Gotwalt’s transformational experiences helped launch startup successes

by Caroline Briselli, Schreyer Honors College Scholar
September 22, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – During his time at the Schreyer Honors College, Aaron Gotwalt believes he held, and still holds, the distinction of receiving the most Schreyer travel grants. Those grants, which funded study abroad and internship experiences, provided Gotwalt access to various adventures, helping him gain a broader perspective. 

Gotwalt arrived at Penn State as an Information and Sciences Technology major, but he soon found that the bachelor’s of philosophy program allowed him the flexibility he was looking for in a major. Gotwalt, who was paying his way through college by working for a robotics engineering corporation based out of York, made it his goal to use the University to learn things he couldn’t teach himself.

A 2004 graduate, Gotwalt completed his thesis on the future of nation-states in the digital world and went on to co-found Orphid, now Projector, and Co-Tweet and Seesaw, companies which, in different ways, facilitate social interaction through mobile platforms. Gotwalt serves as the chief technology officer for Projector after overhauling the Web experience of Byliner Inc. last year.

“You can look at a large university as … a degree factory — you go in, you get what you signed up for, you walk away — which is perfectly acceptable for a lot of people,” Gotwalt said. But, Gotwalt added, “there are also incredible opportunities for students who choose to take advantage of the University’s resources and carve their own unique academic path.”

The lessons learned in the classroom as well as through his entrepreneurial endeavors helped Gotwalt forge his path and his future. His repeated success in launching companies and building software experiences earned him another distinction from Penn State this past spring. Gotwalt was named a recipient of a 2015 Alumni Achievement Award, an honor presented annually to 10 Penn State graduates who are selected for demonstrating extraordinary professional accomplishments.

Gotwalt’s trip back to State College included an itinerary packed with opportunities to meet with current Schreyer Scholars and members of the Presidential Leadership Academy, as well as student leaders in Innoblue and New Leaf. Sharing stories of his own journey and successes, his visits also provided him a chance to look back on his own transformational experiences.

In his freshman year, Gotwalt took a course with Cheryl Achterberg, former dean of the Schreyer Honors College, which he describes as “very eye-opening [and] mind-opening.” Through the course, Gotwalt met the senior director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a public policy research center in Washington, D.C., and, as a result of this exposure, began an internship at CSIS in the spring of his freshman year.

This would prove to be just the beginning of Gotwalt’s travels. In 2003, he attended the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, and, in addition to attending the event, traveled with the South African Communist Party to tour environmental injustice sites. He later attended the U.N. Forum on the Information Society. As a senior, he spent more than two weeks in Bangladesh, where he had the opportunity to meet the former Bangladeshi president, while taking an applied course on transparency in government and global economics.

“I think about where I came from, and I think about those experiences, and those experiences were truly mind-altering,” Gotwalt said, commenting that the places he traveled were not only physically far away, but conceptually distant. Without these experiences, Gotwalt believes his perspective would be much smaller.

When he returned to campus to receive the Alumni Achievement Award earlier this year, Gotwalt said he saw many positive changes, particularly in relation to the University’s support for young entrepreneurs.

“I jumped straight into entrepreneurship. I built my first company while I was here as a sophomore, and, at the time, there was very little entrepreneurial support that I was aware of,” Gotwalt said. “Coming back, it’s really exciting to see just how many programs [and] how many people are involved and invested."

He said he has observed many campus organizations working to build this network of support for students.

“It is particularly important for young entrepreneurs to learn the value of working with others, both peers working on similar challenges, and more experienced entrepreneurs,” Gotwalt said. 

Gotwalt is excited, too, by the progress that the College of Information Sciences and Technology has made since he was a student.

“I left IST at a point when it was still in its formative phases, [and] coming back and talking to IST students and people in the department, it’s clear that it has a stronger place in the University system,” Gotwalt said.  

Gotwalt said he cites his time at Penn State, and specifically at the Schreyer Honors College, as a major influence on his career.

“My time at Penn State taught me how to think and how to question things, how to explore uncharted stuff, how to not just accept the answers for what’s given, probably much to the chagrin of some of my professors,” Gotwalt said. “That critical thinking has really been instrumental to my career.”

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    Each Alumni Achievement Award honoree is nominated by an academic college or campus and invited by the president of the University to return to campus to share their expertise with students and the Penn State community. Alumni Achievement Award recipients demonstrate to students that Penn State alumni succeed in exceptional fashion at an early age.

    IMAGE: Penn State Alumni Association
Last Updated September 30, 2015