Duke students are, in many ways, more than just students. Some are musicians, some are athletes, some are writers—and some are entrepreneurs.
The Chronicle interviewed four undergraduates who are making their startup visions come to life alongside their lives as students.
Speedie Bean Duke
Speedie Bean Duke is a new business venture on campus that aims to combine all the best things about coffee while reducing the environmental impact. The co-founders, juniors Lena Yannella and Marco De Cardenas, are passionate about the key pillars of their brand: providing cost-effective and sustainable coffee consumption.
As a student-run, to-go coffee shop, they brew their own cold-brew coffee and deliver it to student dorms all across Durham, as well as to faculty and Durham residents. They sell the coffee in quart-sized glass containers, and each quart has servings for eight standard cups of coffee, with the caffeine to match.
By eliminating eight plastic straws, caps and cups, and by recycling the glass bottles—through customers who return them—they are working towards establishing a new and improved coffee culture on campus.
“We love the selling point of being cost-effective, because each bottle is $9.99, and when you break that down to 8 servings, each cup of coffee becomes $1.25,” Yannella said.
Yannella and De Cardenas are involved in the whole production process, including ordering the beans, grinding them, putting them in a vat, letting them sit for 20 hours and finally bottling their efforts with the characteristic green and white logo.
“We deliver the bottles right to your door,” Yannella said, mentioning the team of six students currently working in the business. “We like to say it is by Dukies for Dukies.”
The idea for Speedie Bean was born at Tulane University, where De Cardenas’ cousin studied as an undergraduate. De Cardenas said that the brand became “its own entity” at Duke because Duke students face the same issues.
For example, there is not a wide variety of coffee options on campus, and existing prices are often high, he said. De Cardenas added that Duke students are typically found studying late into the night. Recognizing this market, the two students jumped on this opportunity together.
The idea to bring Speedie Bean to Duke came when the two were first-years. De Cardenas was frustrated that he would constantly run out of food points due to money spent buying coffee at Duke’s on-campus locations.
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“What’s beautiful about Speedie Bean Duke’s business model is that it’s pretty risk-averse in the sense that we’re only making as much cold brew as we have demand for,” Yannella said. This allows them to focus on the brewing and delivery during the busier weeks, and spend time on marketing strategies during the slower weeks.
School always comes first for the team, but they are also committed to the brand.
“A fair amount of our time does go to Speedie Bean Duke. It’s our baby, so we want to make sure that the product we’re giving people is the best quality, and that our customers are happy, because we’re putting our names on it as well,” De Cardenas said.
While the business is going well at the moment, it had a rocky start. The students wanted to launch right after spring break in 2020, but Duke closed campus due to COVID-19. Though it was discouraging at first, “it was a blessing in disguise,” Yannella said.
“Demand for cold brews is even higher during the pandemic. Students are more isolated in their dorms, and they aren’t as inclined to go out and get their coffee at Harris Teeter’s or Starbucks, exposing themselves to germs, so it’s really convenient with Speedie. Just put it in the fridge, take it out in the morning, and pour a convenient cup of coffee,” she said.
The students also had some advice to give for entrepreneurial Duke students who are itching to get started on a venture.
“Innovation and entrepreneurship is so much fun, but it often seems like an intangible, far off space that seems hard to break into, and it’s hard to know how to execute an idea that you have,” Yannella said. “So take advantage of the network. Faculty are there to help. In fact, they get excited when students ask for help.”
De Cardenas added that Duke’s student body wants to help others succeed.
“If you're excited about an idea, chances are there are others who would be excited about it too. The beauty of starting it with someone is that you really learn together and make each other better,” he said.
Junior Bella Almeida started the upcycled-art club Earthy Creations.
The world of student businesses has a place for the artistically inclined as well, which is where Earthy Creations stands out. The founder, junior Bella Almeida, began to consider the idea of an upcycled-art club in her sophomore year without knowing that it would develop into a business venture.
“I thought big, upcycled sculptures would be a great way to get Duke students talking about sustainability and a fun and mentally stimulating community event,” Almeida wrote in an email.
The turning point happened during the summer she studied social innovation and leadership in Prague, where the pressure of her assignment, which was to create a profitable social enterprise, led her to consider her hypothetical club more carefully. She recognized the growth potential of this project, as other students in the program expressed interest in starting similar clubs at their respective colleges, and Earthy Creations was born.
Almeida is motivated by the fact that she is creating a community and challenging people to continue practicing their creativity in a sustainable way.
“Creating art from used items is not only more sustainable than traditional art practices, but it’s a challenge that is very stimulating mentally—it’s fun and exciting to think of ways to create beauty in a different way!” she wrote.
It can be hard to maintain the school-business balance, but Almeida has a system in place. There are weeks when Earthy Creations takes huge leaps forward and others when it only moves incrementally because she has to prioritize school.
“I would say the secret is to be okay with the fact that some weeks you will be more productive than others for your business,” she wrote. “It’s okay as long as you are persistent and consistent and always get back to it when you do have more available time.”
She also has some advice for students.
“Starting a venture is not filled with a lot of instant gratification,” she wrote. “It takes a lot of time and energy before you ever see results—if you ever see results—so you should really consider whether you think you will derive value from the experience, whether that be business, technical, or personal value.”
She added that students should be personally passionate and committed to the idea of their venture, which is critical especially when the going gets tough.
Almeida has dreams of becoming a serial entrepreneur after college, and is leaning towards the direction of the artificial intelligence tech startup world due to the wealth of opportunity she sees in that area.
Until then, “Duke has been really helpful in connecting me with other entrepreneurial-minded students, mentors, and artists who motivate me to keep going!” she wrote.
Sophomore Denna Huang founded Mystery Meals, an online ordering service with a twist: You don't know what you're getting.
Mystery Meals is an online ordering service with a twist: You don’t know what you are getting. Sophomore Denna Huang is the co-founder and CEO, and a self-proclaimed foodie with big plans.
“I wanted to spread my love of food to others, and change the way people experience takeout,” Huang said. “These days, eating has become repetitive, something you just do every day. But it could be a whole experience, and that’s lacking. I saw from friends that people are indecisive when picking food, so it’s cool to have a randomizer feature like Mystery Meals.”
The idea started to become a reality when she heard senior Dan Hepworth, the current founding investor, point out that he was eating the same Chipotle burrito every day when he did not know what to get.
“That got us thinking about whether there is a way to push people out of their comfort zone as they’re exploring food, and do it in a fun way where it becomes a mystery,” Huang said.
For those who might be a little cautious of the unknown, the service also allows users to decide the level of mystery that they would like—with preferences such as the type of cuisine, the ingredients and so on.
Huang said time management and accountability, which includes bi-weekly meetings for the Mystery Meals team, is key to balancing academics and entrepreneurship.
“A big part is knowing when to take a step back from your other priorities and later regroup, so that you can be the most productive when you’re working,” she said.
Huang also had some advice for students who want to break into the entrepreneurship space. She suggested talking to as many people as possible to get immediate feedback on an idea. One particular Duke course that she recommended is New Ventures, a mini-accelerator in the I&E department. Huang credits this course for teaching her what she knows about startups and the whole iteration process.
“When you’re starting a business, at some point you have to act on your thoughts. You can’t think a business into existence; you have to really create it, test it and continue making progress,” she said.
After Duke, Huang said her end goal “has always been to create a business, build it and see it grow into maturity. It might not be Mystery Meals, it might be. We’ll see… My dream job is to be the CEO of a unicorn startup, a multi-billion dollar company. I think I’ll always be working towards that goal,” she said.