Tommy Giglio is Academy at the Lakes.
He was one of the school’s first “lifers,” the school’s first alumnus commencement speaker, and the school’s first alumnus to become a major donor. He was highly involved as a student, and continues to be highly involved today as he passes the 10-year anniversary of his high school graduation.
DISCOVERING ACADEMY AT THE LAKES
Giglio grew up 45 minutes west of Academy at the Lakes in New Port Richey. He began his young academic life at a small school for preschool through first grade. Upon graduation from the tiny school, his mother, Lynne, had no idea where to send him next. After what felt like a long search, she found Academy at the Lakes. Though it was quite a distance from their New Port Richey home, they decided it would be worth a trip to visit.
Academy at the Lakes had only been open for a year or two at the time. Giglio vaguely remembers visiting the school. “It was bigger than my previous school. The setup was very kid-friendly. It looked like a nice place to go.”
The Giglios were immediately impressed, and Tommy enrolled in 2nd Grade at Academy for the following school year.
Giglio’s mother drove him, and later his brother Jason as well, to and from school every day for close to 15 years. The trip was 45 minutes each way, and, at the time, the only sights along State Road 54 were cow pastures. The sacrifice was worth it to the Giglios.
A SMALL SCHOOL EXPERIENCE
“Being a small school, there are a good number of opportunities, and it’s pretty easy to get your foot in the door for most of them. At a bigger school, I may not have been able to be in the a cappella group, or in plays, or create an entire yearbook on my own.”
Giglio made sure to get his hands in everything during his time at Academy. However, sometimes he didn’t have to. Since it’s a small school, opportunities were often forced upon Giglio and his classmates, but that wasn’t a bad thing. He says it made him get out of his comfort zone by trying new things, which in turn allowed him to discover his interests. “The great thing about Academy was the ability to explore, and test my interests – to test what I was good and bad at.”
The small school environment allowed Giglio to have close relationships with a lot of people. Funny enough, in the end, the closest relationships he had and that he’s kept up with over the years are the ones with teachers, administrators, and other families – more so than with the people in his class. “You have to remember that my grade only had 10 people in it. So, say the average person keeps in touch with 10 percent of their class, well I’ve kept in touch with one guy from the class, so that’s my 10 percent.”
The school’s small size was advantageous. For Giglio, it forced him to learn how to communicate. It allowed him to make friends, but also taught him how to maintain the relationships he was making. In college, student populations are much larger. Giglio could be friends with anyone at Northwestern, and that was easy, but that wouldn’t have meant much if he hadn’t first learned how to maintain relationships at Academy.
“At first, I was concerned with how well prepared I would be for the challenges at a school like Northwestern. At the time, Academy was still a very small school and relatively unproven.”
There were only 26 total graduates across three graduating classes before Giglio’s 2005 class. He wondered if he would succeed, or if he would even be able to compete at one of the best schools in the country.
It was tough for Giglio in the beginning. It was mostly a mental thing. Had this little school in Florida prepared him for the real world?
He quickly realized that his fear was a silly one. “I really had no reason to worry about that. I had learned the same things that everyone else across the country had been learning.”
“The biggest thing Academy taught me is to do things you’re passionate about. I did that in high school, and then I continued to do that at Northwestern. When you do the things you’re passionate about, there’s often a confidence tied to it. You’re confident, or at least secure or comfortable, about the things you’re doing. That’s something I did a lot in high school, and when I got to college and began to fear the academic rigors of a school like mine, I just reverted back to doing what I did at Academy – that is, things I’m passionate about and comfortable doing – and the fear just went away. It didn’t matter if I was the smartest kid in the room – that became irrelevant, because I was doing the things I cared about.”
Today, Giglio lives in Oakland, Calif., and works at a tech company in San Francisco called Optimizely.
When he started at the company as their first designer three years ago, they were much smaller – about 15 total employees. As the only designer, he was doing everything from software design to marketing work to photography. “It’s kind of what it’s like to be a high school student at Academy. I was doing everything for and with everyone.”
In just three years, Optimizely has grown to over 370 employees across six international offices, and has raised more than $88 million in funding. Giglio is now the Design Director of a team in which he manages 22 people. He leads the design efforts for the entire company.
“It’s amazing to be a part of this growth. It’s a lot like what I had at Academy – a small group of people at the beginning building something for the people that will come after, pioneering something new, both in the form of the world of technology, and in a culturally diverse and exciting workplace. It’s been a phenomenal ride for me. I absolutely love working here.”
BLAZING A TRAIL
Giglio continues to blaze trails in his career the same way he did at Academy over a decade ago.
“What Academy taught me, and in turn my brother, is so much about being selfless, and about the fact that we are a part of something much larger than it may appear.”
The reason why Giglio and his brother still, to this day, love Academy is because they’ve learned more about how the things they do today are building for, and impacting, people in the future. “For us, that’s been something really beneficial as we’ve gotten older. Academy taught me how to think about other people, and even ones I may never know.”
“When I went to Academy, I was able to build and pioneer something that future students would later benefit from. The work I was putting in then would hopefully reap benefits and pay dividends over time, especially for my brother and his friends five years after me. That taught me how to be selfless and think about other people. I learned to acknowledge that my place in this world, and especially in this school, is pretty small in the scheme of things, but that I’m very lucky and fortunate to be here for a span of time, to make the most of it, and to make it a better place for everyone after me.”
RETURNING AND GIVING BACK
During an Academy alumni event in December, Giglio met Luca Collini, a member of the Class of 2015. Giglio saw what Luca was doing to try to learn technology, to code, and to learn robotics, and he was impressed.
“It’s something I’m very close to out here in the San Francisco Bay area. I see the need for talented technical minds every single day. I think back to when I was trying to build websites when I was in high school and college, trying to teach myself these things, and how difficult that was. Today, I feel so lucky to be where I am, in a career that a lot of people wish they had, and somehow, some way I ended up here. And so meeting Luca really excited me. Here he is, an exchange student, trying to take advantage of this great opportunity he has. It reminded me of the opportunities I had when I was there, and when you factor in the technology component, I just couldn’t resist [giving back].”
Giglio wanted to make sure that future students in the same boat as Luca are guaranteed to have the same opportunities that he has had, and that Giglio himself had, at Academy. Thus, he was inspired to become the first major alumnus donor in school history.
ACADEMY: A DECADE LATER
Academy’s growth is not surprising to Giglio.
“The school is on to something. There’s a great opportunity, especially in the Florida market, to have a school that is different, intentionally and explicitly different. That model worked well for me, and I’m not at all surprised by the success and growth that the school has had since. It’s indicative of something that is working, and it will continue to trend upwards.”
Giglio was the commencement speaker at the graduation ceremony this year. We spoke with him prior to his speech.
“I am definitely honored. I have absolute horror and angst right now because I have no idea what I’m going to say or how I’m going to say it, but I’m absolutely honored.”
Writing the speech was a challenge for Giglio. “It’s probably been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. When you factor everything you’ve ever done in college and professionally, that’s saying something.”
Giglio wanted to think of something that he would want to hear as an audience member himself. He also wanted to share something that, with the “few years of professional life experience” he’s had, people will find useful.
“I also don’t want to be boring. I don’t want to put people to sleep. I want it to be entertaining and fun. So, it’s been a real challenge, but I’m so honored to do it.”
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