A few weeks ago, I entered a classroom filled with a very unlikely group of Duke students. There were intellectuals pursuing vastly different interests—Pratt School of Engineering students, literature enthusiasts, Econ stars, global health/political science double majors. 

But even though the textbooks we carried couldn’t have been more dissimilar, we gathered for one singular purpose: how can we further Duke’s mission of knowledge in the service of society, and how will the new Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E) Certificate help us do that? 

The I&E Certificate, which launched this semester, is a novel concept in the university’s curriculum. In lieu of entirely classroom-based learning, the certificate includes four course requirements, 450 hours of experiential learning and development of an e-portfolio documenting our journeys through the program. While participants are expected to fulfill requirements for their traditional majors, the I&E Certificate provides them with a platform to transform their liberal arts knowledge into real-world action (see our fun PVC pipe team-building exercise below). This can mean getting involved with the entrepreneurial scene in the Triangle, developing an innovative product, establishing a non-profit organization, joining a startup team or something entirely new and novel.

According to Eric Toone, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, Duke is at the forefront of providing students with an academic foundation for entrepreneurship. At other top schools in the nation, such as Harvard or Princeton, entrepreneurship only exists as extracurricular or in the graduate business schools. 

“The ground is shifting beneath our feet,” he says, indicating that 21st century higher-education needs to prepare students early on with tools to become change-makers, not just academics. 

Examples of I&E Certificate courses are Philosophy of Entrepreneurship, Biomedical Device Innovation, Enterprising Leadership and Topics in Arts Management. Junior public policy studies major Yolanda Qin is enrolled in a class called Social Innovation, taught by Fuqua School of Business professor Matt Nash.

“I am really excited to be a part of this new certificate program because it offers students with varying levels of entrepreneurial experience a comprehensive opportunity to explore innovation and entrepreneurship through coursework, thematic experiences, focused reflection and documentation, and faculty mentorship from some of the leading entrepreneurs in the field,” Qin says.

Sophomore Lindsay Hirschhorn hopes the program will help her merge her various interests into a career. “I am a mechanical engineering major but have always had a passion for civic engagement and social issues. With this certificate, I found an easy way to combine these two interests through social entrepreneurship,” she explains. 

Like all I&E Certificate candidates, Hirschhorn will receive access to resources such as legal advice and funding options. This will make working on a social venture while also completing her demanding lab assignments more of a reality. The program encourages students to gain hands-on critical thinking skills by exploring opportunities outside of campus. 

Engaging with the local community is something sophomore and student-athlete TJ Pura has already worked to achieve. Pura recently founded Duke’s chapter of the Food Recovery Network, which repackages excess food from on-campus dining venues and donates it to local community organizations. Pura says his goal for the program is to discover innovative tactics “to create sustainable business models that solve real world issues.” 

Research shows the average age of an entrepreneur to be 42. By introducing opportunities for students to become entrepreneurs in college, Duke is disrupting this statistic, and inspiring other institutions to follow suit. 

If you are a local entrepreneur and would like to get involved (possibly to hold an on-campus event for certificate candidates or to become a mentor), you can shoot an email to [email protected] or visit the webpage, entrepreneurship.duke.edu.