From Tasty Bakery to Peanut Butter: David Aronson ’03, MBA, Finds Recipe for Success

More than 20 years ago, David’s career began at the Aronson family business, Tasty Bakery in Naperville, Illinois. The bakery became a foundational piece of his adolescence, influencing him at Valpo and into his early career. But perhaps this experience did not provide as natural a transition into his current role as CEO and founder of Peanut Butter as the name might suggest.

“Even as a student, what made David really distinctive was his entrepreneurial nature,” says Frederick Langrehr, Ph.D., Paul H. Brandt professor emeritus of marketing. “He was the one student who came in to talk through his business ideas. We’d spend quite a bit of time and go into great depth talking through his ideas, which were really thought through and full of specifics.”

Throughout his career, David has continued to generate new, innovative ideas. Equipped with a bachelor of science in business and administration from Valpo and an MBA in entrepreneurship and innovation from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, he has founded six ventures as entrepreneur or intrapreneur with varying levels of success. David’s latest venture, Peanut Butter, was launched in early 2015 and has garnered much positive attention. The name may be puzzling when discovered that Peanut Butter helps employers offer student loan assistance as a benefit to attract and retain employees.

Once David hatched the idea for Peanut Butter, he partnered with 1871, the top technology incubator in the country. He embraced the unique name “Peanut Butter” for his new venture as it is “the benefit your employees will stick around for” and is reminiscent of his college days at Valpo, when peanut butter was the only thing he could afford to eat.

For those who knew David as a Valpo student, “Dave the baker” may be the first thing that comes to mind. At the age of 14, David began to work in the family bakery and learned every job, from store clerk to store manager to donut fryer and dishwasher. He knew early on that he wanted to build a business, focusing on the bakery as that’s where his experience and expertise lied.

“Choosing Valpo was based on the quality and notoriety of the business school. I was enticed by the academic programming,” David says. “I visited campus before making my decision, and the people also drew me to Valpo. It just felt like a place where I could succeed.”

David came to Valpo full of purpose, seeking insights into the business world and knowing he wanted to become an entrepreneur. He took advantage of every opportunity to further the family business, whether it be through projects or one-on-one discussions with professors, leveraging their experience and perspective to answer business-related questions.

David, still full of purpose, was back on campus in 2015 to participate in a career panel, where he spoke about entrepreneurship. He was excited to hear about evolutions on campus, particularly ways in which Valpo is fostering a more entrepreneurial culture.

“It’s awesome that Valpo has established the Innovation Hub. I’m glad to see this iteration and evolution in the way that Valpo provides education,” says David. “Students will be even more successful when they’re at Valpo with this new Innovation Hub. But smart, determined people will always get there, and that’s part of why they’re finding Valpo.”

David’s Valpo experience helped shape his career. He points to several courses and their lasting impact — retailing, where he created a business plan; sales, where he learned how to present a product or service to a particular client; management, where he learned to work with others; and research projects, where he gained insight into the baking industry.

David recalls relating each Valpo project to the bakery, noting that his classmates, some of whom “are still among my best friends today,” were probably more than a little “annoyed.” Professor Emeritus Langrehr had a different read on the situation, finding David to be an asset to the University and elevating the students around him.

“As a student, David was able to ask the important questions and do the important work on projects. Other students were bettered simply because Dave was there,” says Professor Emeritus Langrehr. “David stood out. He knew about the world and what it takes to be successful.”

Upon graduation, David was handed the reigns to run the family business. The climate was not ideal for a bakery, with the Atkins diet at the height of its popularity, but David increased sales by 20 percent during a single year due to the implementation of a new marketing program. He credits this to an experiential learning opportunity at Valpo his senior year, when he developed a marketing plan for the bakery as part of a larger marketing project.

David’s success has extended into his latest startup, which has received much national recognition. Peanut Butter was one of 13 companies invited to participate in Google Demo Days and one of six chosen to participate in BMO Harris/1871 Fintech Partnership Program. Peanut Butter was named among Chicago’s 50 on Fire and Chicago’s Coolest Companies, finished fourth among 1,000 at Startup of the Year, and placed first at Young Presidents’ Organization’s Innovation Week.

For David, the real success of Peanut Butter lies in keeping his clients satisfied. In less than three years, Peanut Butter has affected hundreds of employers, mostly large and middle-sized employers. David’s goal is for Peanut Butter to help thousands of employers assist millions of employees pay down billions of dollars in student debt.

“At Valpo, we were taught that the goal of the business should be to create value for the shareholders, and I liked that,” David says. “I like creating a product that my customers value, and I know they do because they hired us and continue to use and be happy with our services. Of course, I also like that we have the opportunity to make a social impact, and that’s unique.”

Through Peanut Butter, the average employer contributes 100 dollars per participant per month, with the average employee eliminating debt 30 percent faster and saving more than $11,000 in principal and interest over the life of their loans. Peanut Butter also assists employees in the management of student loans by providing guidance on federal and private loans, a refinancing marketplace, and debt counseling options.

“Peanut Butter has been a great partner and has really put us on the map in terms of the benefits we offer,” says Nicole Skaluba, director of employee services at Rise Interactive, a Peanut Butter client. “It sets us apart and allows us to attract and retain the best talent. It’s an investment in the future of every employee that participates.”

Employers have found Peanut Butter to be a meaningful way to increase employee engagement, noting increased hiring efficiency, improved gender and cultural diversity in their workforce, and greater company loyalty. And since its inception, Peanut Butter has retained 100 percent of its clients.

“David is now more the mentor to me, not me to him,” Professor Emeritus Langrehr says. “He’s the one doing the work, so it is interesting talking with him and seeing what he’s doing and how he’s developing.”