Opera singer leads entrepreneurship class


Ja-Nae Duane said she finally has a way to put her big mouth to use. 

Growing up in West Haven, Conn., she was inspired by her Italian language teacher to try out opera singing. But during the first performance she saw at The Metropolitan Opera house, she fell asleep.

“I thought, this needs to be fixed and I can fix it. It’s a fantastic art form, but it’s a dying breed,” she said. 

Duane studied opera as an undergraduate at Northeastern University and the New England Conservatory. She then went on to receive her master’s at Carnegie Mellon, and attended the Boston University Opera Institute.

“Lots of schools, and lots of students loans,” she laughed. 

Duane said this opera background and her desire to change the industry is what spurred her into creative entrepreneurship. She is currently the interim director for the Emerson Experience in Entrepreneurship program, or E3, a yearlong study where students create and market their own products or services.

Duane said she now uses her big mouth to teach entrepreneurship, and her own experiences with it.

“What really pertains to Emerson students is that they will end up being their own businesses,” she said. “They will ask themselves, ‘What is my brand? How will I get grants? How do I get the roles I want?’”

With the death of its founder and previous director, Karl Baehr, last November, she offered to step up to the plate.

“Everything happened so suddenly,” she said. “The department and school rallied to move forward. I’ll never be Karl, and I’m not trying to be.”

Duane said her background in entrepreneurship led Baehr to choose her to be a lead judge for the E3 Expo — the program’s end-of-the-year showcase where students present their businesses to a three-judge panel and an audience. 

Donald Hurwitz, the chair of the marketing communication department, said he doesn’t remember who contacted whom first, but it was a mutual agreement to have her take over Baehr’s role. 

“She was the only one to say, ‘I’m willing to step in,’ whereas most people were willing to help but not step in,” he said. 

Being an artist taught Duane about marketing and entrepreneurship, she said. She created a profile in 2005 on Rise.com, a predecessor to LinkedIn, and said she realized many women, in particular, didn’t know how to properly market themselves. 

“I wanted to help women find the resources they need to succeed,” she said.

Just a year before her arrival at Emerson, she launched her own business with $100 to her name, she said. 

Wild Women Entrepreneurs is an online community of women who are interested in creating resumes, starting businesses, and learning more about human resources. According to Duane, her company now has over 55 chapters in seven countries.

She currently teaches at Emerson, Clark University, and Northeastern, where she instructs students on entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship design, and music, respectively.

She just started teaching at the college this semester—taking over the E3 course Baehr used to teach.

With this class of nine, she organizes mentors to come in and discuss business, branding, public relations, and product development.

“She has come in and done a stellar job,” said Nisreen Galloway, an E3 student in Duane’s course. 

Galloway, a senior writing, literature, and publishing major who is working on creating an online food magazine targeting college students in the Boston area, said she thinks Duane has managed to keep the class on track and Baehr’s memory alive. 

Currently, the E3 program’s students are working on practicing pitching their products for the April 19 showcase. This year there are three apparel-based companies, one company that focuses on teaching film in elementary schools, Galloway’s online magazine, and an alcoholic ice cream. 

“I’ve sampled it, and it’s very yummy,” Duane said of senior writing, literature, and publishing major Elizabeth Nash’s Crème de Liqueur. 

As for E3, the college announced professor Lu Ann Reeb will be the new director and teach the course for next fall semester. 

But Hurwitz said he does not want to end the school’s relationship with Duane, who will be teaching a different entrepreneurship course come next fall. 

“She has proven to be a good advocate and guide for students,” he said. “She’s a good person to be on the faculty.”