Computer science major Daniel Willson has spent his four years at the University of Virginia creating new platforms for creative thinkers to share their ideas. For him, Charlottesville is more than a home; it’s an essential network of innovation that he’ll always be a part of.
Willson is the founder of the rapidly growing student publication, the Pioneer, and plays a major part in Charlottesville’s burgeoning tech scene as the innovation coordinator for the Tom Tom Founder’s Festival. He’s used both roles to forge bonds among like-minded thinkers and shine a light on cutting-edge ideas.
UVA Today sat down with him to find out how he plans to continue building on the network he’s helped establish as a student.
Q. You say in the UVA video that you’re a “Wahoo for life.” What does that mean to you?
A. My time at UVA has been really important to me. I’ve built many friendships here that I know will last for a very long time. Charlottesville and UVA mean a lot to me, and that’s not something that I’m going to let go of when I graduate. I’m excited to see what I can give back as an alumnus.
There have been a lot of alumni who have mentored me during my time here – maybe two dozen in Charlottesville and elsewhere – and they’ve given me so much advice on everything from classes all the way up to internship opportunities. I hope I can do the same someday, either by mentoring current students or maybe even hiring them.
Q. After growing up close to Washington, D.C. you weren’t sure if a small town like Charlottesville was for you. What changed your mind?
A. I didn’t expect to like Charlottesville as much as I’ve come to love it. At first I was hesitant and worried about moving to a small town. I thought I’d feel trapped and not have anything to do, but I was absolutely wrong about that. There have been more opportunities and things for me to do here than anywhere else I’ve ever been.
Q. You had a lucky run-in right before attending UVA that’s really stayed with you. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
A. When I was out for my high school graduation dinner, a waitress saw that one of my family members had given me a UVA balloon and told me that she was a third-year there. Then she said, “I have one piece of advice for you. There are going to be a lot of opportunities at UVA to do a lot of different things like concerts, talks and other events. Take advantage of as many of them as possible. Rather than sleeping in or watching Netflix, go out and do them all because the UVA experience is always going to be worth it.”
That advice has really stuck with me. I’ve never been able to find out who she was, but I’ve wanted to say “thank you” to her for a long time.
Q. As part of that advice, you’ve made a point of branching out into classes outside your computer science major. Have you had any unexpected favorites?
A. Yes. One of my favorite classes was “Business, Ethics, and Society” with Guy Aiken. It’s one of the few liberal arts classes that I’ve taken, but I was excited to go to it every single day. It was amazing to see how the worlds of religion and business and ethics intersect each other.
Q. You’ve also had a hand in some pretty big initiatives around Charlottesville. Is there one you’re most proud of?
A. Probably one of my favorite things is starting the Pioneer, formerly HackCville Media. I started that as a second-year as a way to highlight the amazing people and projects that I saw in Charlottesville and at UVA. I never thought that it would grow so quickly. We’ve trained 40 people in media production, released over 100 articles, and had over 18,000 page views, which is pretty amazing for what started as a small student publication.
Q. What’s the most difficult task you’ve ever tackled as a student?
A. What immediately comes to mind is what I’ve done with the Tom Tom Founders Festival. When I was hired to work for it my second year, I was employee No. 2 and I realized quickly that it would be up to me to invent what this whole week of events and talks and workshops would look like.
I was 19 and had never had a job like that or planned anything of that scale. It was incredibly challenging and there were many times when I felt like it wouldn’t pan out, but eventually it did. Now we have 20,000 attendees each year and about 20 people who work for us.
Then last year we made the big jump to book the Paramount Theater and we needed to fill 1,100 seats somehow, when the most we had to fill before that was 200 or 300. We were able to pull it off, but that was certainly one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced during my time at UVA.
Q. Any idea where you’ll be headed after graduation?
A. I’m not sure yet. I may stay in the tech start-up scene here or I might head up to New York and use our alumni network to try and get into a tech start-up there.
Q. What are you most looking forward to about your last semester?
A. I’m looking forward to enjoying Charlottesville in the spring one last time. We’re also coming up on the fifth annual Tom Tom Founders Festival and I’m looking forward to that and seeing it grow even more.