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Zhao Ma headshot.

Zhao Ma can’t get enough of Detroit. He participated in DukeEngage-Detroit in 2017 and returned to continue working with his DukeEngage community partner, Tech Town, in summer 2018 through DukeEngage’s Brodhead Service Program. Now he’s living and working full time in America’s Great Comeback City, and continuing to support the community he loves.

Why did you choose DukeEngage-Detroit?

I chose DukeEngage-Detroit because of its roots in social entrepreneurship and innovation. After I had completed a research project in Human-Computer Interaction the previous summer, I wanted to find a way to potentially apply what I had learned in a real world setting. As a Pittsburgh native, Detroit had always been just a few hours away, and I became intrigued by the emerging social entrepreneur ecosystem there. After a conversation with the program leaders, Matt Nash and Katherine Black, I knew it was a tremendous opportunity I could not pass up.

What are you doing now?

I am now a venture capital analyst for Invest Detroit Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm with both nonprofit and for-profit funds based in Detroit. My organization operates as part of a CDFI foundation called Invest Detroit, a community-focused family of funds. ID Ventures is one of the most active VC investors in the Great Lakes Region and with inclusion as a focus, our venture funds and programs deliver resources and create opportunities for women, minorities, and immigrants.

Did DukeEngage influence your academic or career path?

Yes, absolutely. Without my DukeEngage experience, I would not be where I am or who I am today. After my first summer in Detroit, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue another summer of civic engagement in the city through the Brodhead Fellowship. The startup ecosystem and my interactions with the Detroit community really inspired me to return to the city and start my career there.

What was the most meaningful part of your DukeEngage experience?

Personally, the most meaningful part of my DukeEngage experience was going out into the TechTown (my DukeEngage nonprofit partner) community and learning from the individuals who help drive the social entrepreneurship ecosystem. My partner, Leah and I interviewed community members about diversity and inclusion in Detroit’s tech startups, and we learned the difficulty of the problem at hand. Learning about Detroit’s racist and discriminatory past and its effects on the city today furthered my mindset to be respectful of the community around me. Furthermore, it led me to think about equitable civic engagement and the challenges around pursuing it from a privileged point-of-view.

Three people stand in front of the TechTown Detroit sign.
Marlin Williams, former Chief Program Officer and Diversity and Inclusion Entrepreneur-In-Residence at TechTown, with 2017 DukeEngage-Detroit participants Leah Abrams ’20 and Zhao Ma ’19

Do you have a specific lesson learned from your DukeEngage experience that still holds true today?

The specific lesson I learned was simple: take initiative. I painstakingly learned through my DukeEngage experience, and it still holds true today. Most problems are not readily laid out and taking the initiative is vital. Leah and I initially had a blank canvas in terms of our diversity and inclusion project, and through our initiative, we were able to engage with the community and put together a report at the end of our experience. This lesson translates well to my job today, as there are always 10,000 things to do, and none are laid out like a graded project.

Are you still connected to DukeEngage?

Yes, I am. I had the fortunate opportunity to get to know each of the DukeEngage-Detroit classes after mine. I had worked alongside DukeEngage students during my 2018 Brodhead Fellowship. The next summer, I had the opportunity to have dinner with the 2019 Detroit cohort and share my experience, since I was participating in the Venture for America training camp in Detroit during the same time. This year, I had reached out to Matt and Katherine to potentially support DukeEngage-Detroit in 2020. but COVID-19 unfortunately led to the cancellation of programming this summer. Additionally, I wanted to thank my mentor from the Brodhead Fellowship, Nicole Kempton ’01. We are still in touch today, and she has offered me tremendous advice for my early career.

I want to stay connected to DukeEngage and its programs to give back for the experiences offered to me in 2017 and 2018. Hopefully, I will be able to further support the program in the future.

Do you think DukeEngage is an important program?

Yes, DukeEngage gives students the opportunity to be out of their comfort zone, and I do not see any collegiate program quite like it. While I cannot speak to the international experience, the domestic DukeEngage program led me to a career I did not initially expect. Civic engagement opportunities are right around the corner, and I recommend any student to apply for the program.

What’s one thing you want people to know about DukeEngage?

DukeEngage was one of the reasons why I applied to Duke in the first place, and I am extremely thankful for the staff and the sponsors of the program, who provided me with the opportunity to get me where I am today.

Also, please check out the DukeEngage-Detroit Blog and the articles written by the students!