An Independent, Coed Junior Boarding (5-9) and Day School (K-9) in Washington, CT

Alumni Profiles

JAMES ONTRA ’81

James’ passion for programming and experience with small business began in 1993 when he and his friend, David Kopstein, created an interactive design studio in the Kopstein family furniture store. James was named “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” in 1993 by the US Small Business Administration in Houston, Texas. In 2000 he became CEO of Iguana Interactive, a presentation management company that developed software for clients. The same year his sister AlexAnndra joined the team. With 30 years of entrepreneurial expertise and 20 years of selling and developing presentation management software, James runs the vision, strategy and technical development of Shufflrr. He attended the University of Houston, Texas and is a natural-born entrepreneur. He started many small businesses including iXL, Ontra Presentations and PPTshuffle with the goal of managing file formats for better presentations. James and his wife, April Darrow ’85, have two children and live in New York City.

Shufflrr
adds discipline to presentation workflow by creating, distributing, updating, sharing, broadcasting and reporting usage of files and slides. It visualizes and formats all files to present and focuses on making content more accessible and easy to find. In three years, they’ve landed clients such as US Bank, Bloomberg, Labcorp, Time-Warner/Charter Communications, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, ADP and 100 other enterprises.


How have your academic and professional careers unfolded since you left Rumsey?
I have been an entrepreneur my entire life, but maybe not the best student. I can remember selling candy bars, bicycle maintenance supplies (grease, ball bearings, tube patches), hot chocolate and cup-o-soup out of the New Dorm. Today, my clients are still my boss.

What was your inspiration for starting Shufflrr?
We started Shufflrr to make presentations more valuable to any enterprise, because our clients demanded it. Today, presentations are created for one meeting or conference, one-and-done. But, Shufflrr turns them into enterprise assets. Shufflrr’s slide library makes it easier to create, use, re-use, update, share, broadcast, track and analyze presentations for a global organization. Clients have said, “It is like having everyone singing off the same sheet of music.”

How did your experience at Rumsey impact your current career?
Two years of Latin had the biggest impact for me. Without it, I’d have to rely solely on the lawyers to understand the myriad legal documents I need to read and sign to keep my business operating.

Tell us about your future vision for Shufflrr.
Presentation management grows into a necessary discipline for all large organizations. Shufflrr is leading that evolution.

What is the best advice you were given at Rumsey?
Just do your job, take care of yourself and everything else will work out.

What technology did you use while a student at Rumsey?
My bicycle, a water heater for cup-o-soup and a cassette boom box.

What does your day-to-day operation at Shufflrr look like?
Desk, headset, computer. I could be anywhere. But, we are in New York City and love it.

Tell us about having a business partnership with your sibling.
We are lucky that we understand each other’s strengths, as well as shortcomings. When things get tough, knowing that we are on the same side sure helps. However, the childhood needling somehow never fully stops.

What’s your favorite app?
The camera, although Facebook eats too much of my time.


ALEXANNDRA ONTRA ’83

AlexAnndra left her advertising job in 2000 to work at the computer software company, Iguana Interactive, with her brother, James ’81. Together they created Ontra Presentations in 2002 which evolved into Shufflrr by 2014. At Shufflrr she oversees Operations, including client services, sales and marketing. Her advertising experience at international agencies such as DDB and Lowe & Partners/SMS, where she developed marketing campaigns for The New York State Lottery, American Airlines and Zales Corp., were essential to creating her and James’ presentation management companies. AlexAnndra serves as President of the Board for Dances Patrelle and skis, sails and studies ballet. She graduated from the University of Texas, Austin and currently lives in New York City.

How have your academic and professional careers unfolded since you left Rumsey?
After graduating from The University of Texas at Austin, I spent 10 years in advertising on the agency side of the business. I loved it, but I was ready to take on something more challenging in the tech revolution. I applied my advertising skills to creating and producing digital presentations and learned the technical side along the way. And then, I founded a presentation software and services business. One step always leads to another.

What was your inspiration for starting Shufflrr?
There were two inspirations. First, my brother James. I have to give him credit for his drive and passion. Second, our clients. We listen to our clients, they tell us what they want, and more importantly what they will pay for. Our clients wanted to manage presentations for their entire organization so they could control the message and increase productivity. Essentially, they want everyone “singing off the same sheet of music.” Shufflrr’s slide library makes it easier to create, use, re-use, update, share, broadcast, track and analyze presentations for a global organization. Our clients inspired Shufflrr.

How did your experience at Rumsey impact your current career?
The foundation I received at Rumsey—the support from teachers, the emphasis on improving whether it was making the Effort List or playing sports, and the discipline I acquired as a result of that experience, have all helped me thrive. In study hall, we were encouraged to ask questions when we needed help. As an adult, I’m not afraid to ask questions when I don’t know something. And I know that if I keep trying, I will eventually succeed. I learned that at Rumsey.

Tell us about your future vision for Shufflrr.
Presentation Management grows into a necessary discipline for all large organizations. Shufflrr is leading that evolution.

What is the best advice you were given at Rumsey?
Don’t brag. It’s crass and unbecoming.

What technology did you use while a student at Rumsey?
Books! Both hardcover and paperback. It was a long time ago.

What does your day-to-day operation at Shufflrr look like?
A bunch of people sitting at their computers emailing or web conferencing with clients and developers. We’re not very glamorous but we are incredibly efficient.

Tell us about having a business partnership with your sibling.
While it may be all-kumbaya to wax on poetic about having my brother’s back and building wealth for our family, but when it comes right down to it, we are business partners with the sole objective of growing Shufflrr. Every decision we make is based on whether or not it will grow the business. James is the visionary who designs the software and plans the business strategy. I, on the other hand, am more operational. I run sales, marketing and client services.

What’s your favorite app?
Google Maps. It helps me get to where I want to go.

BEAR WITHERSPOON ’94

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2001, Bear has been working as a mechanical engineer and research scientist at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, CA. His most notable project has been NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next flagship mission. It is often referred to as “Hubble 2” and is slated to be launched in the fall of 2018. Bear and his team built the main camera for the mission, and Bear was specifically in charge of the focus mechanism for the camera. NASA intends to use this new telescope to identify planets that are outside of our solar system and look back at the dawn of the universe, among other things. Bear hopes that “Hubble 2” will help rewrite science textbooks after some amazing discoveries. Bear grew up in Litchfield, CT and attended Rumsey for five years, during which he took Mr. Hoeniger’s life science class. Bear has been living in San Francisco since 2001. He and his siblings Chad ’90 and Kate ’97 are third generation Rumsey Alums following father, Thomas Witherspoon ’61 and grandfather, William Goss ’36.


How has your academic and professional career unfolded since you left Rumsey?
After Rumsey I headed off to Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. It was a really challenging time for me. But much like Rumsey, my friends, dormmates and teachers were living inspirations. They made me realize that life is much more interesting when you explore it in as many ways as possible. Try to be good at a lot of things. If you aren’t the best at something, that doesn’t matter. I find knowing a little bit about a lot of things makes for better conversations with strangers and friends alike. After Andover I went to the University of Pennsylvania. I was an undecided major in the College of Arts and Sciences until my junior year. Then I transferred to the School of Engineering. I think I was one of the only folks doing that. Most people were running the other way. Anyway, I figured out that I was decent at math and science, but I needed instruction to actually learn it. I could pick up a history book and learn something on my own. A physics book? Forget it. So I thought I would spend the tuition dollars wisely and get some help learning something science-y. I was actually going to be an Astronomy major, because the size and scale of the universe blew my mind in a freshmen year Astro I class. Dr. Frederick. He was funny, whip smart and engaging. I had found the calling. Then I took Astro II, Intro to Astrophysics. The professor was unfortunately awful. I knew that he was intelligent, but he was not a good communicator. He made what I was interested in, terrible to listen to. It was a lesson in great teachers matter! I was going to have to take a lot more classes from this individual. So I decided to try something else. What other science do I like? Physics. What part of physics? Mechanics. When I learned that there were equations for motion, like if I throw a ball at a specific angle with a certain velocity, I can tell you where it will land…using math! That was crazy for me. So OK, mechanics…I’ll be a mechanical engineering student. Maybe someday I will build something that ends up in space. The funny thing is, that happened. By the time I was done with college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an engineer. But I figured that if I was going to try it, I needed to try now as a fresh grad. If I waited at all, I would know even less than I do now. So, what type of engineering? Space stuff.

How did your experience at Rumsey impact your current career?
I think that Rumsey makes good people. It inspires students to not only work hard, and succeed in their endeavors, but to pursue them honestly, and with a keen focus on teamwork. Collaborating with other scientists and engineers is a large part of my job. We trust each other to do good, honest work. You can’t fake things in engineering. Not if you are actually trying to launch something into space and have it work. Rumsey inspired me to want to work on things that are bigger than I am...to do something that I could not do on my own…where I can contribute to a team that makes something remarkable. In the case of my team, we are building space cameras that will improve our understanding of how the universe was born, identify exo-solar planets (planets that aren’t in our own solar system), and hopefully unlock mysteries of astrophysics and space weather.

What advice would you give current students?
Don’t dream too small. Many times in my life I have kicked myself for a failure of imagination. Give yourself permission to think up crazy ideas, and have the confidence to go for it. You may fall flat on your face, but you’ll learn from that too. Some of the best stories come from adventures that did not go according to plan. And stories are important.

What technology did you use while a student at Rumsey?
The computer lab off of the Study Hall was a new arrival when I was a student. I sound like I am a million years old. Honestly, I wasn’t a high technology kid. I remember when Nintendo came to my neighborhood and everyone was jealous of the Browns’ because they got it first. I liked playing Kung Fu and Legend of Zelda. I was more into using my hands… playing with Legos. I also loved snowboarding. My older brother, Chad ’90 taught me how to wax and sharpen my own board. I liked and continue to like rolling up my sleeves and working on stuff.

Tell us about your current projects.
I have been working as a mechanical engineer/research scientist at Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, CA since September 2001. In the past 15 plus years I have worked on many projects, the most notable of which was NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. This is NASA's next flagship mission, often referred to as "Hubble 2," slated to be launched in the fall of 2018. Basically it is a massive space based telescope. Our team in Palo Alto built the main camera for this mission, the telescope's 'eyes.' I was in charge of the focus mechanism for the camera. NASA is hoping to use this new telescope to do all kinds of things, including identifying planets that are outside of our solar system and looking back to the dawn of the universe. Our hope is that astronomers discover all kinds of things and rewrite some textbooks. I am currently working on another space telescope mission for NASA, called WFIRST (Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope). It will be used to take high resolution images of large swaths of the sky. It is planned to be in orbit at the same time as the James Webb Space Telescope so they can be used in tandem. The WFIRST would identify areas of interest in a large field of view, and then the James Webb would stare at each area individually, and see back to the dawn of time. It sounds kind of crazy, but it is actually true.

I work on mechanisms. Basically, I am trying to figure out how to move optics (lenses and mirrors) throughout the system at cryogenic temperatures (-400 to -200 degrees Fahrenheit). I also work on how the different components in the entire camera system work together. Optics, detectors, thermal radiators, structures—every piece has to play nice with everything else. If the structure isn’t stiff enough, the camera will come apart when it is launched. If the optics are not pristine or not in the correct position, then the images will be blurry. If the thermal radiators don’t remove heat from the camera, the detectors will be oversaturated and won’t work. This whole-project view is called systems engineering. It requires collaborating with a lot of smart people, and making sure that they are all working together.

What inspired you to go into this field?
Freshmen year of college, I took an astronomy class. Studying astronomy is a humbling experience. When looked at through the lens’ astronomical scale, no matter how tough or cool or smart you are, you are a teeny tiny thing that will only exist for a minute fraction of a moment. I find that there are two ways people react to this information. 1. I am going to do whatever I want, and ignore the consequences. Or 2. I am going to do my best to make the world a better place while I’m here. I am going to treat people with honesty, kindness and respect. I go with number 2. It makes for a more fun time.

Which 21st Century figure has influenced/inspired you?
Carl Sagan, passed away in 1996, and passed the baton to Neil deGrasse Tyson. He makes science, astrophysics in particular, accessible and exciting to everyone. You may have seen his show, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

What are your hobbies or leisure activities?
I am a big motorcycle enthusiast. I enjoy working on them, customizing them, riding them, on and off-road, on the track, and overland to different places… moto-travel is a lot of fun. I used to be a canoe-guide in my early 20’s and I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment when I realized that I could pack my camping gear on a motorcycle and just go on a trip. I’ve ridden to the Artic Ocean and back from San Francisco. I’ve ridden from Mexico to Canada on mostly dirt roads and trails. I spent most of 2013 riding around South America. I think it is a wonderful way to explore the world. I guess it is the open, vulnerable nature of motorcycling that attracts strangers with questions. Whenever I ride into a new town, folks come up, say hello and inquire about my journey. You meet a lot of lovely people that way. I also do yoga. I find that it helps you do everything else better. I used to rock climb a fair amount, and yoga really helps with your focus, balance, coordination, flexibility and proprioception (knowing where your body is). It also forces you to take a little time out for yourself. Meditation is helpful to clear the mind, and relax. I also like to take photos, write terrible blog entries and hang out with my beautiful wife.

What’s your favorite app?
Google Maps and Next Bus. They help me get around San Francisco really easily. That is probably the most boring response you’ve ever heard. I also like stargazing apps. You point your smartphone at the night sky and it tells you what constellations, planets, etc. you are looking at.

KATE WITHERSPOON ’97

Kate Witherspoon is the Director of Design & Development and co-founder of Superflex, an assistive powered clothing company that plans to bring mobility assistance to the wardrobe. The company spun out of SRI (Stanford Research Institute) International’s Robotics department where Kate worked for the past three years prior to co-founding Superflex. SRI International created inventions such as the first computer mouse, the DaVinci Surgical Robot, SIRI for Apple and hosted one of the first four original network nodes of the internet. Kate was SRI International’s first in-house industrial soft goods research engineer. She has a BS in Industrial Design and brings over a decade of experience as a consultant in the wearables market to SRI’s Robotics Department. Her work spans the intersection of apparel, prosthetics, medical assist devices and robotics. She has previously designed products ranging from endurance athletic apparel to large-scale theatrical costumes. At SRI, her most notable product was the soft biomimetic robotic exosuit developed for the DARPA-funded Warrior Web program. In 2015 she co-founded Superflex with Rich Mahoney, the previous head of the SRI Robotics department. Her work has been on display at the London Design Museum, featured on GE’s Invention Factory by Vice Media, in a TED Talk presented by Hugh Herr and in multiple media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Xconomy, ReCode and the MIT Tech Review.

How has your academic and professional career unfolded since you left Rumsey?
It has been an awesome and long journey. After graduating Rumsey I went to Choate Rosemary Hall, CT and I loved the challenges and opportunities it afforded me. I played field hockey, took advantage of their amazing arts center and lived abroad in Spain for a semester.

At Arizona State University, I gravitated toward Product Design due to my love of problem solving and aptitude for putting myself in other people’s shoes. Experiencing another person’s point of view can be uncomfortable but you end up with a new found respect and insight to design something better. I loved design school and treated it more like a job than a school. I graduated magna cum laude and was recognized by the IDSA as the Philadelphia representative. I had a few job offers on the East coast but decided to move West to join my brother in San Francisco.

With few design connections on the west coast I got a part time job doing graphic assets for an advertising firm. I did some ads for E! Online, Telemundo, and ABC. All the while, I was searching for a full-time job in wearable/soft goods product design that wasn’t a cell phone cover or a backpack. People thought this speciality was idealistic and crazy! No one had enough work of that type. So I traded in my graphic design job for a part-time job at a theatre sewing and working on huge sparkly costumes and giant hats. While moonlighting at the theatre (Beach Blanket Babylon) my sewing skills improved and it afforded me the flexibility to take on every smart apparel/soft goods contract job I could find. During my consulting years I worked on a consumer goods and sports apparel line for Fortune 500 companies and top level design firms coming up with concepts for outlandish projects for the future. I never stopped networking and discussing the potential of wearables. One day I was chatting with a research engineer at SRI International (formerly known as Stanford Research Institute). She told me about this magical place located in Silicon Valley that was the second node on the internet and invented everything from surgical robots to Siri on the iPhone.

At my interview I was myself—quirky, honest, positive and a little blunt. I was different from everyone that worked there but I fit right in. I landed in the Advanced Technology & Systems Division as a Research Engineer in the Robotics and Medical Systems group. I led the soft goods lab within the robotics department at SRI International for 3 years. I was able to work alongside some of the world’s brightest minds and co-created technologies for the future. I worked on electrically adaptive prosthetic sockets for veterans, motorcycle driving humanoids, personal thermal environments, and the soft biomimetic robotic exosuit developed for the DARPA-funded Warrior Web program. To say the least, working at SRI was a hoot! My days for the next 4 years consisted of waking up every morning to work on a world-changing, technologically perplexing problem that needed solving. It was like eating chocolate cake for your brain every day. Then, a year and a half ago, Rich Mahoney (former Director of the Robotics Department at SRI) asked me to spin off and we co-founded Superflex. I had been working on assistive suits for the military for the previous three years and now we were going to bring the tech to the public sector—specifically the aging population experiencing mobility challenges. It was everything I ever wanted - I couldn’t resist. Today Superflex is a year and a half old, and has multiple working prototypes of the product we hope to release to the world. We have a truly unique team of designers, engineers, data analysts and strategists. We are working hard to bring our vision to the public as fast as possible. Fingers crossed, one day soon we will all be wearing our super suits to maintain our lively lifestyles well into the future!

How did your experience at Rumsey impact your current career?
I learned to respect and learn from my teachers but also listen and trust myself and my gut. You need to learn the rules and how to follow them before you can stretch the envelope and break boundaries.

What advice would you give current students?
Say yes. Try everything. Fail, learn and try again. Nothing worth doing is easy. You are the tree on the hillside.

What technology did you use while a student at Rumsey?
Library books, flash cards and the first computers in study hall in 1996.

Tell us about your current projects.
As co-founder and director of design and development at Superflex we are focused on making soft ‘powered clothing’ for people with mobility challenges. I design and create soft super suits for physical power augmentation. In other words, I am designing powered clothing that helps you move and achieve your physical goals by putting electric muscles in your clothing. We are not making Iron Man suits, more like Spider-Man or Batman’s suit.

What inspired you to go into this field?
First, I was compelled by my love of elaborate costumes and smart utilitarian products, dislike of disposable fashion and my incessant drive to make things work. Second, it needed to be done. I had the unique skill set and who else was going to do it? Who wouldn’t want to make super suits?!

What’s your favorite app?
Evernote