Second year MIDP fellow Lusine Stepanyan was accepted as one of a handful of Duke Students to the Clinton Global Initiative University. We sat down with her to ask her about her journey. [Note: this interview took place before COVID-19 pandemic]
Congrats on being selected for the Clinton Global Initiative University! I know the program was very competitive and only a handful of Duke students were selected. Can you share a little about what it is?
It’s an international initiative for students around the world that is focused on social entrepreneurship and innovation. They’ve chosen people who have demonstrated that they’ll have impact on their communities and basically they connect students to networks and to mentors, and even provide seed funding for your project idea. At the annual meeting, there will be speakers and networking events, and we’ll get to meet President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. [Editor note: A CGIU meeting was scheduled for this spring in Edinburgh, but it was postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19]
Let’s step back. Tell me about how you got to the MIDP program.
I will talk about some of my life milestones that paved my way to where I am today. I’m from Armenia. When I was 15, I came to the United States for an exchange program – a future leaders exchange program that was sponsored by the US Department of State. This was my first and biggest opportunity and challenge I ever faced. This was a life changing experience.
In 2012, I interned with the Armenian Assembly of America in Washington, DC and I met a lot of U.S. members of Congress and Senators. This experience influenced me- being able to see different forms of leadership, the power dynamics and the decision-making process, and also seeing the good and the bad that comes along with it all in public policy.
When I went back, probably the most life changing experience I’ve had was starting my own business- DC School of Languages and Professional Development, in 2015. I had the privilege of working alongside my amazing team of awesome women and one man, train them, grow with them and create value for our students. There were some tough days, but mostly, I just enjoyed this journey and was really proud of my team as together we were making a difference in the lives of so many students. I am proud of this!
That’s an incredible initiative. So, what sparked your entrepreneurial passion?
I think I have always been entrepreneurial. Even when I worked within an organization, I would come up with projects and ideas that would provide me some room for exercising my creative powers. So when I started my own business I realized that that’s being an entrepreneur who continuously seeks to improve herself and her ventures is my calling.
At some point, when I was running the school I realized that I was hitting a limit with the impact I could make. I had a greater vision of the impact I want to make or as Steve Jobs once said “leave a dent in the universe”.
I realized that I needed more skills, more professional experience, which prompted me to apply to pursue a professional degree at a university like Duke which would allow me to pursue loftier goals.
So you’ve identified this area where there’s a need that could affect a lot of people, and dedicated some time and thinking about how you could get involved, and even made a business plan. So, how did you learn how to do that?
When I first applied, I didn’t have the exact business idea in mind, but I knew approximately what industry I want to start the business and what problem I want to solve.
The MIDP program was exactly what I needed as it provided the interdisciplinary approach and the flexibility in choosing the electives from a variety of schools.
One of the first influences here was my economics professor, Cory Krupp, who really ignited my passion for economics. Honestly, I struggled a lot at first, but she really helped me understand the material-she is exceptional. I was really honored to be chosen as her Teaching Assistant the next year.
You probably had some different options for where you wanted to go for graduate school. What was it that attracted you to this program specifically?
The fact that it was so interdisciplinary, and that there are some core classes that you have to take- which I didn’t mind because I felt that I need to learn statistics and economics. But also the fact that you can take classes from other schools like the Fuqua School, the Law School, Duke I&E.
I enjoyed my experience with Duke I&E. I attended all of their events for entrepreneurs. I also got into the Student Founders program which gives you access to network and mentors. I am really happy to be a part of it.
Beyond economics, were there other courses in MIDP that you found particularly useful as you go forward?
I was really impressed with Indermit Gill’s Big Debates course – he has been a major influence for me, supporting me along the way and his class was one of the best classes I have taken in my life. And statistics with Sandeep [Bhattacharya] – I went from nothing to now considering attending a stats bootcamp after graduation! And, Matt Nash [director of Duke I&E and DCID Senior Fellow] is my Masters Project advisor and it has been incredibly valuable to be mentored by him. I am also really grateful to the New Ventures 2 professor Jon Fjeld, who is helping our team with working on the startup idea. All in all, I have enjoyed every single interaction with the professions here, I think we are just blessed to be a part of this community!
Any other takeaways from the program as you get ready for graduation?
One thing that I love about this community is that we are so diverse, from so many different countries and as students we are exposed to so many different cultures. It never gets boring- you can have a gathering and someone turns on some music and someone else starts dancing and it’s just a lot of cultures infusing at once. I love the fact that everyone comes together and intertwines… it is like a family. I hope to keep this network as we all go our different ways.
So, what’s next for you?
My team and I are working on the startup, we are running pilot projects at the moment to test some of our early assumptions. We are applying for funding and trying to get as much done as possible before graduation.
I am also applying for some job opportunities in the States to get more professional experience.
I am happy to say that I got into the Duke Accelerator which is a three-month intensive program where the students get funding to work on their startup full time- very exciting new chapter for me.
Honestly, I just love Duke, it has been such a support system for me with all the friends I made here, the knowledge I got, the network I created and just memories that I will always cherish…
Lusine Stepanyan’s journey has been supported by the Magdalena Yesil Fellowship Fund, which provides scholarships to Sanford graduate students interested in development or conflict resolution in Armenia.