Getting the Graduate Experience in Silicon Valley

Duke creates new program in Silicon Valley to immerse engineering, law graduate students in entrepreneurship

By Ken Kingery

Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and Law School are launching a summer program that takes graduate students to the world’s hub for technical innovation and enterprise. The new offering will immerse students in the world of technology businesses both large and startup while teaching them the skills needed to succeed in Silicon Valley.

The four-week course runs from late-May to mid-June and includes daily meetings for the students involved. Twice a week, morning coursework will be followed by afternoon speakers from nearby companies. The other three days feature site visits to some of the large, marquee corporations as well as the newest startups.

Program organizers are also working with area Duke alumni to organize internship opportunities for participants in Silicon Valley for the remainder of the summer. The program could help many find a permanent home in the Bay Area after graduation, while also providing a recruiting tool to attract top graduate students who want to take advantage of what Duke has to offer, but also want to have access to the career opportunities provided by Silicon Valley.

The inaugural program will include 20 students from Pratt master’s programs and the Law and Entrepreneurship LLM program at the Duke University School of Law.  

“In addition to introducing our engineers to the business side of entrepreneurship, they’ll also be influenced by their fellow students from the law school,” said Brad Fox, associate dean and executive director of Pratt’s Professional Master’s Program. “A lot of our students have interests in Silicon Valley, but you often have to physically be there to really get your foot in the door.”

While the class will have many similarities on paper to the Duke in Silicon Valley program already offered to undergraduates, the graduate version will build on that experience.

“In this graduate and professional course, we’re starting at a very different base level and then building on that aggressively,” said Kathie Amato, senior strategist for education and director of undergraduate studies in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program at Duke. “By the time students finish, they will be leaving with a practical set of skills, a network of fellow entrepreneurs and a strong understanding of how to take those assets to create their own venture, should they want to do so.”

One of the teachers of the course will be Shivnath Babu, associate professor of computer science at Duke University, who also is a cofounder of a current startup in Silicon Valley called Unravel Data Systems. The company is aimed at analyzing Big Data and making the results and insights easily available to businesses in real-time.

Babu’s research focuses on making data-intensive computing systems easier to manage. His work includes a Self-tuning Analytics System (Starfish for short) that performs timely and scalable analytical processing on large datasets. With his current efforts to translate his research into a new venture, Babu will bring startup experience and an understanding of the current climate in Silicon Valley to the classroom.

The second teacher of the class is Salman Azhar, an entrepreneur in residence and a visiting associate professor at Duke, as well as chief product officer at iSKY, a growing customer experience management company. Azhar has more than 25 years in the industry and academia, during which he has led talented teams in developing and launching state-of-the-art software systems. He co-founded DecisionStreet, Swans International, SoftWeb, and over 30 other startups in the areas of predictive computing, business intelligence, data analytics, and decision support. His current and former clients include Honda, Toyota, Lamborghini, Audi, Sony, SAP, HP, ADP, i2, Western Digital, Oracle, Agilent, Outcome, and several startups.  

With the vast wealth of knowledge and experience provided by the two teachers, students at Duke are eagerly awaiting the first few weeks of their summer.

“A tremendous benefit of being a Duke student is the extensive network that knows no national or global boundaries, and I believe that the new Duke in Silicon Valley program is a synergy of these opportunities,” said Rajalekha Manjakuppam Rajamahendiran, a master’s student in biomedical engineering who has already signed up for the program. “The program aligns directly with my interests in learning more about the non-technical aspects of product development, while being immersed in an environment with a rich history and a strong powerhouse of technological innovation.”