Students and Entrepreneurs Meet for Media and Innovation

“We didn’t really know what we were getting into,” Julian Spector laughs. The Duke senior is describing an adventurous day of filming last fall with sophomore classmate Grace Oathout. But he’s also describing his experience in the vanguard of the latest expansion of Duke’s arts curriculum: exploring the intersection of art and entrepreneurship.

“We show up to film the John Brown Jazz Orchestra at this country club in Kinston,” Spector continues. “It turns out to be a Great Gatsby-themed fundraiser gala, so all the society people are there in flapper dresses and old-fashioned suits and hats.”

The picturesque footage made their story about an entrepreneurial musician even better. Oysters Rockefeller on the house didn’t hurt, either.

Spector and Oathout teamed up to make one of the three short video features that students produced for Amy Unell’s “Media and Innovation” course at Duke, co-taught by Kimberly Jenkins. Unell and Jenkins had students document the work of one Duke community entrepreneur and two entrepreneurial ventures happening around Durham and the greater Triangle.

“We developed the course as if the students were all producers for a media and innovation show,” Unell explains. “The audience was their classmates, and Kimberly and I were executive producers.”


Profile of North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center by Grace Oathout and Yasmine Hamdouche.

The course design dovetailed two complementary goals—students learned from their feature subjects how innovative ideas could be brought to life, and they learned media skills by telling the subjects’ stories. Since innovation makes the difference between sinking and swimming in the media business, the video subjects also modeled skills that Unell and Jenkins’ students will need to succeed.

Several of the stories are featured on the Duke Student Broadcasting websiteand will serve as a key component in the students’ professional portfolios as they apply for internships and jobs. The subjects of the stories can also share and post the videos on their own websites and through social media.

In addition to filming John Brown’s enterprising jazz ensemble, Oathout made videos about the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center, where people with disabilities work with horses, and about Duke student Christine Schindler, who started the nonprofit Girls Engineering Change. Spector recorded stories about a Duke student renting high-end beds to other students as well as Durham’s Organic Transit, creators of the ELF electric pedal car.

“We would have pitch meetings where students would present their idea with their partner—who they wanted to profile and why,” Unell says. “We would give them instant feedback as a whole class. From there, they wrote and edited their stories for a couple of weeks. Then the class held screenings of each piece. Again, we’d give that instant feedback.”

Profile of Organic Transit by Eitan Tye and Julian Spector.

Unell and Jenkins have both had great success navigating the accelerated, real-world pace of production in their fields. To mimic their experience, they imposed a demanding schedule on the class—students were expected to take three short features through the process from idea to filming to editing to release in a single semester. The work was done in small groups that were reshuffled for each project.

Duke alum Unell—primary faculty for the course—is the founder of StoryTales Productions and a passionate storyteller and entrepreneur. She received an Emmy nomination for her work as a producer for NBC’s Today show, where her coverage ranged from entertainment to politics to natural disasters. She also produced and directed a documentary about Duke’s legendary Olympic Coach Al Buehler, Starting at the Finish Line: The Coach Buehler Story, and, with fellow alum Madeleine Sackler, co-produced and directed the Turner Sports documentary, DUKE 91 & 92: Back to Back. In both her teaching and her work as the Career Center’s Alumna in Residence, Unell helps students develop and combine their interests in arts, media, and entrepreneurship at Duke and beyond.

Jenkins is a technology entrepreneur who worked closely with legendary innovators Bill Gates and Steve Jobs early in her career. Since then, she has built an impressive resume as advisor to both major corporations and start-ups, and has drawn on the experience to become an energetic and effective promoter of entrepreneurship. She has taken many roles at Duke: student (T’76, M.A. ’77, Ph. D. ’80), part-time faculty and mentor in the Pratt School of Engineering, senior advisor to the president and provost for innovation and entrepreneurship, and trustee. Currently, she is director of Duke in Silicon Valley, where Unell serves as assistant director.

Guest speakers in their groundbreaking course each week included an entrepreneur who started the popular blog “Food52” and an award-winning correspondent at PBS. The guests sat in on the class’ pitch and production meetings, too.

Unell and Jenkins are living proof that entrepreneurship is creative, and that the arts are entrepreneurial. Why differentiate the disciplines, especially since their practices can be applied together to benefit almost any conceivable venture?

Profile of Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe by Zach Mooring, Hanna Metaferia and Zan Lowe-Skillern.

“Entrepreneurship is the ultimate team sport,” Jenkins says. “The more diverse the backgrounds, experiences and perspectives of the team members, the more innovative the solutions.”

“Media and Innovation” was the first of three new arts and entrepreneurship courses Duke is offering this academic year. The other two are happening this semester. “Art Entrepreneurship,” co-taught by music composition professor John Supko and Jon Fjeld, executive director for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Fuqua School of Business, isn’t so much an academic course as it is a business incubator. Katie Wyatt is taking a much different tack in her new course, “Music for Social Change.” (Read more about these two courses in Duke Today).

Duke is all-in on the synergy between the arts and entrepreneurship. A proposal to create an Arts and Sciences certificate program in Innovation & Entrepreneurship is currently making its way through the curricular review process.

Of course, Duke is not the first to explore this intersection. Schools and organizations such as the nonprofit Creative Capital have long tried to close the perceived gap between art and business, developing programs to teach artists marketplace skills. The Creative Capital workshop model has been successful and even inspiring, helping artists to see self-management, fundraising and strategic planning as creative work, but it puts the onus on the artist to develop all those muscle groups.

Duke’s approach is more collaborative. Rather than turn the artist into a one-man band, the idea is to form ensembles with complimentary skills, allowing the artist to play to his or her strengths.

“Getting artists to be more business-savvy is one thing,” Supko explains. “Getting them to manage their artistic practice in addition to being their own managers or publicity agents—that seems to me to be a huge task. From our perspective it would be better to have a business partner, and to plug them into a network where they can find such partners, because there are businesspeople out there looking for artists and creative people who think differently about issues or products or all sorts of things.”

Profile of Monuts Donuts by Hanna Metaferia and Jade Richard-Craven.

This is born out by the diverse collection of majors in Supko’s class. Only two of his students are official arts majors. It was much the same with Unell and Jenkins’ 14 students. For every sophomore economics major examining the intersection between that discipline and media technology, there was a second-year MBA from Fuqua interested in starting her own movie studio.

“There’s a lot more overlap between arts and entrepreneurship that you might expect,” Spector says. “Basically any act of artistic expression is an act of entrepreneurship. Both kinds of ventures are about creating something new, doing something in a way that’s never been done before.”

Spector, an editor at the Duke Chronicle, hopes to weave video work into his established print journalism background. Oathout is interested in news, too, but has her eyes on producing stories for television much like the work she did for Unell’s class.

“Even if I might not be a traditional entrepreneur,” she says, “I feel it’s important that I’m familiar with those business aspects and procedures. We tend to think of entrepreneurs like they’re all in Silicon Valley, in a formulaic way. But there are more creative ways to think about them.

“Especially with the John Brown story, you could see business aspects in his artistic production. In order to be a successful artist he had to create his own label, get his name out there, work with big groups like the Grammys to get recognition. He was a great example of how much more a successful an artist can be if they’re familiar with the strengths of entrepreneurship and art business.”

Unell, who is planning the next iteration of the course this coming fall, agrees. “That was one of the goals of the class that Kimberly and I stressed from the very beginning: to learn every element of production. There’s so much synergy between entrepreneurship and production. It’s about collaborating and creating, being open to possibilities, as well as assessing talents and skills and personalities.  The projects came together when our students figured out how to pool each others’ best toward a common goal.

“Learning entrepreneurship early on is a significant advantage to pursuing a career in the arts. Branding, marketing, fundraising—the business model is totally applicable to the artistic model. Duke is really at the forefront in making this connection.”