Student Story: Venturing into Impact Investing

Patrick Starr

April 2019, Patrick Starr

Patrick Starr

After serving for 2 years in the Peace Corps in Peru, I came back to the US and started a career in traditional investment management.  I enjoyed the rigor of the work and the pace at which I was improving my financial skill set, but my impact roots from the Peace Corps called on me to find more purpose in my work.  So, I searched for my next step and began learning about MBA programs. I found myself drawn to Duke’s Fuqua School of Business because of its reputation of building leaders of consequence and its world-renowned centers and faculty in impact investing (CASE i3), social entrepreneurship (CASE), and environmental responsibility (EDGE). Despite knowing what I wanted, I had no idea how to get there.

The first meeting I had with a faculty member as a first-year student was with CASE i3’s Cathy Clark.  I wore my eagerness, and my lack of direction for how to recruit for impact investing, on my sleeve.  In this meeting, Cathy helped guide and motivate me to be persistent in my efforts to work with and learn from best-in-class practitioners during my time at Fuqua.  I consider this meeting to be one of the most important 30 minutes of my entire MBA career as it sent me down an exciting and enriching path into the impact investing industry.

After recruiting in the fall of my first year, I received my fellowship offer from SJF Ventures in early December.  The fellowship was set up as a 1-day per week mentored study for 4 terms and as a full-time, paid internship (combination of SJF Ventures and a SIF Scholarship) for 10 weeks in the summer.


From my perspective, there is no standard recruiting methodology for impact investing careers.  However, there seem to be a few key activities that served me well in recruiting for this industry, as well as most others:

1) Connect with the firm to express interest and form a relationship.

I probably over-indexed on this one as I connected with SJF Ventures in May before starting Fuqua in August.  However, connecting early and remaining in contact proved to the team that I was genuinely passionate for the firm’s work.

2) Network with second-year students who have done what you want to do.

In my case, there was a second-year student who held the fellowship at the time I was recruiting for it.  I met with this colleague early in Fall of my first-year to express my passion for the position and explain why my credentials made me a great fit.

3) Prove your passion with action.

If you want a job, then prove it!  Study the firm, study the industry, and get involved with relevant activities at Fuqua. For this position, I studied SJF Ventures’ portfolio companies, firm history, thought leadership, and impact reports; I studied the industry by reading countless articles online, including blogs and white papers from award-winning funds and investors; and, at Fuqua, I became a CASE i3 Associate, joined the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club, and took relevant courses.


Serving as the MBA Venture Fellow at SJF Ventures for the past year afforded me many learning opportunities.  Notably, I learned that the scale of impact in the private sector can be enormous—both from an organizational purview and the individual level.  I affirmed that MBA credentials from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business means MBA-level responsibilities, even when you are just an “intern.”  Lastly, this experience highlighted the significance of clichés like “you get out what you put in” and/or “trust the process.”

Scale of Impact

Organizationally:  One of SJF Ventures’ impact goals is to scale climate change mitigation solutions.  The firm primarily meets this impact objective by investing in high-growth companies in the following sectors: clean energy, asset recovery and logistics, and sustainable food.  As part of my fellowship, it was my responsibility to drive the annual Portfolio Carbon Impact Study, an analysis that standardizes carbon impact across the portfolio to measure impact outcomes and provide transparency on portfolio company environmental impact.  In performing this study, we found that SJF portfolio companies mitigated a total of 2,481,298 metric tons of carbon emissions in 2017—the equivalent to taking 522,379 cars off the road for 1-year!

Individually: After expressing interest in one of the environmentally-impactful portfolio companies, I was given the opportunity to develop a strategic analysis of market growth potential for a market in which one of the company’s products is sold.  This analysis was critical to help a potential co-investor get comfortable with the company’s growth prospects.  The work I did was presented to the company, investors, and this potential co-investor and was a part of the recipe that helped secure millions of dollars of additional investment in the company.  These funds will support the scaling of their responsible and sustainable business model, further mitigating climate change.

MBA Level

One of the best parts of this fellowship was the MBA-level work for which I was responsible.  For instance, in my first few weeks at SJF, I used skills learned in our Business Computer Applications course to develop an analysis of hundreds of impact companies funded by a world-class startup incubator.  For the market growth potential analysis mentioned in the “Scale of Impact” section above, I used frameworks and concepts learned in the Foundations of Strategy course and in my CASE i3 Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum experience.  And when a deal started to heat up in the Fall, I played a role in pitching the company to the investment committee by using skills mastered in Fuqua’s Impact Investing, Venture Capital and Private Equity, and Marketing Management courses to build out the Total Addressable Market analysis.

Get Out What You Put In

This cliché fits for nearly every experience in a person’s life and my work at SJF Ventures was no exception.  The most rewarding experience of my time came near the end of my fellowship.  A startup caught the attentions of Managing Director and Co-Founder, Dave Kirkpatrick, and Principal Daniel Geballe.  They asked me to support the due diligence process for this company—research the competition, interview experts in the field, thoroughly analyze the company and get to know its founders, and much more.  After performing due diligence for several weeks, Dave and Daniel provided me with a capstone experience—they put me in charge of flying more than 600 miles to perform due diligence on this company at an industry conference; this included sitting down with the startup’s CEO, interviewing current and potential customers and industry experts, attending pertinent conference sessions, and exploring the Expo to source potential new deals.  Later, I presented key learnings for the deal in an investment memo and at the investment committee meeting and, just recently, SJF Ventures closed the deal and invested in the company.  This experience was affirming and professionally-enriching and I am convinced this opportunity was influential and meaningful to me because of all I put into my time at SJF Ventures.

None of this would have been possible without the leadership and generosity of the team at SJF Ventures, the intellectual foundation provided by the Fuqua curriculum and Fuqua’s CASE i3, and the flexibility provided by Fuqua’s emphasis on experiential learning and their commitment to supporting those of us working in the social impact space via the SIF Scholarship.  My time at SJF Ventures will go down as a hallmark of my MBA and there is no doubt that I will be drawing on this experience to drive my professional success for many years to come.

Patrick Starr

This post is written by Patrick Starr, a second-year Duke Fuqua MBA candidate with a focus on strategy and finance.  Prior to Fuqua, he worked in investment management and international development.  At Fuqua, he is a CASE i3 Fellow, co-president of the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club, and Community VP for Net Impact Club.  Over the past year, Patrick served as the MBA Venture Fellow at SJF Ventures, an impact investing venture capital firm.

SJF Ventures invests in high-growth companies creating a healthier, smarter and cleaner future.  Their mission is to catalyze the development of highly successful businesses driving lasting, positive changes.  The firm is headquartered in Durham and has offices in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.