means making serious commitments to documenting exactly what their culture actually is, so that they might be able to align employees for generations to come.

Capitalize on momentum

Instead of raising money for a startup when desperate, it’s better to raise funding for your company when momentum is on your side.

The value of a purposeful product

Does it relieve a user from pain? Does it make someone happy, even for a second of their day? Does it actually solve a real problem? Or is it just a solution in search of a problem? These details might be avoided in the short-term, but judgement day is inevitable for every startup out there. While most people think that most successful startups come from college-age teams, the venture capitalists we visited were more likely to favor older aged teams. This might be attributed to older folks finding real problems before committing to a startup with their solution.

There is no single “correct” recipe to success

Despite some common themes across successful startups, there were very often conflicting interpretations on what a sound strategy should look like. The take-away here is that there is no single “correct” way of achieving greatness in Silicon Valley. And that’s a good thing. It means that there are parameters in innovation that cannot necessarily be quantified. In the midst of an AI and ML age that intends on cracking the secret to success, uncertainty nevertheless remains.  In other words, I’m happy to report that nothing in Silicon Valley has replaced the human gut instinct. At least not yet.

This realization is at the heart of what the Duke in Silicon Valley program taught us. It was not in the syllabus, or in the class lectures. However, it was in the discussions we had with industry experts and with one another in class. Navigating through that uncertainty, finding fulfillment, and generating insights were the most impactful components of this program.

That’s it for this blog post. I hope it was helpful to you. If you’d like to get a more robust version of this post with more examples, I encourage you to look me up and follow me on LinkedIn.

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Ismail Iberkak is a Duke University engineering student who’s passions lie in designing effortless user experiences. Born in Morocco, he also values the expansion of transformative technologies to emerging markets around the globe.  In his spare time, his hobbies include reading the latest technology trends, sketching, traveling, and playing soccer.

One day I’ll go to Heaven… I’ll look around and say, “It ain’t bad but it ain’t San Francisco” – Herb Caen

Our last week felt like a whirlwind as last-weeks often do. Monday was a bit shortened, which allowed us all to catch up on our work and enjoy the divine California sun. We also heard from a former Duke engineer-now entrepreneur- whose first words were “Don’t record anything I’m about to tell you!”. Despite his warning, he did not divulge government confidential or the secret ingredient in Coca-Cola; Rather, he spoke on the importance of choosing to do the right thing over what might make you the most money. “You will always have chances to make more money in your life. Rebuilding your reputation is much, much more difficult.”, are some of his words that stuck with me. This type of thought has been a theme throughout this program. Time and time again we’ve heard about the importance of honesty, transparency, and fairness. We’ve had speakers who have made fortunes, who have worked at all the biggest companies with all the biggest names, and who continue to be extremely successful, and yet nearly everybody maintained that they only got to where they were by being earnest and sincere. It’s an amazing thing to see, and certainly the rest of the world could benefit from this kind of thinking. The rest of Monday was spent sitting poolside, playing basketball, and belatedly calling fathers to wish them a happy Father’s Day.

On Tuesday, we ventured into San Francisco to visit LinkedIn and Blackrock Financial, an investment company. I personally was unimpressed with LinkedIn; The speakers were uninspiring, and as one of my colleagues pointed out, they really don’t have much competition in the professional social network realm, which has limited their innovation. With a beautiful view of the financial district in their 18th story office though, it’s tough not to be slightly allured by their attractive design and mission statement to “Connect the World’s professionals and make them more productive and successful.”

Blackrock, too, was interesting. Their office offered a stylistic change to the open office and ping pong tables we had come to expect of the companies we visited. Blackrock was much more of a traditional corporate office building, with cubicles, large boardrooms, and lots of genuine leather desk chairs. After a traditional Q&A session, one of the panelists mentioned that her work day is “7:30-6, Monday through Friday.” Wow!

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This highlights a point I feel is necessary to mention: innovation does not come without a cost. It can be easy to overlook just how hard these people are working when all we see are smiling faces gushing about the free lunches and awesome amenities their companies offer. They say if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. However, I am constantly questioning to what extent people actually love San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and how many people love it because they believe they have to love it. During our whole trip, not once did I hear someone say anything incriminating about the Bay, which I found peculiar. From the outside, the bay has it all: a bounty of stimulating work opportunities, beautiful panoramic views, all the food you could ever want, along with an extremely diverse community of intelligent individuals. But this doesn’t mean it’s perfect for everyone. For a lot of young professionals, the goal is to simply make it here; Once they get to San Francisco, they believe they will be happy, because here is the place they have been working towards their whole life; San Francisco represents a professional zenith. And because who wouldn’t be happy here?

When the reality is a bit different- work is demanding and the paradoxical loneliness of a big city creeps its way into the self-conscious- it can be hard to admit that this isn’t the right place for you, especially when everyone else seems happy. The bay has a hypnotic attraction to it, and even I feel myself giving in to the mesmerizing appeal of California.

Wednesday, we visited the infamous Google. Their campus is enormous and amazing. With a huge ecosystem of interlocking buildings for business and leisure, it feels like you’re walking through a college campus. Each panelist had a palpable acuity and a refreshing curiosity that poured through as they answered our questions. This place is truly the heart of innovation, although one must question whether it’s really possible to “Do no evil” (A core value of google) when you have a company that controls more than 40% of the internet.

Thursday we heard from a self-proclaimed socialist who is currently dissatisfied with the present model of wealth distribution. Particular quotes included “People will receive universal income” and “There will be 12.5 hour work weeks.” At one point I would have scoffed at these kinds of fantastic claims, but with four weeks of training practicing analytical thinking, I digested these claims and considered why our speaker believed this and what made her come to these conclusions in the first place. It was a fantastic conversation, and one fitting for the last day of a great program.

As our week comes to a close, and we say our goodbyes with stomachs full of Neapolitan pizza and brains filled with new knowledge, I can’t help but feel another overwhelming sensation envelope me: love. Love for all the new friends with whom I’ve shared an amazing experience, love for the area and the “culture of innovation” that has challenged me and forced me to think in unique and special ways, and above all, love for the amazing opportunity this program was and the wealth of new experiences I have gained from it. Only by communicating, empathizing, and understanding with one another, will we find success in what we do.

I want to thank, too, our amazing professor, Salman Azhar. This program simply would not have been the same without his boundless energy and Cheshire-cat smile. Thanks too, to Kevin Hoch, the program director and trip “dad,” as well as Emilie and Megan, without whom the program would not have been possible. Long live DSV and go Blue Devils!

Lee is a rising sophomore studying Public Policy at Duke. He came to the valley to interact with interesting people and learn their favorite kind of bubble tea flavor. In his free time, Lee enjoys watching watching T.V., eating gelato, and scouring the internet for pictures of golden retrievers. 

Silicon Valley – A Mindset, Not a Location

…..Don’t be afraid to fail…..

….There are 2 steps to success: 1. write it down 2. go do it….

….100% intention, only then will you have execution…..

….I wanted to love what I do, and so I followed my passion….

 Sounds inspirational? Motivating? Well, safe to say this is what has been ringing in every student’s ear at DSV this week as we meet and speak with visionaries who have transformed challenging ideas into reality.

The week started with a visit to an uncommon company, not one that is usually associated with ‘startups.’ ThirdLove is a startup founded by a Duke Alum, Heidi Zak, and aims to transform the way bras and underwear our bought and perceived. Being a girl myself, the mission of ThirdLove resonated with me – lingerie’s sole purpose is not to make others happy or to make a woman look appealing, it’s to offer comfort. The minute we stepped into the beautiful office, I could sense I was part of a busy and bustling startup – exposed brick walls, clear windows all around you, a kitchen stocked with brew fountains and numerous snacks to a team that screamed innovation, hard work and a love for their brand. I found this visit helpful for we not only heard how the founder spotted a problem, thought of a novel solution and began to execute it, but we got to speak to professionals in her company from different sectors, understanding what kind of roles do each sphere have to offer.

On the following day, we kicked off our morning with a truly inspirational and refreshing talk given by Sanyin Siang, Executive Director of Coach K Leadership and Ethics Center. She had a lot of advice and insights to offer to help us be our own super heroes, and what reverberated inside me most was her rule of “failing.” “Don’t be afraid to fail,” I remember her saying. It’s easier said than done, I thought, and considering us Duke students are known to possess this “effortless perfection” attribute, how does one deal with failure? In a world of innovation, entrepreneurs all around are trying to be the next Snapchat or Facebook, how do they deal with constant failure? Sayin, being a Duke alum herself, clearly stated that no one is effortlessly perfect, simply, no one is perfect. And success doesn’t only mean making a lot of money, getting an A+ or landing that coveted job at Google. It means knowing why you failed, and learning from your mistake, and starting again. If you didn’t learn, then it is a failure. Other than that, everything is a success in life for it allows you to constantly improve and be the best version of yourself. These are important lessons to keep in mind when stepping into the professional, especially entrepreneurial world, and understanding that things go wrong for a reason.

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Following this inspiring talk, we drove up to PayPal, attempted to take a creatively funny Boomerang in front of the logo, realized we looked ridiculous, and continued to take more. PayPal blew my mind and continued to constantly surprise me with the services they had to offer and planned to offer. With beautiful and interactive displays that helped showcase their products (a burger restaurant setup, an ice-cream parlor set up and a mini boutique with an interactive mirror in the trial room was only the tip of the iceberg at PayPal). Steve Fusco, a duke alum working at PayPal, gave us a powerful talk on the realities of life post college, with some funny and some eye-opening anecdotes from his personal. PayPal, on the surface is another fin-tech company, but as you go deeper, creativity, innovation and novelty seem to be their core components. They have implanted QR code scanning to pay for your burger order, sharing the bill for online purchases with peers to touch screen mirrors in some of their partner clothing brands. The list is long, and from the looks of it, never ending!

While a lot of moments during this trip have been mind-opening, mouth gaping, and eye catching, our visit to Zume Pizza has made it to my top favorites.

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Not only did we get to see ROBOTS make PIZZA (a culmination of the two great things in life) that are healthy for you, half the calories than a Dominos’ pizza and have no chemicals, we got to speak to the CEO who moved every student to realize that even “impossible” spells out “i m possible.” Even though he dropped out of high school at 14, nothing stopped his learning curve. He has had multiple successful startups and successful jobs in every sphere imaginable. Why? He wants to experience new things. He does not want to stop. He gave us one very important advice as future innovators – people will tell you something cannot be done, they are wrong. You are wrong. Think about that problem in a different way, for if there is a problem, there is a solution. And there are no hard or easy problems, a problem is simply a problem and needs a solution.

Overall, this week had showers of inspiration while we DSV students happily got drenched in it. In class, we began design thinking to create a game for our final project. This was highly fruitful because it allowed to use everything we learned in class and finally apply it to a tangible project, in a very similar fashion to how entrepreneurs use design thinking for their startups. The week was a massive success and I cannot wait to soak every bit of the last week!

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Adiva Shah is a rising junior at Duke University pursuing a major in Physics, minor in Computer Science and a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She was born and brought up in Mumbai, India and wants to work in the business/finance world.