DURHAM – Dressed in a smart blue blazer and jeans, with his resume folder in tow, Connor Haze came prepared to Big Top’s College Night.

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Connor Hazen

With around 20 startups present at the Tuesday evening event, he was eager to chat with a few and make a good impression, maybe even land an internship.

“I’m not really shooting for the big dogs yet, but I’d love to get experience around Durham,” explained the 19-year-old Duke sophomore, who is studying computer science and statistics.

In particular, he was eyeing up StrongKey, a Silicon Valley security technology startup, which opened an office in Durham earlier this year.

“I wanted to get a feel for them, hopefully reach out and see how it goes,” said Haze, who heard about the event from his university’s career center.

He wasn’t the only one. Some 300 other college students crowded into American Underground’s Bullpen for the event, checking out the local startup scene and scouting for summer jobs.

Strengthening local connections

By most accounts, the Triangle has a thriving startup ecosystem. But talk to some industry insiders, and they’ll say the interface between local universities and the tech community could be better.

Big Top’s director Molly Demarest said they’re working to address that.

“The link between the universities is stronger than the Tobacco Road basketball rivalry, but we still have a ways to go,” she said. “It’s also true that we often overlook talented students coming out of those same universities. This is an opportunity for better engagement.”

Big Top also wants to help dispel the misconception that graduates must travel to other markets in New York and Silicon Valley to get the big opportunities.

“Here in the Triangle, we have the best of both worlds — competitive salaries at startups doing everything from machine learning to cryptocurrency, biotech to big pharma, microlending to payment tech. Not to mention, your hard-earned dollar goes a lot farther here,” said Demarest.

“It’s not a matter of manufacturing reasons top talent should stay, it’s a matter of broadcasting opportunity and creating plenty of ways to connect — online and in-person.”

Dubbed the “Startup Capital of the South” (organizers were giving out free t-shirts with the phrase at the front door), American Underground alone is home to around 275 startups.

Since its 2010 launch, it has also housed dedicated offices for universities like North Carolina Central and Duke University.

“We want to build on that long-standing foundation to add connectivity to more universities throughout the Triangle and across the state,” said American Underground’s Executive Director Doug Speight.

“Solving this exposure gap is one of the key drivers behind College Night.”

A double win

Paul Jaglowski, CEO of Feedtrail, was among those founders to set up a booth. He recently moved to the area from DC to run his healthcare IT startup.

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Paul Jaglowski, left, and Chris Miller at College Night.

“We relocated to this area intentionally,” he said. “We could have gone to Boston, or New York, or Silicon Valley, but [we came here] because it’s up and coming, and a bit more welcoming to first-time startup founders.

“We just raised a pretty sizable bridge round and we’re doing some hiring right now.”

Specifically, Jaglowski was looking for an account executive, as well as interns with design and marketing experience.

“It’s great on both sides,” he said. “From the founder’s lens, if startups aren’t able to invest in the marketing dollars for job recruits, this is an outstanding way to get in front of them and tell them about your company and the cool things you’re doing. From the student’s side of things, it’s obviously useful as well because there are a lot of great startups with limited exposure.”

Hunting for opportunity

Brandon Scholz was definitely on the prowl. The 29-year-old is currently studying a master’s in business administration at Duke University.

“I’m looking for an internship on the business side of things in the tech world. I’m still trying to figure out what that is, so this is a great place to dip your toes and see,” he said.

He graduates in 2020, and will ultimately go where the opportunities take him. “If the right opportunity is here, I’m open to staying. But I’m also exploring other things like the Bay area. I’ve got some healthcare interests, so Boston is a draw as well.

“The cost of living here is fantastic. It’s definitely a draw. We’ll see.”