Alumni newsmakers

June 6, 2017

When you meet WILL A. SMITH M.B.A. ’86, you should expect a greeting both energetic and upbeat.

“My personality is to see the glass half full,” he says. “I think: I can fill that with more. I can fill it with something tasty and refreshing.”

It’s the right attitude for Smith’s latest role: In January, he was named chief marketing officer for Abercrombie & Fitch, the apparel and accessories retailer, and its Hollister and abercrombie kids brands. It’s a challenging assignment in a difficult time. Online shopping has created so-called “zombie malls” nationally, shells abandoned by shuttered retailers including Macy’s and JC Penney. Abercrombie itself has closed more than 150 of its stores and has struggled with rebranding for the twenty-something consumer.

Still, Smith says, he sees nothing but opportunity in the 125-year-old brand. He will break some things, he will build some things, and he will shine some things. “I get exhausted,” he says, thinking about what he could do.

That confidence is earned. Smith started his college career at Cornell, believing he’d be an obstetrician. After exploring the sciences, he fell hard for psychology. Then, he got a job working part time at Montgomery Ward, selling televisions and stereos on commission. He found that he really liked his interaction with customers. By junior year, psychology was his major. By senior year, he knew he was going to business school.

Besides a full fellowship, the Fuqua School offered its acclaimed emphasis on team building. “It was about carrying your own weight and having a leadership voice within a team,” he says. “At Fuqua, everyone is smart. The power in the experience was working with others.”

Smith says those skills he honed at Fuqua dovetail nicely with his mission at Abercrombie. (In fact, in the last four years, Abercrombie has hired four to six Duke graduates each year.) It won’t be easy, but perhaps the fact that Smith shares his name with a certain beloved movie star known for saving the world more than once bodes well. Yes, Smith gets the comments “more often than you can imagine.” But he doesn’t mind.

“He’s a pretty upstanding actor and musician. He’s done a lot of good,” he says. “I’ve gotten a few room upgrades and a better table because of it.”

And with the jokey swagger of a man in black, he adds, “I like to think that he shares the name with me.” —Adrienne Johnson Martin

Following the Orlando gay nightclub shooting last summer, MARIA SWEARINGEN M.Div. ’10 was on edge. She had helped to lead two community vigils in her city of Greenville, South Carolina, mourning the loss of forty-nine people (not counting the shooter) and the wounding of fifty-three more, and had provided support for members of the LGBTQ community who questioned their safety.

Swearingen says she was afraid for her own safety, too. As a lesbian pastor who also has a regular public presence speaking out for those who are marginalized, she felt she could just as easily become a target.

As she arrived at the home she shared with her wife—also a pastor, Sally Sarratt—later that day, she spotted a curious brown bag on the front porch and felt an “eruption of this visceral fear,” she says.

But when Swearingen reached into the bag, she found a glazed chalice and paten set for communion services, crafted by a fellow church member—a belated gift in honor of both Swearingen’s and Sarratt’s ordinations just a few months earlier.

What began as a fearful homecoming became a “profound symbol of the way in which we find our fear truly transformed” in the church, she says. It was a reminder that LGBTQ and other marginalized people are loved “in the face of counter-narratives about our belovedness.”

That lesson stayed with Swearingen and eventually made its way into a special sermon she and Sarratt co-preached this past January—this time at historic Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where they were being considered as the newest co-pastors at the church, which has an active social-justice mission. After the couple preached about love overcoming fear, the Calvary congregation voted unanimously in favor of them.

It was an event Swearingen says felt like it belonged in a “dream journal.” Growing up as the daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor in Woodville, Texas, she didn’t envision the possibilities of pastoring herself because her denomination did not ordain women. Add the possibility of co-pastoring with her wife as a same-sex couple, and it just didn’t feel realistic, Swearingen says.

Yet she knew she wanted to work in the church. During her undergraduate years at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, she studied psychology and religion—interning at a church led by a woman who turned out to be one of the state’s only two senior female pastors at the time. After graduating from Duke’s divinity school, she became the campus chaplain at Furman University in Greenville.

In the years following Duke, Swearingen came out, but it was difficult to reconcile to detractors her identity and her faith. Swearingen met Sarratt at a church in Greenville. They fell in love and got married. They wanted to pursue a life together in ministry. But Swearingen often feared they might have to choose—their faith or their love.

“There’s this long, sometimes complicated journey by which we find our fears being reimagined and reshaped into the very work we are called to do,” she says.

In the pursuit of that work, there still is difficulty and fear. Swearingen’s homecoming at Calvary wasn’t without struggle: There are those outside of the Calvary community who don’t believe she should be in the pulpit, some even coming into the church to protest. In a recent podcast, Albert Mohler, the president of conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, called on the District of Columbia Baptist Convention to expel Calvary for appointing the couple.

In some sense, it’s difficult to prepare for what is ahead. But the questions Swearingen and the church pose together are a start, she says.

“What is compelling about ministry is that you never know what to even be ready for,” she says, “and that is holy.” —Christina Holder

With a lockable neoprene pouch, Yondr founder GRAHAM DUGONI ’09 has changed the way audiences enjoy performances by entertainers like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Guns N’ Roses, and Alicia Keys. Smartphones (and sometimes Apple watches) slip into the pouches, creating a tech-free experience at events, thus forcing viewers to watch the show and record it…in their minds.

It’s a remarkably analog feat in a digital world. Dugoni thinks face-to-face interaction is vital, and he believes he’s not alone in that view. Yondr, he says, is part of a burgeoning social movement. “Things are out of balance. As the digital world progresses, we’re facing unprecedented issues, and we don’t know how to balance them. One piece of that puzzle is device-free spaces.”

The Portland, Oregon native played soccer at Duke, and he says he began developing his views while playing the game in Norway. Unable to speak the language, he did a lot of reading and thinking. When Dugoni returned to the States, he grew increasingly annoyed with the way people were glued to their phones. In 2013, after he saw festivalgoers in San Francisco record video of a drunk guy dancing and then post the video on YouTube without the man’s knowledge, he thought about privacy concerns. He began developing Yondr, which distributes pouches and wireless technology to venues. People can keep their phones, then, but the phones are locked into the pouches in the performance area—meaning that venues (and performers) can regain control of the performance. The company turned a profit six months after its first paid show.

Dugoni is particularly passionate about schools using his pouch, and so far, Yondr has worked with roughly 300. It’s not just about the distraction of social media and Pokemon. In the effects of the online world, he sees something larger at work. “It’s about the original concept of education,” he says. “Children used to learn how to learn. Now it’s about the call and response of retrieval.”

While he acknowledges that screens can have “incredible utility,” he says the idea that a classroom itself is a learning environment is being lost when the allure of phones stops students from talking and interacting with one another.

“It’s what we need as humans,” Dugoni says. “It’s what our brains need.”—Adrienne Johnson Martin

Other newsmakers

Sarah Tishler J.D. ’15, LL.M. ’15 and Yoni Grossman-Boder J.D. ’15 were featured in The New York Times for their immigration-aid efforts at JFK airport.

Four-time All-American Elizabeth Williams ’15 is the third player in Duke women’s basketball history to have a jersey retired in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

An eleven-piece series of charcoal paintings by Brian Washington ’02 was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and placed in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian-affiliated National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Ohio.

Marnie Oursler M.B.A. ’13, a contractor and a fifth-generation builder, stars in Big Beach Builds on the DIY Network. The show chronicles her renovations in the coastal communities near Bethany Beach, Delaware.

A group of Duke alumni led by Carlos Rodriguez M.B.A. ’85, Carlos Rodriguez Jr. ’09, and Dev Motwani ’02 have purchased the Hilton Durham hotel and are planning a $5 million renovation.

Jasmine Chigbu ’15 launched the Minorities to Majorities app to put educational opportunities—such as scholarships—into the hands of students from underrepresented groups.

Kari Severson M.B.A. ’13, founder of “treadmill desk” company Walkway, set up free desks in Minneapolis airports, hospitals, and coworking spaces.

Kristi Jacobson ’93 directed a new HBO documentary, Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison, which provides unparalleled access to the world of super-maximumsecurity prisons.

Laura Tierney ’09, president and founder of The Social Institute, helps coach teens to become savvy on social media.

Brent Bishop ’88, who has reached the summit of Mount Everest three times, is featured in Capturing Everest, the first docuseries of a complete climb of Mount Everest presented in virtual reality. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is available on Time Inc.’s new LIFE VR platform and the Sports Illustrated website.

Derek Rhodes ’15 wrote Jimmy for the City, a children’s book that aims to inspire young readers to pursue careers in public service.

Johnathan Miller ’75, former Peace Corps director in Botswana, has founded Airborne Lifeline Foundation to provide critical flight services for medical personnel trying to get to underserved populations across Botswana.

Veteran skateboarder Bill Robertson ’85—known as “Dr. Skateboard”—creates unconventional, innovative lessons to get students excited about learning math and science in his role as a community leader and associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.