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March 28, 2016

Tapping Worcester's innovative potential

Ja-Nae Duane is a serial entrepreneur, opera singer and one of the entrepreneurs-in-residence at Clark University, where she teaches entrepreneurial design thinking.

Ja-Nae Duane is a serial entrepreneur, business consultant, professional opera singer and author with several passions, including helping entrepreneurs succeed and fostering economic development in secondary cities, like Worcester.

Even if there is no traditional path to entrepreneurship, hers is notable. Duane grew up in West Haven, Conn., the eldest of five siblings, and became the defacto head of the household and breadwinner at age 13 while her mother struggled with addiction. When it came time to go to college, she chose Northeastern University, where she had to work as many as four jobs at a time to make it through, but she still found time to create her own opera major.

Those early experiences taught her to be a hustler and to develop innovative solutions to problems as they cropped up along the way. Duane is currently an entrepreneur-in-residence at Clark University, where she teaches entrepreneurship classes with real-world applications to undergraduate students.

After getting her postgraduate degree from Boston University, Duane became a singer and took gigs around the world as they came. At the same time, she started her first company, Wild Women Entrepreneurs. Then the market crashed in 2008, and all of her singing gigs folded within six weeks. Entrepreneurship then became her main focus.

Fostering entrepreneurship

Duane created Wild Women Entrepreneurs when she noticed key differences between male and female entrepreneurs. She noticed that at networking events, men had no problem meeting a potential collaborator, putting their business card away for awhile and then calling them up weeks or even months later to do business. Women, on the other hand, preferred building relationships with people before entering into any sort of agreement with them., she said. Within the first nine months, WildWE, as it's called, had 55 chapters in seven countries, she said.

Since then, she has started four other businesses and written several books, including “How to start Your Business with $100,” “How to Create a Revolution: a Step-by-Step Guide from History's Social Influencers,” and her newest book, “The Startup Equation,” a colorful, interactive guide for entrepreneurs that she co-authored with her husband, Steven Fisher. The book is a choose-your-own-adventure path for entrepreneurs, since no two startups are the same, she said.

She lives in Marlborough and, in addition to Clark, teaches at Emerson College and at Northeastern, her alma mater.

What's special about Clark students, Duane said, is that they have a social consciousness about them and are interested in creating businesses that produce not just financial but also community-based results.

The problem is that sometimes the school's administration does a little too much hand-holding, she said. Learning how to fail is a key part of becoming a successful entrepreneur.

“The sooner the administration can get out of the way, the better. We should allow students to try, fail, pivot and then try again,” she said.

Worcester solutions

In her classes, students focus on solving real problems impacting Worcester, such as Worcester's broken public transportation system.

Andy Miller judged the final exams of Duane's students last semester as part of a pitching competition modeld after the popular startup television show, “Shark Tank.”

In the past, Miller, an entrepreneur and investor, has been contacted by schools like Harvard and MIT who want to send their students over to help work on a project, but those collaborations haven't yielded much success on either end, he said. This time was different.

“I had a blast with the students. Most of the projects were about Worcester stuff – a lot of it was mobility – how do you get to places. The projects themselves were about Worcester in essence,” he said. “Her students were clearly vested in it.”

He said Duane has a big personality and is extremely smart, passionate and detail-oriented when it comes to innovation.

“You don't have to dig very far to see how much drive she has and that she's trying to propel startup economy forward,” he said.

Jake Medina, a senior at College of the Holy Cross and co-founder and president of nonprofit startup Student Empowerment Program, participated in an Entrepreneurship Deep Dive facilitated by Duane.

“She's done a lot for herself. Kind of having that perspective and experience, she was able to say, 'Here's how you market.' That expertise is absolutely vital going forward,” he said.

Medina said Duane was very helpful in breaking down his business, piece by piece.

“We were making a difference but didn't know how to quantify and explain that difference,” Medina said. “What Ja-Nae allowed us to do – she really was very patient, she broke down the business into small little parts, and she broke it down into a narrative.”

Investing in the community

Just being around Duane, it's clear that innovation is a part of who she is. She has a vibrancy about her, an unwavering, quietly enthralled smile on her face and a look of intensity in her eyes when she speaks directly to you. When I met her at Acoustic Java near Clark, she was bobbing her head along to the live music and happily tapping away at her iPhone.

Duane said she sees a lot of untapped potential in Worcester, which is part of the reason she and Miller are launching a new business together focused on economic development in secondary cities

The business, called Impact, is Duane's fourth business startup, and although it will start in Boston, the ultimate goal is to help cities including but not limited to Worcester, Savannah, Ga. and Paducah, Ky. reach their fullest potential.

“When I look at Worcester, I see individuals who aren't having inclusive conversations. There are pockets of conversation, but not everyone comes to the table,” she said. “That changes by bringing a more diverse group of people to the table, more than just higher-ups.”

Part of the business will focus on ways to retain talented college graduates, Duane said.

“If we want students to invest in this community, we have to work as a community to change the perception of ourselves and give access to what Worcester has to offer,” she said.

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