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Giving to Alma Mater Fits Perfectly with Running Public Company

Karen Richardson

Let's face it. As an entrepreneur – particularly if your business is young – you work 24/7…or feel like you do. You might want to give back to what helped make you successful by teaching or mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs or by serving on the board of an entrepreneurship program. But it's tough to find time for family and fun. How in the world could you add more to your already insane schedule?

Karen Richardson, CEO of Epiphany, a Silicon Valley customer-relationship-management software company, discovered how as well as plenty of reasons why.

Richardson enjoyed the formal mentoring program she volunteered for a few years back but felt frustrated by her inability to meet regularly with her mentee while climbing the tech ladder in senior sales positions at Netscape Communications Corp., Collabra Software, Inc., Lotus Development Corp. cc:Mail and 3Com Corp.

Still, when Monica Mackey, director of individual giving for Stanford School of Engineering paid her a visit in 2001, she was eager to find out what she could do to help the department from which she earned her degree in industrial engineering in the 1980s. Mackey set up a lunch meeting with Richardson’s former advisor, now chair of the Department of Management Science and Engineering, who told her about the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP).

Sold on STVP

STVP is dedicated to accelerating technology entrepreneurship education, creating scholarly research technology-based firms, and disseminating research and teaching knowledge throughout the world.

Richardson was sold on STVP's commitment to educating scientists and engineers about high-tech entrepreneurship. One of her old professors, whose research is funded by STVP, invited her to teach a few classes and, in 2005, she was asked to serve on the STVP advisory board.

"We asked Karen to come as an observer to our advisory meeting last January and it was remarkable what happened," says STVP Executive Director Tina Seelig. "Halfway through the meeting she was saying, 'We need to do this' and 'We need to think about that.' By the end of the meeting she came up to me and said she wanted to make a significant donation.

"She felt our focus on teaching scientists and engineers about entrepreneurship was incredibly important – what she wished she learned when she was in school. She was also interested in participating in some of our international conferences."

Born and raised in Orange County, Calif., Richardson finds that the rewards of giving back to entrepreneurship through STVP fit perfectly into her demanding schedule running a company.

"The things I do at Stanford are great," she says, "because they come up periodically, allowing me to spend some time getting prepared."

Involvement comes in waves, which she estimates averages about a day a month. "You might put in three or four days, like I did to prepare for a panel at a recent conference, then you might not do anything for three months," she says.

"We have a huge range of ways people can get involved," says Seelig. "You can parachute in and give a lecture. You can be a judge for a business plan competition. You can mentor students. You might make yourself available as a coach. We try to listen carefully to people who we want to work with and find the best ways to engage them."

Last fall, Richardson spoke about taking companies public at a lecture series sponsored by the Business Association of Stanford Engineering Students (BASES), one of the largest student-run entrepreneurship organizations in the U.S. serving both undergraduate and graduate students. "The prevailing wisdom is to go public and make a lot of money,' she said. "I wanted to expose people to some of the tradeoffs."

Gratification Beyond Day Job

Understanding that savvy young entrepreneurs benefit greatly from advice people like her can provide, Richardson finds informal mentoring a practical way to give back without taking away from other obligations.

"I can’t think of any experience with these Stanford folks that’s not been respectful of my time," she says. "In fact, sometimes they hesitate to approach you because they think you’re so busy. Quite frankly, it’s flattering.

And, it's extremely gratifying.

"I feel it's important to give back in the same way that you got help when you were young," she says. "It's an incredible feeling you get when you can help somebody and they say thank you. The reward is getting to meet these vibrant people, give them some idea they didn't have, help them look at a problem in a new way. It's the thrill you may not get in your day job."

Richardson also welcomes the opportunity to serve as a role model for women in technology and entrepreneurship. She's somewhat surprised there are still so few women in these fields since the 1980s when she was the only girl in the engineering department at Stanford. Reasons for this, she suspects, have more to do with women taking time off to start families and the challenges returning to 80-hour a week work schedules than discrimination. But she also thinks more time should be spent teaching young women about opportunities in business.

Richardson is amazed at the volume of resources available today to people who want to start and grow companies, as well as the opportunities for people like her who have "been there and done that" to give back.

"There are lots of ways to contribute," she says, "and you get to be the beneficiary. Everybody doesn’t have to make huge time or money commitments. You can do small things and they all add up."

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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