Interview with Anne Steptoe '16

Interview by Howie Rhee '04, with contributions by Coco Chen. Added May 20, 2016

Tell us about your time at Duke. What did you study and what were you involved in?  Did you do anything entrepreneurial while you were here?

I came to Duke (specifically, to Fuqua) to become an entrepreneur – or so I thought when I arrived on campus. Of course, the first lesson I learned is that there’s no secret toolkit to starting a company and that the classroom wasn’t where I’d learn about entrepreneurship. At Fuqua, I went through the P4E curriculum, the Health Sector Management curriculum and was very involved with the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and Fuqua on Board. All these experiences together made for an inspirational learning environment to start a healthcare non-profit.

You started MedServe. Tell us the story of how it got started.

MedServe is the itch I had to scratch as a “user” of the medical education system. I remember proposing research exploring the need for a “Teach for America for healthcare” as a research project as a first-year medical student, based on my frustrations with my own experiences focusing my passion for community service and healthcare. I was promptly told the research (much less the project itself) was idealistic and overly ambitious. That response was partly how I ended up at business school. Yet, I didn’t start working on MedServe the day I got to Fuqua. I spent most of my first year working on another health-related start-up, with the idea that I’d cut my teeth on another venture and be smarter when I eventually started MedServe. When that other project failed, I decided that success was never guaranteed no matter how much experience I could gain, and that I couldn’t wait to work on an issue about which I’m tirelessly passionate. I was lucky, through the support of CASE and other Fuqua entities, to be given a summer to conduct market research on what would become MedServe. Within the first month, the clinics we were collecting market research from started asking us for sales information. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of progress.


Tell us what your business is like these days.  What do you spend your time on, and who is your target customer?

MedServe is at an exciting crossroads. We’ve gone from being an idea in my head to an existing program onboarding 13 Fellows exactly 1 month from today. That means, my days are 100% on execution, right down to exciting logistics like food and housing arrangements for our upcoming Training Institute. Everything we’ve learned about service year programs is that the devil is in the details, in terms of separating out high-quality learning experiences from simple staffing agencies. We’re working hard to create the former experience.

Our target customer is two-fold. Our target student is a recent college graduate who is interested in attending a graduate healthcare program (e.g. medical school) but who could use time to differentiate their application in a highly competitive process. They tend to be service-oriented, connected to disadvantaged communities, and entrepreneurial. Our target clinic is a primary care clinic that disproportionately serves disadvantaged patients. This clinic is also entrepreneurial in its approach, often going “above and beyond” to try to improve that community’s health. These “above and beyond” efforts often mean that there’s a need in clinics for an extra pair of hands.

As you reflect back on the last couple years, what are some of the things you've learned that you wished you'd known when you were starting.

Confidence in my own entrepreneurial ability must be the #1 thing I’ve learned through this process. I often wonder whether I’d have started MedServe from Day One of Fuqua had I arrived with that confidence. As I said earlier, I came here thinking that I needed to acquire knowledge and a toolkit for entrepreneurship. I’ve learned over the past two years that much of the entrepreneurial process is careful critical thinking and questioning, solid logic and a dogged determination and persistence of effort. All of these were skills that I came to Fuqua with and none of them are particularly rare or hard to acquire, though I had not named them and recognized their utility before Fuqua. I wish I had understood how central to entrepreneurship they were from the start, and channeled that knowledge into working on my true passion project (and doing so ambitiously) from the start.

For students that are thinking of starting a company, but thinking about getting work experience first, how would you help them analyze that decision?

I think that’s a deeply personal decision that depends on an individual’s background and entrepreneurial goals. I didn’t have traditional business experience before I came to Fuqua and chose to forego corporate recruitment and a traditional summer MBA internship to immerse myself 100% in entrepreneurship while on campus. I have no regrets about that decision, and I don’t think I’d have an operational start-up if my focus had been divided. However, I was also a “user” of the problem I’m trying to solve and had spent the year prior to Fuqua working clinically in healthcare. So, I came to Fuqua with roughly half a decade of user experience that gave me the credibility and insight to sell my service with confidence both to clinics and to prospective students.

What's it like to be starting this in North Carolina?  How has the community supported you?

North Carolina may be one of the only places where a program like this could flourish from such an early time. The community has not just supported us but has lifted us up and pushed us forward. Our clinic numbers snowballed with doctors passionate about our mission picked up the phone and called other clinics. When we hit funding rough patches, local friends of MedServe again picked up the phone and found us alternative sources. My job is to build a functional ship, but our community partners are the reason that the ship sails. On a personal note, it is incredibly meaningful for me to be starting MedServe in North Carolina. Two of our Fellows will be working next month in Benson, a small rural community south of Raleigh where my grandmother grew up on a tobacco farm. The idea that I’ve been able to focus my education to give back to communities where my extended family lived and lives is more than I could have asked for two years ago.

Anything else you would like to share with students?

Persistence pays off. I recently hired a Fellow who didn’t receive a Round One interview with MedServe on preliminary application review. She emailed me once a week, every week from the time her decision update of “no interview” was given until we finally decided that we should give her an opportunity to sell herself. She did so, with aplomb. I see similarities between her experience and my own with MedServe. This company rose from the ashes of another failed start-up, having been something academic mentors discouraged me from working on for years. We’ve heard “no” from some stakeholders at every step along the way. However, it persists because I believe in the program’s mission and because others have come to believe in it as well and persisted alongside me. Every stumbling block we’ve hit (and will continue to hit) along the way have felt small in comparison to that enthusiasm and willingness to sweat to see this vision become a reality. Without disparaging the good advice to recognize a failed idea early, I have come to believe in the simultaneous power of persistence.

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