Alumni Profiles Series: Elizabeth Brake
Elizabeth Brake received her Ph.D. in History in 2013 and was a postdoctoral associate in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business from 2013-2016. Brake is now the director of Ohio for Venture for America, a fellowship program that connects startups with recent college graduates to foster economic growth and entrepreneurship in American cities. She lives near Cleveland, Ohio.
Tell me a bit about your current job. What do you like the most about it? What do you like the least, if anything?
I am currently the director of Ohio for Venture for America, which is a fellowship program that connects startups in cities that have emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems with talented, enterprising recent college graduates. We operate in eighteen cities, including Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. My role is threefold: 1) support Ohio Fellows through programming and mentoring, 2) identify local startups that offer great opportunities for Fellows and support them through the hiring process, and 3) maintain relationships with regional donors whose gifts and grants make VFA’s work possible.
My favorite part about my current job is working with the VFA Fellows. They are very similar to the students with whom I worked in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I&E) program at Duke. Actually, many VFA fellows are Duke alumni so, in some cases, they are literally the same people. Working with them involves all the things I like about teaching – mentoring and helping them get to be where they want to be -- but without the trouble of making a syllabus or grading. They're driven and ambitious, but also quite thoughtful about what they want to do and where they want to go. Having the opportunity to work with them on a daily basis is just really wonderful.
Perhaps the hardest adjustment was adapting to the volume of messages I send and receive every day. My role is cross-functional: I belong to the fundraising team, the programs team, and the company partnerships team. This means I have to juggle all three teams’ priorities and maintain relationships with external stakeholders. It requires a lot of email traffic and keeping in touch with many people throughout the day in ways that I didn't have to do while I was a graduate student.
You’ve written elsewhere about the importance of networking for landing your current job, but what did the broader job search look like for you? Did you go in looking for a certain type of job?
I was pursuing three distinct avenues, and it happened that they all came to a head around the same time. I was looking into jobs in university administration, especially corporate relations and grant administration. I had several interviews at a university’s Office of Corporate Relations, where I would have been managing collaborations between corporations and engineering faculty and managing a complex grant portfolio. Ultimately, they decided that I did not have enough experience to do the job, which, frankly, was probably true.
Meanwhile, I was also interviewing with VFA. The VFA interview process took six weeks. I was talking to all these different people in different parts of the organization, producing work products, and then talking to completely different people, culminating in a daylong interview in New York City. All of that made it pretty clear to me that this job would be hard, but it would be a worthwhile challenge.
A third avenue was in a local government position with Cuyahoga County. This county is pretty large – it has more people than the state of Delaware – so at that scale the opportunities in local government are significant. I was networking with some people in the county government, and knew about the strong possibility that a job I wanted would open up, but the timeline kept being pushed back. The day I was offered the position at VFA, the county finally posted their opportunity. So, I had to make a difficult decision between these two options, both of which were a good fit for me. In the end, even with the knowledge that I had an extremely good shot at the job in the county government, the position at VFA was the more certain of the two, so I went for it.
How did you initially leverage your doctoral education in history to the postdoctoral position in Fuqua? How important was that experience for your overall professional development?
The story of how I got to Fuqua and the I&E program, like many of my Duke stories, goes back to Ed Balleisen. In May 2013, when I defended my dissertation, I had about three weeks left of my job at the Rubenstein Library and I had no idea what I was going to do after that. Ed said to me immediately after the dissertation defense, "If I told you that there was postdoc in the business school, would you be interested?" It turned out that he had a good working relationship with Jon Fjeld, Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Fuqua, and suggested the possibility of bringing in a historian to work on a project they had in the works. I interviewed for the position, they seemed to like me, and off I went.
The postdoc started as a part-time gig, about 30 hours a week, and I was mainly conducting oral histories and writing case studies of innovation projects in large corporations. By the end, I was working there full-time, I wrote 26 case studies and a successful NSF grant proposal, I sat in on some classes, and I did enough reading to pick up a new teaching field. I was reading histories of corporations – especially histories of corporate research and development – along with organizational theory and economics. My Fuqua colleagues were incredibly generous and willing to teach me whatever I wanted to learn.
How did the opportunity to teach a course in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program (I&E) fit into your work as a postdoc?
Two years in, I knew that I needed to consider what was next, but I also had a sense that there was still work to be done, and that I was not finished at Fuqua. Jon suggested that I teach a course in I&E and it seemed like the best way to put everything I had been learning to use. I took all of the reading that I had done and put together a syllabus. I proposed the course in 2015 but did not teach the class until the next spring, so I had about nine months to refine it. The opportunity to teach that class, coupled with the success of the NSF grant application and my work project-managing a Bass Connections course, just felt like a capstone on my entire time at Duke. Together they became the springboard for the types of jobs I looked for as I was beginning to move on to other things.
What were your career plans when you arrived at Duke, and how did those plans change over the course of your graduate education?
I think I started with the same plan that everyone has: get a tenure-track job, at a good school, in a place that I wanted to live. I started graduate school in 2006; in my second year, the Great Recession happened. Shortly after, I had a colleague who was on the academic job market and I learned a lot from her job search. While her search ended well, it was the first time I grasped just how hard it was. It didn’t help that the academic job market was especially abysmal in 2009, and again in 2010, and again in 2011. It had gotten a little better when I started applying for academic jobs in 2012. However, I'm a practical person, and I began to realize that if I wanted to make a living, I needed a backup plan.
During this time, I was also doing freelance work as a historical research consultant. I initially got into it to pay the bills, but I came to realize that I liked that kind of work. I like jobs that are about "making things work” – whether it is the challenges of managing competing priorities, or the organization and logistics of making something happen. I have a talent for administration. This might be because in earlier jobs I had been given complex, difficult problems and asked to just "figure it out." While this is always challenging in the moment, I seem to keep signing up for that kind of work – so I must like it!
Additionally, I was lucky enough that my most important academic mentors – Bob Korstad, who was my dissertation chair, Ed Balleisen, and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall at UNC – were all very good at validating my other skills and professional interests. They never treated me like I was a failure for doing other things or thinking about other paths.
Do you have any advice for an early career graduate student interested in non-academic jobs?
I had the luxury to incubate at Fuqua, and to take some time after I graduated before diving into the non-academic job search, but you may not have that luxury. It’s incredibly important to take the time now – wherever you are in your education – to figure out what matters to you and what problems in the world you care about solving. Then figure out who is working to solve those problems and evaluate what you might bring to the effort.
We often talk about being “entrepreneurial” in your career, but that doesn't mean you have to start a business. For Ph.D. students, being entrepreneurial is much more about being open-minded and being deliberate about building relationships with people. Effective networking is not transactional; it is about maintaining relationships. Send these people your work, talk to them regularly; the more they know about you, the more likely they are to introduce you to someone else who can help you in the future. And the more likely you are to figure out where you fit outside the university.
I would add, although I think it’s a bit clichéd, that you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to people who might say “no” – whether it’s for internships, opportunities to “shadow” someone, or just to talk. It’s okay if they say no. And, you’d be surprised how often they say yes.
Ph.D. student, History
Ashton Merck is a Ph.D. student in the History Department who studies the history of public health, social movements, and regulatory governance. She is currently developing a dissertation project on the history of food safety regulation.