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Fridays from the Frontline: Forging My Path in a Niche Industry at Duke Fuqua

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At Duke Fuqua, Vivek Venkatraghvan, Daytime MBA ’23, broke some new ground on his journey into the niche industry of alternative proteins. Read on for how the MBA program and community empowered his efforts to found a new club, engage industry experts, and host a first-ever conference.

Forging My Path in a Niche Industry

By Vivek Venkatraghvan, Duke Fuqua Daytime MBA Class of 2023

For the last eight years, I’ve had a deep interest in alternative proteins. This goes back to my longstanding passion for animal rights and sustainability. However, I did not have any professional experience in the industry, and I wanted to use my time at Duke to change that.

I was aware that this was a niche topic in the MBA world without many existing resources that I could leverage. I believed I could overcome this challenge by being intentional, and in under two years, I’ve managed to gain a great deal of exposure to the space.

Me at a plant-based meat-tasting event hosted by the Duke Alt Protein Project

In my first year in school, I helped an alternative proteins startup decide how to take their premium Wagyu beef grown directly from animal cells to consumers. I helped another company analyze the market for breastmilk produced outside the human body. I also built relationships with several food-tech-focused venture capital funds and ended up working with one in my second year, through the Mentored Study Program. In addition to these experiential learning opportunities, I’ve also been able to take on leadership positions in relevant student clubs. I stepped in to co-lead the MBA Food & Agriculture Club and co-founded a Duke-wide club focused exclusively on alternative proteins, in collaboration with a global non-profit. These experiences have taught me so much while allowing me to leave behind a legacy to support current and future students interested in the space.

So, how did I do all of this within such a niche topic? As cliché as it may sound, the key was being authentic and engaged. I participated in various events and initiatives that were relevant to my interests and made sure that I communicated my passion for the space with the people I met. I also made conscious efforts to expand my network beyond Fuqua students. This helped me meet and build relationships with like-minded people from several different backgrounds. For instance, I took part in an alternative proteins hackathon geared toward science students, despite not having a scientific background. Through the hackathon, I met a Duke undergraduate student who would become instrumental in expanding my club beyond Fuqua by helping recruit undergraduate student leaders.

My friend and I (left) with Ethan Brown, the CEO of Beyond Meat, when he visited Fuqua for the Distinguished Speaker Series

In addition to my efforts, Duke offered an ecosystem conducive to success. The school’s student-led culture allows one to organize and launch literally anything they want, as long as they garner interest and execute their plans. For example, when I learned that the CEO of Beyond Meat was visiting Fuqua for a talk, I scheduled a meeting with him to speak about my club and invited him to be the keynote speaker at a conference that we were planning—he accepted! I’m now in regular contact with the company and am working with them on many other initiatives, such as expanding Beyond Meat’s presence in campus dining halls and partnering with Duke on research projects. The club has also offered a great avenue to connect with other students across the country and with industry professionals. We’ve hosted three professional events with industry guest speakers so far and are planning more.

Me (middle) with the two other alt. proteins conference co-chairs from Duke and UNC

My time at Duke has been truly transformational. I have gone from having zero experience in a very niche space to someone who has undertaken several exciting initiatives, including planning the nation’s first student-led alternative proteins conference. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that the last two years have given me, and I hope you make the most of the resources that Fuqua offers to make a longstanding impact in any area that you’re passionate about, especially if it’s off the beaten path.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.