IST alumnus Steve Garguilo takes Penn State on Mongol Rally for a good cause

Mae Sevick
January 28, 2015

“I had a ‘Penn State Lives Here’ sticker on the car every step of the way,” said alumnus Steve Garguilo, of his adventure participating in the Mongol Rally, a charitable car rally beginning in England, passing through Mongolia, and ending in the city of Ulan Ude, Russia.

Taking on a monumental challenge for a good cause is nothing new to Garguilo, a 2009 graduate of the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State, who helped to found TEDxPSU, an independently organized TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) event, and the founding curator of TEDxJNJ, Johnson & Johnson’s internal TEDx program.

“TEDx organizers are some of the most well-connected, passionate people on the planet, and to be part of that network is the experience of a lifetime," Garguilo said. "For me, the exciting part is that that passion began at Penn State in discovering and amplifying ideas like those of Ali Carr-Chellman and Sam Richards.”

“TEDx is a global community of people passionate about bringing together their individual communities to have critical conversations about ideas,” said Garguilo. “Nate Mook (Curator, TEDxMidAtlantic) and I wanted to do this rally as an opportunity to meet fellow TEDx organizers in all the countries between the UK and Mongolia.”

The rules of the Mongol Rally are simple:

First, per the official guidelines, “You can take any car, as long as it’s crap and with an engine of 1 litre or less.” Garguilo and Mook took a 750CC Fiat Panda, circa 1992. “You can get a sense of how old it was by knowing that the windshield said ‘Made in Czechoslovakia’ on it,” said Garguilo. “A car with this small of an engine was a challenge for much of the journey, especially as we got into places with incredible mountains and places with no roads.”           

Second, “You are on your own.” There is no backup and no support for participants of the Mongol Rally. Solve your problems yourself, declare the guidelines, or it’s not really an adventure to begin with.

Last, “Save the world.” The purpose of the Mongol Rally is to raise a minimum of £1000 (about $1,500) for charity, £500 of which goes to the official charity of The Adventurists, “Cool Earth.” Participants have the option of donating the other £500 to a charity of their choice. Garguilo and Mook chose The Africa Prisons Project, which  works with prison administrators, prison staff and prisoners themselves in Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, to isolate and respond to their needs, thus transforming the lives of prisoners, and how they are viewed and treated by society at large.

“When we decided to do the Rally, we wanted to pick a charity that we could significantly impact with relatively small donations,” said Garguilo. “It didn't take long for us to focus on The Africa Prisons Project, a great initiative led by TED Fellow Alexander McLean.”

“Alexander has been helping to teach incarcerated populations in sub-Saharan Africa to better defend themselves and live better lives as law-abiding citizens,” said Garguilo. “Much to his surprise, many of the individuals he's helped have gone on to become lawyers and are now helping even more people. There's an incredible grassroots growth that's come along with his work. With small amounts of money for things like books and projectors, many people can be positively impacted through APP.”

When Garguilo reminisces about his Mongol Rally adventure, several memories stand out, including seeing the remnants of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. “Sadly this body of water has dried up over the last few decades,” said Garguilo, “and now in what used to be a thriving port town, there are just rusted out old ships sitting in sand.

Garguilo first learned about the Aral Sea at Penn State in his GEOSC 101 course, he says, and in sustainability coursework taken through the Engineering Leadership Development Program and Humanitarian Engineering & Social Entrepreneurship. In addition, “In my IST 440W capstone course with Shawn Clark [senior lecturer in the College of IST] we looked at big challenges such as sustainability with the [former] Institute of Global Prescience,” Garguilo recalled.

Garguilo said he believes that an important aspect of the Mongol Rally is that “…it shows that even people who have ‘traditional corporate jobs’ can go on meaningful experiences and adventures. Setting aside the time for a multi-week vacation is an investment in yourself that I think everyone needs to make.”

“Life is all about learning,” said Garguilo, “and so these five weeks were an incredible learning experience.” He was deeply moved by the beautiful countryside in Mongolia, the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and the “incredible resolve” of the people of Ukraine, in the face of ongoing turmoil. “I was in Kiev in 2013 and snapped some shots in the same places that I took last year,” said Garguilo. “You can see that the effects of the conflict are still very much in the air.”

“Thanks to the help of our outstanding sponsors, including the College of IST and IST Start-up Week, we completed the Mongol Rally,” he said.

The fifth annual TEDxPSU, themed “Push to Start,” will be held March 1 in Schwab Auditorium on the University Park campus of Penn State. For more information on the event — which will feature 16 speakers, including Penn State football coach James Franklin, Penn State biologist David Hughes and ESPN analyst Jemele Hill — and to reserve tickets, visit

Last Updated January 30, 2015