Women on Top
The Risks and Rewards of Being a Woman In Austin's High Tech World
Randi Shade: Good Intentions
What does it take to lead one of Austin's most prominent, and popular, dot-com start-ups from inception to funding to acquisition in just over a year?
Well, nerves of steel come in handy. And Randi Shade, the president and founder of Charitygift (www.charitygift.com), is as tough as they come: Frank, no-nonsense, and quick to let loose with a belly laugh, Shade is the antithesis of the stereotypically frazzled high tech executive. Sitting in her funky office on West Seventh Street, surrounded by magazine clippings, awards, and what appears to be decades worth of old toys and memorabilia, Shade is explaining how she came up with the idea for her year-old company.
It all started, Shade says, when a good friend passed away a couple of years ago. "I realized how inconvenient it was to make a charitable donation in his name, even responding to his own wishes," Shade recalls. Around the same time, Shade happened to catch a rerun of a Seinfeld episode in which the selfish George Costanza printed out his own holiday cards that said he was donating money to the "Human Fund," a fabricated charity.
Costanza got caught by his boss and subsequently humiliated by his family -- a stern lesson, you could say, about the wages of fraudulent generosity -- but the show stuck in Shade's mind for another reason: What if it were possible, she wondered, to make money by helping people act on their best intentions? "We came up with this thought that if we could get customers to pay us a convenience fee that would make it possible to ... make a donation to charity [on behalf of] someone else, and the charity still got 100% of the donation, then that was a business model that could fly," Shade says.
The idea was simple but elegant: A visitor to Charitygift.com would pay the company a designated amount of money -- say, $20 -- which would be earmarked to go directly to charity. In addition, the customer would pay a convenience charge of four to six dollars and receive a card, e-card, or plastic gift certificate. The recipient of a Charitygift could then "cash in" the gift at Charitygift.com, choosing the charity that he or she wanted the money to go to.
It was, to put it mildly, a revolutionary concept. At the time, plenty of companies were making money by skimming off a percentage of their clients' charitable donations, but no one was giving 100% of their customers' money directly to charitable causes. And no other company let the recipients of their clients' gifts decide what charity they wanted their money to go to; that's what Charitygift proposed to do. So Shade and her partners got to work on a business plan. By June of 1999, Shade says, "we had a concept, a name, a logo, and a business model." By that August, they had a first round of funding. And by July of the following year, they had a buyout offer, from Charitableway (www.charitableway.com), a California company that creates automated workplace giving centers and links donors with charities over the Internet. (Shade still handles the day-to-day management of the company, and says she has no plans to move its operations out of Austin.)
How did a girl from Dallas come to launch one of the most prominent and innovative high tech companies in Austin? Fifteen years of preparation -- as student body president at UT, founding director of the Texas Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service under Govs. Ann Richards and George W. Bush, and an employee of Teach for America and Procter & Gamble -- prepared Shade for what she considers the most important job of her life. So did a strong network of mentors and confidantes (which Shade refers to as Austin's "good-ol'-girl network"), including Austin venture investor Laura Kilcrease, whose firm, Triton Ventures, led Charitygift's initial round of funding.
"I think it's because of all the other things I did in life before this," Shade says of her success. "I don't ever take it for granted ... I love the fact that I'm a woman and I'm doing this because I certainly see the statistics and know what an exception we are to the rule in that sense." But, Shade says, she can't see how her approach would be any different if she weren't a woman: "It seems like business leadership is business leadership. The equation for what it takes to be successful is the same."
And Shade knows a few things about success. Since it officially launched last November, Charitygift's sales have sent more than $300,000 to charities around the country. And its product line has expanded, to include a matching corporate gift program, plastic gift cards, and animated e-cards, in addition to signature gold boxes. "We have corporate customers who we know would have given a tote bag or a popcorn tin if not for Charitygift. So we know we're increasing the size of the charitable giving pie, which we really get excited about," Shade says.
Although Shade seems unflappable, she admits that there have been times when she, like everyone, has been less than completely confident in her ability to deal with new situations -- like raising venture capital, for example, or dealing with attorneys. But that feeling, she says, is just a sign that she needs to spend more time with something, not a signal that she should run away. "I'm still putting myself in a lot of situations that I'm very uncomfortable in," Shade says. "We're still trying to do something really, really hard: We are trying to be the most convenient way for people to make donations to charity, period. That's a very big undertaking. ... Raising money for venture capitalists? That isn't as scary as it was a year ago."
Web Site: www.charitygift.com
What It Does: Donates to charity on behalf of Charitygift recipients in amount specified by giver; profits come from sale of cards and gift certificates.
Year Founded: 1999
How It Was Funded: Venture capital