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‘It's never too late’: DEMAN Weekend keynote speakers share their paths to arts and media careers

Last year's keynote conversation at DEMAN Weekend. This year's conversation features alumni working in creative fields from ABC's “black-ish,” CNN, Entertainment Weekly and more.
Last year's keynote conversation at DEMAN Weekend. This year's conversation features alumni working in creative fields from ABC's “black-ish,” CNN, Entertainment Weekly and more.

When Dave Karger, Trinity ’95, entered Duke’s Career Center as a first-year to seek an internship in the entertainment industry, he was met with surprise — the employees do not typically encounter first-years. Still, that one visit led Karger to an unpaid summer internship in New York. Now, as a TCM host and correspondent for the Today Show and IMDB, Karger traces his career back to that first-year visit. 

“I can draw a straight line from that first internship to my second internship, which was at MTV in the fall and summer, and to my third internship, which was at Entertainment Weekly — which led [me] to a 17-year job,” Karger said. “So I’m grateful to the Duke Career Center because, without them, I probably would not even be talking to you now.”

Dave Karger is one of five speakers that will be featured at the the Duke Entertainment Media and Arts Network (DEMAN) Weekend keynote reception Nov. 1 at the Nasher Museum of Art. 

This year’s keynote lineup will feature Duke alumni from the biggest names in media, including ABC “black-ish” writer Robb Chavis, Trinity ‘98, YouTube’s Lori Conkling, Fuqua ‘99, CNN’s Erica Henry, Trinity ‘94, and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, Trinity ‘77. 

Unexpected paths

DEMAN Weekend’s five keynote speakers represent distinct sectors of media — film, comedy and sports television, news and online media — yet for many of them, their paths to those careers were unplanned. 

Some started out with entry-level internships; Erica Henry worked as an NBC page, where she developed a passion for working in news television, and Sean McManus initially worked as a production assistant for ABC Sports, where, in an interview with Sports Business Journal, he referred to himself as “the lowest man on the totem pole.” Thanks to hard work and convenient job openings, McManus eventually served as president of both CBS Sports and CBS News.

“I really tried to work harder than anyone else,” McManus said. “I was the first one in the office and the last one to leave in the evening. I just tried to absorb as much as possible and be in the right place at the right time. It just so happened that there were opportunities at NBC that opened up. …  It was a lot of hard work, a lot of intuition and a lot of creativity on my part.”

But not all of the speakers had such direct paths — others explored several careers before settling on one. Lori Conkling entered business school expecting to return to her former employer, Disney, but job prospects delayed her return for three years. During that time she worked in management consulting. Meanwhile, Robb Chavis didn’t officially venture into comedy writing until 15 years after he graduated from Duke. 

“People decide they want to write in television or movies so early in their lives, and they forget that you have to tell stories about your life,” Chavis said. “So having another career and another life actually gives me the ability to tell a lot of different kinds of stories.”

Similarly, Dave Karger explored print journalism before landing in broadcast media. He never expected to end up in front of the camera, but through his job at Entertainment Weekly, he was given the opportunity. Now, he’s dishing Oscar opinions on the Today Show, interviewing George Clooney on IMDB and greeting celebrities on the red carpet. 

Pursuing your passion

After graduating from Duke, obtaining a law degree from Harvard and working for both a law firm and an advertising agency, Chavis dropped everything and moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy writing. While the entertainment and media industries are notoriously difficult to penetrate, Robb Chavis encourages students to make the leap.

“Remember to listen to the voice in the back of your head and follow it when it tells you there might be something else out there,” Chavis said. “Allow yourself to find out if that’s true — or at least give yourself a shot — and if it doesn’t work out, you can go back to what you were focused on before.”

Of course, success did not come automatically for Chavis. For Lent one year, instead of giving up something for 40 days, he decided to invest in his future: He wrote every single night, improving his craft and finding his voice. Chavis also taught himself how to write for television. He would watch his favorite shows with a script in his lap and take note of their patterns so that he could replicate them. Since then, he has worked for major network TV shows like “black-ish,” “Superior Donuts” and “Bad Judge.”

“It’s never too late to find and pursue your passion,” Chavis said. “I moved [to Los Angeles] when I was 35 with two kids and ... I hit the reset button. It’s worked out, and I look forward to my work everyday, I look forward to the stories I get to tell and I love the people I work with.”

Finding resources at Duke

Dave Karger believes that students’ time on campus is their best chance to get experience in entertainment-related fields. While he was at Duke, he wrote for The Chronicle and interned for Duke Magazine, in addition to serving as president of his junior and senior classes. While Duke may not be famous for its entertainment connections, Karger insisted that students have the resources. Karger pointed to the new Rubenstein Arts Center and DEMAN’s growing popularity as signs of Duke’s flourishing arts scene. 

“Do as much as you can while you’re on campus because there’s just so much available to you,” Karger said. “Don’t feel like, because you go to Duke, and because you didn’t go to a school like USC or NYU, you can’t pursue a career in entertainment. There are so many of us in New York and Los Angeles who graduated from Duke who are doing really interesting things in the entertainment industry, and there’s room for young people to do the same thing.”

For those creative, artistic Duke students who are looking to pursue the less trodden path of entertainment and media, listening to and connecting with some of these speakers at DEMAN’s Nov. 1 keynote conversation could be the first step.

“I love the back-and-forth with the students,” Sean McManus said. “I love the questions that they ask, I love the fact that they’re so engaged and anything I can do in some small way to help the students at Duke University — I love to do that.”

The DEMAN Keynote reception will take place on Friday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. at the Nasher Museum of Art. For more information about DEMAN Weekend, including a full schedule, registration and other DEMAN events occurring throughout the year, vist DukeDEMAN.com.

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