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Interview with James Sawabini of Zamsolar

4/16/2012 Interview by Howie Rhee 

1) How did you come up with your idea?
My business partner, Thomas, spent last summer in Zambia working for an NGO that was giving solar lights to teachers. The lights had a dramatic impact in the classroom, because they allowed students to come and study after-hours when they would not otherwise have been able to. Everywhere he went, however, folks solicited Thomas to sell them the lights he brought. The value of these products, even to those who had not seen them before, was immediately obvious.  Yet demand for these products was going unmet. So when Thomas returned from Zambia he called me up, and that December we returned to research starting a business. 

2) How did you meet your team members?
Thomas and I first got to know each other working on and eventually leading our high school newspaper. We shared many early mornings, long days and late nights working together in the newsroom. 
3) How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?
The Duke Start-Up Challenge has been a tremendous resource. As an exercise in presenting our ideas, it has helped us to hone our message. It has also been a tremendous platform to network with fellow Dukies, who have been highly receptive. Most of all, however, the Start-Up Challenge helped to connect us with nearly 200 CEOs, entrepreneurs, start-up lawyers and the like, who have given us extraordinarily constructive feedback, encouragement, and networking opportunities. Whoever the winner is on Friday, our start-up has already benefited tremendously from participating, and we're honored to have made it as far as we have. 
4) 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 breadth of feedback we have received has really helped us to understand the different ways folks approach our idea. As much as the positive feedback has been encouraging, the negative feedback has been constructive. It has given us a much clearer understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, challenging us to be more analytical, more thorough and better prepared. 

5) What advice do you have for Duke student entrepreneurs that are thinking of starting a company?
Compete in the Challenge. Gaining access to the resources the Challenge offers to students would take months of work outside the college context. It is also a tremendous networking opportunity, however successful you are. 

In addition, it tells investors that you are willing to compete neck-and-neck with some very smart people to prove your ideas. Outside of competing for the Challenge, keep in mind that your networking opportunities at Duke are extraordinary. If your idea is compeling and you can get it out there, interested folks (and potential investors) will come to you. Take advantage of it while you can. 

Last--always be positive.  Even if things don't work out, there are few things more exciting than trying to build a business from the ground up. 

6) Anything else you’d like to say?
Many, many thanks to Howie Rhee and the rest of the folks running the Challenge. It has been a wonderful experience. 


Watch them compete in the Grand Finale on April 20th at 7:30pm ET.