Ben Shellhorn admits to having some trepidation in choosing to pursue his professional education at Duke.
Shellhorn, a longtime volunteer organizer for the New York Pride Parade, arrived on campus in the summer of 2012, shortly after gay-rights supporters failed to stop a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in North Carolina. More than one friend suggested he was “crazy” to be going south for law school, he says. But it did not take long for him to feel welcome in Durham.
“I came in a bit apprehensive about the environment, but found the Triangle to be open and progressive,” Shellhorn says. He quickly built connections both at Duke Law and elsewhere on campus. “I was plugged in with Duke Out, which is the umbrella for the LGBT groups on campus, and made friends with PhDs, MDs, and [undergraduates], and that was a good way for me to find a community.”
It’s also one of many areas in which he has taken a leadership role. Shellhorn has been an active OUTLaw member since day one, serving as president of the Law School’s LGBT affinity group during his second year. He also served as the Duke Bar Association’s representative to the Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) as a 1L, as GPSC’s student life coordinator during his second year, and as its president during his third year at Duke.
He estimates that he invested about 20 hours per week in leading GPSC, in addition to carrying a full course load at the Law School and the Fuqua School of Business, working as a teaching assistant, and serving as content editor for the Duke Law & Technology Review. But taking on a series of leadership positions on campus — he is now a young trustee of Duke University — has given Shellhorn the opportunity to work to strengthen a sense of community for all graduate and professional students.
“It was extremely rewarding,” he says of his work with GPSC. Asked about key achievements, he quickly lists three: a consistent increase in attendance and participation at meetings; achieving parity in representation on the university’s Board of Trustees with the undergraduate student body; and a lifesaving initiative — for birds.
“It may not seem important, but a lot of birds fly into the transparent glass on new buildings on campus and die,” he says. After a project led by environmental PhD students showed that birds on campus were dying in unusually high numbers, GPSC successfully pressed the Board of Trustees to take action. In late summer, the university applied patterned film on the windows of the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences (CIEMAS), a four-building complex where the majority of bird deaths occur.
In fact, Shellhorn is particularly satisfied to have helped boost the influence of graduate and professional students, who make up about 56 percent of Duke’s student body, on the Board of Trustees. While undergraduates have traditionally been represented on the board by three young trustees serving three-year terms and grad students elected two trustees for two-year terms, Shellhorn helped negotiate a new arrangement.
“We decided we would alternate the cycle: In the coming year the graduate students will elect a trustee to a three-year term and the undergraduates will elect a trustee to a two-year term,” he explains. “Every other year it will alternate between who has three and who has two, but eventually we’ll have parity. That was really important to me and it took a lot of work with [University Secretary] Richard Riddell, with the undergraduates, and with the board itself to work out a compromise.”
Last spring, GPSC members elected Shellhorn to serve as a young trustee for a two-year term. He recently attended his first meeting of the Board of Trustees in an observer’s capacity and will become a voting member of the board in his second year.
Building a sense of community among Duke’s LGBT students has been important to Shellhorn, who has overseen volunteer coordination — and been named volunteer of the year — for New York’s Pride Parade. In addition to revamping OUTLaw’s website and building strong connections with affinity groups elsewhere on campus, Shellhorn has worked with the Office of Admissions to attract top LGBT candidates to the Law School.
“Potential applicants can send us their personal statements and we will give them feedback,” he says. “Who knows if they will use the personal statement to come to Duke or go elsewhere, but we think it’s a nice gesture that is emblematic of a congenial and friendly community here.” OUTLaw members also reach out to admitted students with calls and emails to encourage them to matriculate at Duke Law.
Having studied theatre at Colorado College, Shellhorn found himself intrigued by management theory while pursuing a graduate degree in media studies at New School University. He subsequently managed operations for four New York City restaurants for several years, and paid close attention when his hospitality firm was acquired by a private-equity firm.
“I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up,’” he says, laughing. And he says he’s found exactly the hybrid professional training he was after in Duke’s dual JD/MBA program, from which he’ll graduate in December.
“I’ve really loved it,” he says. “I’ve been able to take classes that make sense for me, so I’ve taken classes at the Law School that will be applicable if I decide to go into business long term, and I’ve taken classes at Fuqua that I think will help if I go to a law firm long term.”
After spending his 1L summer working in the Fair Housing Project at Legal Aid of North Carolina, Shellhorn spent the following summer working as a consultant for Bain & Company in New York, managing a turnaround strategy for an international client. Over the past summer, as an associate in the private equity and hedge fund groups at Ropes & Gray in New York, he worked closely with a partner on a $3 million venture capital deal. “I was doing all the due diligence and the markups of the target company,” he says. “It was an amazing experience.”
It helped, he says, that he is comfortable addressing the financial implications of legal transactions and understands the business side. “When the business people send you a document like a capitalization table or a ‘waterfall’ chart, you definitely need to be able to understand it,” he says. Taking courses like Structuring Venture Capital and Private Equity Transactions, taught by Kip Johnson ’94, and gaining practical experience in the Start-Up Ventures Clinic have been extremely valuable, he adds.
Now an advanced student in the Start-Up Ventures Clinic, Shellhorn is working on a policy document relating to best practices in university technology transfer and developing documents to help student and faculty researchers in related negotiations and transactions. During his initial semester in the clinic he worked on structuring and launching the Duke Angel Network, through which investors connected to the Duke University community can invest in early stage start-ups with Duke roots.
“Ben has been a trusted and dependable colleague in the Start-Up Ventures Clinic,” says Associate Clinical Professor Jeff Ward ’09 who, as clinic director, supervises Shellhorn on his projects. “I’ve been able to lean on him for sophisticated work because he is a big-picture thinker and a great communicator. He’s also a source of frequent comedic relief, which makes working with him really fun.”
Shellhorn says his engagement at Duke, in the clinic, in classes, and through his leadership service, has been motivated by a desire to build community and to give back, “and then take it to the next level.” He also admits that he simply likes to stay busy.
“If my schedule isn’t packed from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., I’m bored out of my mind.”
— by Frances Presma