For years, New York and Los Angeles have been the dual epicenters of the arts and media world. Duke’s DEMAN Arts & Media Weekend, which gets its name from the Duke Entertainment Media & Arts Network and connects students with industry professionals, tends to reflect this concentration of influence, regularly drawing executives from networks, streaming services and media companies based in the two cities.
But a quick scan of the lineup for the eighth annual DEMAN Weekend, which takes place Friday and Saturday at various locations on campus, reveals a striking number of alumni who have put their roots down just steps away from campus. More and more, it seems, alumni in creative fields are making the choice to return to the Triangle.
From N.Y. to N.C.
Visitors to downtown Durham may recognize Beyù Caffè, which occupies a prime spot in Main Street’s Five Points district. By day, Beyù (pronounced “be you”) operates as a European-style coffeehouse and restaurant, transforming into a jazz club after dark.
Before the restaurant opened in December 2009, though, it took a move to New York and back for owner Dorian Bolden, Trinity ’02, to make his unique business model a reality. Working as a financial advisor after graduation, the death of his father prompted Bolden to reevaluate his career path.
“I think there was just something pulling at me, once my father passed, [that] kind of made me realize tomorrow’s not guaranteed, and go after life,” Bolden said.
He made it his mission to start a restaurant and moved back to North Carolina in July 2005, joining his soon-to-be wife, who was beginning medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Equally passionate about the business and cultural ends of his new project, Bolden spent the ensuing years working in local restaurants and honing Beyù’s business model. (It just so happened that this new venture allowed him to work within his two majors at Duke, economics and sociology — something he joked he never thought he’d be able to do.)
Having grown up in Atlanta before attending Duke, Bolden saw his hometown reflected in Durham in the combination of small-town feel and urban bustle. He was prescient enough to see that the city’s investment in the downtown infrastructure beginning in the mid-2000s — including the construction of the Durham Performing Arts Center and the recent proliferation of music festivals like Art of Cool and Moogfest — boded well for Durham business owners. The cultural and racial makeup of Durham, too, attracted Bolden, who believed the city was “ripe” for a place of community that would bring people together.
“This city, it’s about to blow,” Bolden said.
Sarah Krueger, Trinity ’12, has found a similar home as WRAL’s Durham bureau reporter. Before joining the Raleigh-based TV network, she, too, spent time in New York after graduating from Duke. It was the livability factor, she said, that drew her back to the Triangle.
“I find in Durham, I keep a busier social calendar than I did in New York City,” Krueger said. “There’s just so much happening here and it’s such an exciting time for Durham, so I love being back here and being part of it. … And now my love for Durham just grows every day.”
Krueger emphasized the power of Duke connections in the progression of her career. Simply being a Duke graduate could be the deciding factor in getting an audience with a potential employer, and she cited multiple unprompted, “cold” emails to fellow alumni that ended up opening up doors for her. The most important trait required for success in the competitive field of media, she said, is persistence.
“You have to really want to do it and be committed to it to make it happen,” Krueger said. “Because it’s not a job, for the majority of people, that’s just going to fall into your lap.”
The business of creativity
Like Bolden, Joshua Setzer, Trinity ’08, and Christophe Lafargue, Trinity ’11, have united a business model with a creative element. At Durham’s Lucid Dream VR, they utilize virtual and augmented reality technologies to assist clients in sales, marketing and training, according to Lucid Dream’s website.
Both worked in the business world before joining Lucid Dream. Co-founder and CEO Setzer went into consulting after college and broke into the world of custom design and space planning while working with an architectural family business. Business development director Lafargue had business experience in Durham, too, and joined the team this spring. Citing the video game industry’s “unusually strong footprint” in the Triangle — Epic Games, for example, has its headquarters in Cary — Setzer reasoned that Durham formed a strong ecosystem for startup businesses, especially in virtual reality, which applies some of the principles of gaming and design to tackle real-world issues. They both recognized the city’s rapid growth in the last decade or so.
“The Durham that exists now is virtually unrecognizable from when I was there,” Lafargue said. “And I graduated in 2011.”
Lafargue also said that a business focus is a necessity in pursuing a creative career.
“I think finding ways to have [business and creativity] complement each other, making sure you do that is kind of an imperative if you want creativity to be a part of your full-time focus, to be sustainable,” he said.
Duke and the arts
Although most of these local alumni had experience in arts and media while at Duke — Bolden was in the marching band, while Krueger worked with Duke Student Broadcasting and served on The Chronicle editorial board for a year — many did not necessarily expect to go into creative careers. For many students at Duke, the perceived prevalence of STEM and business careers can make arts, media or entertainment seem unfeasible. Institutional support for the arts on campus has grown tremendously over the last decade, but the perception that arts are secondary remains.
Despite graduating recently, Becky Holmes, Trinity ’15, said she experienced these common expectations while at Duke. Holmes, who founded the Raleigh-based organic food company Ello Raw while she was still an undergraduate, acknowledged that Duke’s support of the arts surpasses that of many other elite schools. But when she switched her major from economics to dance, she said, the move was not “looked upon very highly” by her peers.
“There’s still the sense of, if you major in arts at Duke, you have to have a second major that’s your quote-end-quote ‘real major,’ which is very unfortunate, but I do still think it’s that case,” Holmes said.
Bolden argued that this was more a matter of expectation than anything else.
“I think one of the challenges is students don’t always know that Duke will support the arts,” he said. “And so a lot of the times, it’s always been that challenge at Duke, where it’s the expectation of, ‘Okay, I’m waiting for the university to provide me with,’ as opposed to saying, ‘Well, if you want it, just go after it, and here are the resources to help you do it.’”
Certainly, an event like DEMAN Weekend attempts to provide students with these resources. Between Friday’s keynote conversation, various panels on Friday and Saturday and opportunities for portfolio reviews and networking, the weekend gives students access to figures in the arts and media world — a chance that rarely comes around after these four years.
“If you have that clarity that you want to work in a creative space, make the commitment early to getting in,” Setzer said. “If you know you have that creative thread in you … it’s easier to honor it earlier than it is to, let’s say, sublimate it temporarily and then try to bring it back out.”
And the abundance of locally-based alumni on DEMAN’s roster makes it clear that New York and Los Angeles are not the only gateways to the creative world, a sentiment shared by Krueger:
“How Duke alums are so prevalent in this area still, I think, is a great testament to Duke and to the area … that so many of us are still around and loving what we do and where we do it.”
More information about DEMAN Weekend, including a full schedule, registration and other DEMAN events occurring throughout the year, can be found at DukeDEMAN.com.
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