As first-year students, many students now graduating from Duke could never have predicted where their college paths would lead them. But Ray Liu ’19, a senior majoring in economics, will be continuing the work he was inspired to begin in high school—albeit on a much greater scale.
“Research suggests peer tutoring is one of the most cost-effective ways for students to learn,” Liu says. He first got the idea behind PeerKonnect when he tutored peers in physics during high school—and noticed how peer tutoring alleviated the competitive tension at his school for high-achieving students.
He co-founded a peer tutoring program using Google Forms. The program was successful, ultimately matching more than 20% of the students in his school to mentors. But when he considered how he might grow the program, he wasn’t sure where to begin.
“The summer after I graduated high school, I was thinking, ‘How can I help other schools?’ I had no idea how to start a business.”
Duke’s diverse offerings in innovation and entrepreneurship were part of what led Liu to apply to and choose Duke. “I recognized the I&E Certificate as something that would allow me to take classes, meet professors, get mentorship, and just meet a lot of other students with the entrepreneurial and innovative mindset,” Liu explains. “It allowed me to pursue my startup and school at the same time.”
The Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Program, which Liu entered in his first year, helped him develop and scale his company. He credits the program not only with practical skills, but also with helping him to think of himself as a businessperson. “Before, I was even scared to call it a business. It was a big transition into thinking, ‘Okay, I’m actually an entrepreneur now.’”
Another course, the Founder's Workshop, was highly applicable to Liu’s business. “Every week we would learn a couple of startup concepts, as well as just present on our business progress. I got to hear about the other peers in my class, and the progress on their startups, and provide some feedback, and overall just be in a very entrepreneurial setting. It's a class that's unlike any other that I've taken at Duke. Everybody's working on their own project that they're passionate about.”
The culmination of his company’s progress was winning this year’s Borchardt Prize, awarded each year to a promising undergraduate startup. In 2013, David Cummings (T’02) endowed a $500,000 gift to be awarded to undergraduate entrepreneurs over the coming years. Cummings himself became an entrepreneur as an undergraduate with the help of a $20,000 prize from his professor, Frank Borchardt. To honor him, Cummings chose to name his gift the Borchardt Prize.
When he learned he’d received the Borchardt Prize, Liu says, “I was incredibly honored and humbled. I immediately thought about all of the entrepreneurs who are role models to me who won the prize before.”
As the most recent Borchardt Prize winner, PeerKonnect joins the ranks of previous winners like Fathom AI (2016) and Smart Metals Recycling (2015).
“When I created this prize in 2013, I wanted to help undergraduate entrepreneurs as Frank Borchardt had helped me,” said David Cummings. “Each year, it has been a joy to review the high-caliber undergraduate teams and choose a recipient that I feel will honor Frank’s legacy. The growth and success of past Borchardt Prize winners makes it clear that this prize has a significant impact on its recipients, just as Frank’s investment and mentorship had a profound impact on me as an entrepreneur.”
Cummings, an Atlanta-based serial tech entrepreneur, has founded 10 companies valued collectively at nearly $1B, among them Pardot, SalesLoft, and Terminus. He is also the founder of the Atlanta Tech Village, America’s fourth-largest tech hub, and the largest investor in Calendly, the most popular scheduling app in the world. Following the sale of Pardot, he was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and one of the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 100 Most Influential Atlantans.
With the resources he’s found at Duke, Liu has transformed the business he started in high school. “In that first semester, my goal was to get one paying high school on board,” he says. “Now we’ve signed seven.”
When it comes to advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs, Liu’s main message is simple. “Don't be afraid to reach out,” he says. “There are so many resources at Duke. I almost feel like my business is a culmination of all these people helping me, and I just put it together.”