UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.”
This quote by Aristotle is what drives David Costlow, Penn State class of 2003, in his career. He has found a way to blend his background as an athlete, the tech skills he learned in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), and his passion for helping others — and is earning a living doing it.
Costlow serves as vice president of marketing and product for Pledge It, a performance-based sports fundraising platform that empowers teams and athletes across the country to raise money for causes of their choice. Youth sports organizations, college teams, professional athletes and everyday individuals have used the platform to raise more than $15 million for charitable causes. Funds have been raised through activities such as scoring touchdowns for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, hiking to benefit Venezuelan refugees, and losing weight to help recovering addicts heal.
“It’s incredible to work with people who are facing adversity in their lives, or have something they’re passionate about, and be crafting a technology platform that allows people to make a meaningful impact — which is typically raising money for a cause or for a family member or friend,” said Costlow. “It’s a really humbling experience to be a part of that.”
While Costlow has been involved with thousands of campaigns at Pledge It, he has a few stories that stand out as making the biggest impacts on him.
One is when professional football player Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles donated his entire year’s salary to support youth education.
“Chris said he was going to make a pledge for every game because he wanted to make a difference,” said Costlow. “He pledged his salary of $1 million and worked with Pledge It to turn that $1 million into $3 million.”
But, Costlow said, some of his favorite stories come from everyday people who don’t already have a public platform, such as a 13-year-old boy who ran every day for three months in honor of his friend’s family, who had received a devastating cancer diagnosis. That campaign has raised more than $25,000 for cancer research.
Or the Marine Corps major who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and worked to raise money for first responders and fellow veterans who struggle with PTSD. So on Sept. 11, at 9:11 a.m., he got on a treadmill and ran for nine hours and 11 minutes — pledging to raise money for each mile that he ran. His effort brought in more than $10,000.
“They are individuals who were motivated and had a passion, and paired that passion with technology, and made such an incredible impact,” said Costlow. “Those are the types of individuals that Pledge It is fortunate enough to empower every day.”
Uplifting athletes to give back for good causes
Costlow’s current role isn’t his first experience with fundraising for a good cause. As a Penn State student, Costlow and fellow Nittany Lions football teammate Scott Shirley co-founded Uplifting Athletes — which is perhaps best known for its annual fundraising event, Lift for Life.
During their tenure as Penn State football players, Shirley’s father got a devastating diagnosis — stage four kidney cancer. With a rare and hard-to-treat disease, he was told he had six months to live.
So Costlow, Shirley and another teammate got an idea: use the spotlight of Penn State football and shine it on an unknown cause that needed some attention. They turned their annual lifting challenge into a fundraiser.
“We thought we’d raise a couple hundred bucks,” recalled Costlow. “But we raised $10,000 in the first year.”
He added, “That was my first experience with the power of sport.”
Costlow said that launching Lift for Life is one of his proudest experiences as a Penn State student. And, he said, not only did he and his teammates make a philanthropic impact, they also gained critical personal and professional development skills in the process.
“It was really my first entrepreneurship endeavor,” he said. “We had no idea what we were doing, but we were passionate about what we were trying to accomplish. And that passion drove us.”
Thanks to strong community interest and media coverage, Lift for Life was held again the following year. From there, the event grew. It was opened to the public, and more money was raised. The idea went on to become an organization known as Uplifting Athletes — which was franchised around the country. Currently, 22 colleges and universities are running Uplifting Athlete programs for championing rare diseases.
Then, more than a decade later when Shirley wanted to continue the idea with Pledge It, he knew he wanted Costlow to be involved. And Costlow jumped at the opportunity.
“It was a chance to work on a problem that I was passionate about and to begin my own entrepreneurship journey,” said Costlow.
Honing tech and entrepreneurial skills at IST
Entrepreneurship is something that Costlow built the foundation for in the then-School of IST. His instructors encouraged students to take risks, and to learn things on their own.
“The professors instilled the belief in us as students that it’s OK to not have all the answers, but it’s the willingness to try, experience failure, and learn from those failures that’s important,” he said. “That’s been foundational in how I’ve approached my career.”
He started his college career majoring in engineering, then learned about the brand new School of Information Sciences and Technology.
“Everything touches technology, and so it was an opportunity to become a part of this huge world that was emerging,” he said. “I still got to use math and science, and it seemed like a good fit.”
He quickly learned that he would gain much more than technical skills as an IST student.
“Tech in itself is very interesting, but if you can’t translate the impact of the technology succinctly to someone who is not familiar with it, the technology will just sit on the shelf,” he said. “The ability to empathize with someone to understand their needs and ultimately solve a problem was a skill set that I learned early on.”
Costlow also was impressed with the fact that many of his instructors had long careers in industry and brought real-world problems and projects to the classroom.
“You felt like you were not just learning a theory,” he said. “We weren’t being trained in a bubble. We got to work on fun, real-world challenges.”
He added, “The experience I had as an IST student prepared me to excel when dealing with the unknown. That experience has stayed with me through different stages of my career and remains part of how I approach my daily life.”
'One of the smartest players in college football'
During his time as a student, Costlow worked hard to maintain his grades while making an impact on the football field. It paid off. Not only did he receive Academic All Big Ten honors, he was recognized as one of “The Smartest Players in Football” by Sports Illustrated in 2003.
“It’s a very demanding schedule to be committed to athletics and academics,” he said. “So for someone to recognize that dedication was very rewarding.”
Costlow said that in addition to his coaching on the football field, the late Coach Joe Paterno also passed on some invaluable and influential career and life coaching.
“Joe would always say, ‘You're never as good as they say you are when you win and you're never as bad as they say you are when you lose,’” concluded Costlow. “And I believe that's great advice not only for your career, but life in general. Don't pay too much attention to naysayers and don't get overconfident when people tell you that you, your idea or your company are great. Just work hard every day and keep focused on the goal!”
After earning his master’s degree in business administration and supply chain management form Penn State, Costlow worked for IBM and Minitab before his current role at Pledge It. He lives in State College with his wife, Annie; son, Zach; and daughter, Natalie.