SUNY Potsdam Alumnus Brian DeWitt ’79 just made his first trip back to Potsdam since graduating 38 years ago. Since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he has traveled all over the world as part of a highly technical and successful career working in Silicon Valley.
From humble beginnings growing up in Goshen, NY, he made the decision to attend SUNY Potsdam in 1975 after concluding that SUNY Albany was too big and St. Lawrence University just didn’t seem like the right fit. “I come from a lower income, single parent background and I think maybe I was a little intimidated by St. Lawrence University. When I came to SUNY Potsdam, it seemed like there were more people that I could relate to. So, I decided to come here, which was a good decision,” he said.
He received financial support through SUNY Potsdam’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). He said he wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for the Educational Opportunity Program. “I was very motivated to take advantage of the opportunity I had here and I’m forever indebted to SUNY Potsdam. My grandmother was very influential in my life and she saw something in me. My uncle, a Columbia University graduate, along with my grandmother, encouraged me to go college.”
“There was always a financial struggle to make sure I had enough money to survive. I did end up getting a work study job in biology department…I came from a working-class family. I just wanted to get out of my small town and make my own way in the world,” DeWitt said.
Being a black student at SUNY Potsdam in the 70s came with its challenges. There were occasional incidents that could be tied to someone’s racial background, be it a fellow student using a racial slur in casual conversation or a near physical altercation off campus. “My position at the time was, unless it was a physical threat, I would ignore it – I didn’t want to get sidetracked.”
He said that growing up in Goshen gave him the tools to successfully interact with people from diverse backgrounds. “I knew how to deal with different kinds of people. Little things didn’t really bother me. I knew if I spent time worrying about these little things, it would impact my whole mindset and my ability to study and do well.”
“I can understand the struggles that people go through, especially some young minority kids who come up to a place like Potsdam…Keep focused on what it is you’re trying to do. I know some comments are hurtful, but if you let someone drive you away, then they’ve won,” DeWitt said.
When DeWitt graduated from SUNY Potsdam, he moved to Houston, Texas and got a job working for Texas Instruments at a time when the semiconductor industry was really taking off. It was his chemistry and advanced biology classes that really helped him land a job as a process engineer where he did engineering work and quality control. The industry was relatively new and needed people with a science background and the ability to think critically. After a couple of years in Texas he moved to Silicon Valley to work for National Semiconductor, a major chip manufacturer in Santa Clara, Calif. After leaving National his career moved from process engineering, to applications, technical marketing, and finally in major account management. By the mid-90s he began a 13-year stint at Nikon, a company known for cameras and imaging but also a major player in the semiconductor equipment space, where he rose to senior director of strategic accounts, managing Intel, the world’s largest chip manufacturer and Nikon's largest customer.
“Intel would buy millions of dollars of equipment from us (Nikon Precision Inc.) every year that was used for manufacturing integrated circuits. They had offices worldwide and I had the opportunity to go visit all of their factories,” he said. During his tenure at Nikon, he traveled to Japan 50-60 times and visited Intel facilities located in Israel and Ireland on multiple occasions.
“In addition to visiting all the Intel factories worldwide, during my career in the tech industry I’ve travelled to China, Korea, and I even lived in Dublin, Ireland for a 9-month period. Seeing different cultures really opens your eyes and expands your thinking,” he said.
He left Nikon in 2006 and three years later, he founded a new startup company, Xeralux, (now named Sensity Systems Inc.) with some colleagues. The company’s product added silicon chips to LED modules to network the LED lights to control them remotely. “The combination of the LED lighting technology, with this network technology, led to a revolution known as the Internet of Things (IoT),” he said.
At the end of 2016, his company was acquired by Verizon as part of their smart city strategy. “I had already left the company at the time, but being an original investor and shareholder, it was a good thing for us,” said DeWitt. He recently started working as the director of business development at Swim.it, a company focused on real-time IoT analytics.
Almost 30 years removed from his undergraduate foundation at SUNY Potsdam, DeWitt is in the perfect spot to offer advice to current students. “I would encourage anyone to think about what you’re here for. You might be the first one in your family to go to college. Hunker down and find yourself a safe group of friends who are trying to do the same thing and have the same objectives…Once you’ve done it and you accomplish something and you have a degree, you’ll be set, you’ll be so thrilled. Companies want skilled, educated workers from all walks of life. It doesn’t mean that everything is going to be easy from there, but at least you have a foundation.”
He encourages students not to be afraid to try something new and to continue to grow. “If there’s something you want to do…don’t let people talk you out of it. Don’t let negative people get you down. Stay away from the negative people.”
The main thing for students is to persevere and set high expectations for themselves. It doesn’t matter where you come from, but where you are going. He said, “Look in the mirror and say, ‘hey, why not me, why can’t it be me?’”