Christian Hernandez had one goal when he was 14: Get into Duke.
When the acceptance letter finally arrived years later there was one last hurdle—he had to convince his parents that the university was really his top choice.
“They sat me down and asked me to sell them on why Duke was the right place for me,” Hernandez says. “It was, fortunately, not a question of cost, but rather proving to them that I was committed to the school and its academic rigor.”
He made his case passionately, telling them about his aspirations to be a doctor and how Duke’s stellar sciences program would help him get there. Then there was basketball, a sport he had grown to love, especially after watching the epic 1991 NCAA tournament game where Duke upset favorites UNLV.
His parents were sold, and in the fall of 1993, his dream came true.
“My fondest educational memories from Duke were of courses where the professor challenged us to get out of our comfort zone and learn something new. For example, I took a graduate-level literature class on El Salvador, my home country. I had to read and grapple with the writings of both right- and left-wing factions describing the civil war that battered the country,” Hernandez says.
While pre-med had been his original path, other fields began piquing his interest. He became an economics and comparative area studies major, and taught himself how to code websites, a still-burgeoning frontier in the mid-1990s. In 1996, he built the first site for his fraternity, Sigma Chi. During his senior year, he enrolled in a computer science course that cemented another longstanding passion—technology—and led to a job at a tech startup after graduation in 1997.
Since then, Hernandez has worked at MicroStrategy, Microsoft, Google, and most recently, Facebook. In 2013, he launched his own venture capital firm, White Star Capital, to continue working with early stage companies and supporting entrepreneurs.
Hernandez attributes his success to his parents’ willingness to say “yes” to Duke all those years ago. As a way to thank them and to pay it forward to ambitious youths who, like him, want nothing more than to come to Duke, Hernandez recently made a gift to create a scholarship in honor of his parents. That, along with a letter thanking them for the investment, was his present to them last Christmas.
What inspired you to make your gift and why did you choose to focus on a scholarship in honor of your parents?
My parents’ investment in my Duke education laid the groundwork for my future career. I had always tinkered with technology on the side, but had my father not nudged me to take a “systems” class, I never would have enrolled in the introductory computer science class that directly led to my career in tech.
This scholarship is meant to support future Duke students, and to honor the effort my parents made to support my Duke education. They stretched themselves financially to ensure that I, as a foreign, full-ride paying student, had the opportunity to attend Duke without ever having to ask the question about financial affordability. That was their legacy to me—and this gift is a legacy to them.
How did your time at Duke develop and shape you as a person? Is there something you took away from your education here that has stood you good stead through the years, either personally or professionally?
Going to college is a formative experience for anyone. It is usually the first time you are independent and self-reliant. I arrived in Durham from Paris, France, from the buzz of a major metropolis to the idyllic nature of our campus.
For me, the four years at Duke were formative in many ways: They allowed me to expand my frame of mind by learning alongside classmates from a wide swath of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. They allowed me to cement my passion for technology. They fostered friendships that continue to this day. They also taught me humility when I realized that I was surrounded by hundreds of individuals much smarter than I am. And finally, my time at Duke opened my mind to new ways of seeing the world, and an academic framework to understand it better.
Why is giving important at a place like Duke?
To maintain itself at the forefront of academic research, Duke has to continuously invest in its facilities, faculty, and infrastructure. The endowment supports much of that. For me, it was important to also help support future Duke students who have the intellectual curiosity to benefit from such an amazing environment, but who might not have the full financial means to attend.
It hit very close to home when I first met my wife who would have, ironically, been at Duke at the same time as me, but made a financial decision to forego her acceptance to Duke and attend her state university instead. The Duke community would have benefited from her being an active member of our class and our academic environment, and I know there are hundreds more who have to make the same choice every year.
What was your favorite place/hangout at Duke?
Unfortunately The Hideaway is no longer around. Aside from that, some of my best memories are from the three weeks I spent camping out at Cameron (we were tent number 11!), the late nights of attempting to study with a flashlight, and the excitement as the doors opened for the Duke-UNC game.
In 2015, I was fortuitously on campus the day of the NCAA Tournament final for a previously scheduled lecture in a class. It was amazing to rush the Quad alongside the student body and see benches burning once again. Glad to see not much has changed in that regard!
Any advice for undergrads?
Most undergrads have no idea about the vast resources available to them while at Duke. Realize that your professors are not just teachers, but also leading experts in a specific area of knowledge! Learn about their research, absorb knowledge outside of the “Intro to Macroeconomics” or “Orgo” lecture.
One big regret for me was not going abroad for a semester. Find a program in a part of the world that will make you uncomfortable. I ended up spending 2 months in China during my M.B.A. and it was transformational.
Learn from your classmates; they are all at Duke for a reason beyond just grades. Dig a little deeper, you will be amazed by what many of them have already accomplished at a young age. Challenge your frame of mind, debate with a professor, walk out of Duke with a new skill (or two).
Finally, be humble: Being admitted to Duke does not allow one to be entitled, and neither does its degree. We are a community that needs to accept, learn and grow from one another, both while on campus as a student and in the many years ahead as an alum.