The Baton Rouge native and LSU graduate has had a diverse business career but the constant of Charlie D’Agostino has been his leadership and likability.
Charlie D’Agostino grew up in Ogden Park in the 1970s, raised by hardworking Italian Catholic parents who believed in a Catholic education, Sunday family gatherings and hearty Italian food. D’Agostino and his three siblings attended Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School and the plan was for all of them to continue on to Catholic high schools.
But D’Agostino had other plans. Baton Rouge High School anchored his neighborhood and during his childhood, it was there that he watched basketball games and football games, and played ball with friends until his mom called him for dinner at 5 p.m.
“I grew up in the shadows of Baton Rouge High and I knew I wanted to go there, so I convinced my parents,” D’Agostino, 71, says. “They agreed, but I jokingly say they had to ask the pope first.”
It was a first for their family. His brothers all attended and graduated from Catholic High School while his sister graduated from the now-shuttered St. Anthony High School.
But D’Agostino says the decision to go to public school was instrumental for his career and one of the best decisions of his life.
“I can’t explain why I wanted to go there or what possessed me to convince my parents at 12 or 13, but it was a huge benefit to me for my business career,” he says. “I had a strong network of people in Catholic and public schools. It expanded to two groups.”
His strong network combined with his entrepreneurial spirit and an ability to see and capitalize on opportunities has led to a long career of professional success.
“I was very opportunistic,” he says. “But I also had opportunities dropped in my lap.”
A graduate of LSU with a bachelor’s in chemistry and a master’s in business administration, D’Agostino’s career has been diverse. In the early ‘70s he worked as a chemist and in marketing. For a decade spanning from 1978 to 1988, he owned a construction company, building homes and commercial buildings in Picayune, Mississippi, Atlanta and Baton Rouge.
In 1983, he and friend Wally McMakin founded McDag Productions, a sports and police trading-card company that promoted anti-drug and safety programs for children. Three years later, he founded a consulting company to help study economic development projects and assist research parks and business incubators internationally.
In 1986, D’Agostino and longtime friend Skip Bertman, who was LSU’s head baseball coach at the time, founded Skip Bertman’s Grand Slam, an indoor baseball training facility in Industriplex Park off Siegen Lane that stayed open for seven years. He spent four years in the mid-70s working for NASA Stennis Space Center as the director of the technology transfer office. He bought a pasta manufacturing company in 2013, renamed it D’Agostino Pasta Company and then sold it six years later. He traveled to L’Aquila, a city in central Italy, and helped develop an incubator and disaster recovery center after the 2009 earthquake destroyed the college town.
“If you get him involved in something, he will always be a leader or help get it done,” says McMakin, 66, of his longtime friend and business partner. “Everyone is attracted to Charlie. He is very smart and very humble. He inspires others to do their best and to work hard. There is no one in Baton Rouge that does not like Charlie D’Agostino.”
While his work extends globally, the name D’Agostino is locally synonymous with LSU’s Innovation Park and the Louisiana Business and Technology Center. Located on LSU’s campus, he founded it in 1988 and served as its executive director for 30 years. He credits his diverse résumé with helping him succeed there.
“I had a science, technical and real estate background,” D’Agostino says. “I had business experience and at the time, fortunately, I was in a good place. I was never bored and my job was always rewarding. I got to deal with ideas all day.”
The Innovation Park and Louisiana Business and Technology Center has similar qualities of the show Shark Tank, minus the million-dollar deals and the snarky comments from Mark Cuban and Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary. It’s a place where an idea can become a business through mentorship, research and resources.
It’s where Padma Vatsavai, 48, met D’Agostino more than 10 years ago as a young entrepreneur with an idea about starting a software business.
“In 2008, I walked in to meet with Charlie. It was just me and my idea,” says Vatsavai, CEO of Vinformatix. “Within the first 10 minutes, he said ‘Padma, you need to be here.’ I walked in with an idea and I left with an office that day.”
From 2008 to 2015, Vatsavai grew her business at the incubator on campus until she eventually opened up her own office in 2015. Now, she has 30 employees in an office building downtown.
“All of this wouldn’t have been possible without his support,” she says. “This doesn’t happen by accident. I’m forever grateful to Charlie and his team. We wouldn’t be where we are today without Charlie as our champion. He’s very humble, he is easily approachable, and he knows how to get things done.”
D’Agostino’s goal was to help create new companies and grow current companies. Positioning the innovation park and LBT on LSU’s campus helps businesses have quick access to resources.
“He was passionate about the work there and very dedicated, ambitious and he strived to grow the companies as best he could,” says Kristy Barlow, LSU Innovation Park business manager, who worked for D’Agostino for 18 years. “He is a compassionate person and he always goes out of his way to help others.”
His personal life is as rich as his career. Married to Susan, the couple have a blended family. He and his late wife had three children, and Susan and her late husband had two daughters before the couple met at social functions at St. Aloysius Church. Their children are all grown and between the two of them, they share seven grandchildren. They love to travel and have taken trips to Europe and Australia and enjoy animal watching in cooler climates like Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, during the summer and spending time in Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, and Asheville, North Carolina, during the winter.
It’s easy to want to be around D’Agostino. He is welcoming and open. He is an animal lover and it’s rare that his giant 7-year-old tan labradoodle, Wrigley, is not by his side. His Highland Road home is impeccably furnished, neat and clean, but also warm and cozy. While Wrigley naps on a dog bed on the floor in D’Agostino’s office, his owner relaxes in an armchair next to a sofa in the living room. Dressed in a button-down shirt, a fleece vest and blue jeans, with one leg propped up on an ottoman, D’Agostino reminisces about his career, his family and perhaps the biggest challenge he is currently facing.
In January 2019, he retired from his position at LSU, leaving behind successful startup companies, a slew of professional awards and a shining star of business success on the state’s flagship campus.
But on Jan. 31, when D’Agostino began settling into retirement, an annual physical changed his life. His doctor diagnosed him with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and gave him seven months to live. It’s been more than a year since that diagnosis.
“People would ask me about the first thing you do when you’re retired,” he says, “and I would joke, ‘Well the first thing you don’t do in retirement, is you don’t get diagnosed with cancer.’”
When asked if he is scared, he admits he is, but he is also an optimist and a realist who is choosing to deal with life as it is. He quotes lyrics from a Toby Keith song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” which was inspired by a conversation Keith had with 88-year-old Clint Eastwood during a golf tournament.
“He asked him what keeps him going and he said that he wakes up every day and he doesn’t let the old man in,” D’Agostino says. “So that’s what I’ve been saying. I don’t let the old man in. I have chemo every other Monday and on Wednesday I’m tired and I have some heartburn, but on the off week that I don’t have chemo, I’m on that treadmill 30 to 45 minutes per day. I’ve always been a positive kind of guy and while you can’t always choose the hand you’re dealt, you can choose how you’re going to deal with it.”