Interview with Shelly Li '15 and Ben Schwab '15 of Smart Metals

Posted on 4/4/2013. Interview by Howie Rhee

Tell us about yourself

Shelly Li is currently studying Economics and Philosophy as a University Scholar. Growing up, she has always been digging through her father’s scrap yard, accumulating knowledge about the worth of basic materials within everyday items. When she arrived at Duke and decided to intern with Durham City Council’s Human Relations Commission in order to understand more about the community surrounding her new school, she found the perfect way to put her scrap knowledge to use by connecting Duke and Durham through Smart Metals. This summer she will be a summer analyst in Morgan Stanley’s investment banking division. In her spare time, Shelly loves to golf, ski, and write science fiction stories about optimistic near-future possibilities, some of which have appeared in international journals such as Nature and Cosmos.


Ben Schwab is a University Scholar interested in studying the intersection of Computer Science, Economics, and Mathematics.  Since his freshman year, Ben has applied his education outside the classroom in an entrepreneurial spirit. He previously started a mobile development company that published two apps and a game, and is a member of InCube, Duke’s student-run entrepreneurial residential program. This summer he will also be working with Microsoft as a software development engineer in the Xbox division in Seattle, where he hopes to get in some tennis matches and do some hiking.


Tell us about your idea.

Our business model for disposing of e-waste is built about convenience, assurance, and incentives. We negotiate handling of college e-waste throughout the recycling pipeline. We provide a web platform for communication between university individuals and local recycling facilities. And lastly, we return a percentage of profit back to universities.


How did you come up with your idea?  When did you come up with it?

At Duke, when you throw out trash, there are three types of receptacles in which to deposit it: 1) the garbage dumpster, 2) the paper products bin, and 3) the plastic products container.

In April/May of 2012, we noticed an entire category of waste that was being deposited improperly. Numerous computers, microwaves, and refrigerators were tossed in dumpsters or left outside apartments and dormitories. Trashed at semester’s end by students who no longer needed college-sized appliances or wanted to upgrade, Duke is filling landfills with both valuable metals and harmful chemicals. We wondered, how can we encourage the Duke community to become more engaged in recycling products containing significant metal contents? Hence, Smart Metals was born.


How did you meet your team members?

Ben and I met when we were on Duke's campus for the University Scholars' finalist weekend. Afterwards, we had quite a few classes together in our freshmen year, and found that we shared an excitement for entrepreneurship.


How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?

The network has by far been the most supportive and exciting that I have entered.


The Duke Start-Up Challenge provides a lot of feedback from over 100 judges.  Can you talk about that experience of reviewing the feedback?

The feedback given by the Start-Up Challenge's judges made me think about our start-up and its challenges in a way not previously thought about before. Specifically, I became more involved with business strategy, which was an aspect on which the judges were able to provide a lot of great insight.


Did you connect with any judges for advice, and if so, who were they and was it helpful? 

Stefan Negritoiu--he is CEO of and has been incredibly helpful from the technical aspect of designing the platform to providing macro-level insight.


What advice do you have for Duke students that are thinking of starting a company?

Unlearning is often times most important, when involving yourself in a startup, than learning itself!



Want more? Watch the videos and read the other interviews for all of the Round 3 teams in the Duke Start-Up Challenge

And join us for the Grand Finale with David Cummings ’02 for the 14th Annual Duke Start-Up Challenge on Thursday, April 11th, 2013 at 7:30pm ET at Fuqua’s Geneen Auditorium. RSVP on Facebook

Not able to attend in person?  Watch the livestream on Duke’s YouTube channel


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