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Chicken soup for the Durham entrepreneur

No, Durham SOUP is not a soup-tasting event—it's an event for entrepreneurs to pitch ideas to the community.
No, Durham SOUP is not a soup-tasting event—it's an event for entrepreneurs to pitch ideas to the community.

Pitches from local entrepreneurs came with a side of locally-sourced spicy lentil soup at the Durham SOUP community dinner Nov. 12. 

Durham SOUP is a micro-granting dinner program that seeks to give local entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their ideas to community members. The program made its way to the Bull City after juniors Ajay Menon and Sofia Nieto observed the model’s potential through Detroit SOUP, one of SOUP’s most successful iterations, while participating in the DukeEngage-Detroit program.

In the SOUP model, guests donate a minimum of $5 for entrance and the included meal, and all proceeds collected go into a pot that is awarded to whoever’s idea is chosen by popular vote at the end of the night. 

The dinner features pitches from four local early stage entrepreneurs whose ideas must be Durham-oriented. After each pitch, audience members can ask up to four questions. At the end of pitching, the dinner guests are given an opportunity to vote on their favorite ideas and a winner is announced. 

The program allows entrepreneurs to promote their ideas and get word of them out into the community. SOUP also differs from traditional grant funding programs in that there are no stipulations for how the money must be used. It is meant to aid the entrepreneur to support their project in any capacity. 

Menon and Nieto, with the support of two previous Duke students and sponsorship from the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, piloted the first Durham SOUP event in Spring 2019 as part of Social Innovation Practicum, a graduate-level course.

“It was kind of in the back of our heads that we didn’t want our experience to end in Detroit. We didn’t want it to be in a little bubble. And this was the program that we felt could thrive in Durham,” Menon said. 

The program seeks to forge connections among community members and entrepreneurs. Even after a winner is chosen, conversations about the ideas continue. 

“SOUP is meant to bring together anyone who has an idea to make the community better and give them a platform to do that in some capacity and to create connections within the community,” said Katherine Black, senior program coordinator for experiential programs and social innovation within the I&E Initiative. 

One of the focal points of the program is to be Durham-centered rather than Duke-centered. While researching the program model, Nieto and Menon found that many attempts by students from various universities to launch this program had failed due to student turnover. After their first dinner, the students expanded Durham SOUP to include a partnership with students from North Carolina Central University and ReCity Network, a “hub for social impact” that aims to facilitate collaboration and partnership between local organizations by bringing them into the same physical space. 

There are many ideas to increase the longevity and scope of Durham SOUP. Currently, sophomores are being trained to run the program so that they can take over the following year, a tradition that would continue to ensure that the program does not dissolve after graduation. 

Ideally, community dinners will be hosted twice a semester. Nieto and Menon would love to see the program expand to the entire Research Triangle or possibly be registered as a local non-profit organization.

“We thought by diversifying the stakeholders involved in the program we’d keep it more sustainable for the future,” Menon said. “We didn’t want this to be a Duke-dominated event. The spirit of the event is not to have community members pitch to only a room full of Duke students.” 

Whether or not students choose to get involved with Durham SOUP, Nieto and Menon emphasized the value of engaging with Durham and community members, something that they had not done until starting SOUP. 

“A lot of times it is hard to get off campus. I think that this is my first really significant interaction with Durham which is unfortunate, considering it came so late in my time at Duke. But it has been a really cool side of Durham to see because there are so many people coming up with really great ideas,” Nieto said. 

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