- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
After starting several technology companies, Elizabeth Davis, out of necessity, helped create the Executive Women’s Forum in the early 1990s to bring women executives together in a supportive environment.
“There weren’t a lot of women leaders in the startup world,” Davis, 55, says with a smile. “That’s when I learned how important it was to have a strong network. The most fun at that time was a women’s poker group that met monthly to play cards, drink wine and talk business.”
In fact, her entrepreneurial network of women — and men — steered Davis to her role today: president of the Miracle Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit that helps run 25 overseas orphanages for 1,200 kids, a $3 million-a-year outfit founded by the charismatic Caroline Boudreaux in 2000 after a backpacking trek through India.
“I was getting ready to start a marketing services company, and we were moving along, but there wasn’t any passion when I got up in the morning,” Davis recalls about her change of direction. “It was like doing the same thing again with a different product. I was trying to find a little more meaning, and I like really big challenges, complex situations.”
You can’t get more complex or challenging than finding a way to apply United Nations standards established by the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the estimated 17.8 million double orphans (who lost both parents) and 153 million single orphans (who have lost one, enough in some cases to end up in an orphanage) worldwide.
How did she take on her part of that task — that is, creating centers of excellence among orphanages to serve as models? First, at Austin’s Entrepreneurs Foundation, fellow board member Jeff Browning pointed her in the direction of the Miracle Foundation. Another contact, Krishna Srinivasan, then a partner at Austin Ventures, served as chairman of the Miracle board.
“They had been doing really good work, but they wanted to reach more kids,” Davis says of the group, which at first established and ran its own orphanage in India. “Sitting across the table from Krishna, I found out that they needed somebody to run the organization, but also to develop an alternative business model that would be measurable and grow intentionally. I could leverage everything I’d done from my past lives in business, and I could do it to help these kids.”
Plus, the board needed someone who could complement Boudreaux, a superstar at advocacy and fundraising, the heart and soul of the operation.
“We got that piece,” Srinivasan told her. “We need to bring in a business mind to accentuate the best qualities of Caroline.”
One last thing sold Davis: “I met Caroline, and that was pretty much it.”
Born in Georgetown, Davis grew up in Bellville, where her father was a Texas Highway Department engineer. Both parents hailed from Lockhart.
An outgoing kid, she played sports such softball, tennis, table tennis and swimming. She readily admits to being a band geek at Crockett High School and, later, at the University of Texas. There she studied management information systems, previously known as data processing.
Her first job out of college, in 1983, was for a startup that made hardware products for Texas Instruments. A go-getter to the bone, Davis asked whether she could try to sell the products internationally.
“They said, ‘Sure, as long as you don’t need a budget,’” she recalls about her plan to market primarily in Japan and Europe. “This was 1985, so we were using direct mail and telex until we migrated to fax machines.”
Davis was motivated by trying new things and finding innovative approaches.
Her next endeavor, Paranet, grew incredibly fast and was acquired by Sprint. After that, she delved into CompuCom, which provided professional services. Later, with a technical partner, she built from scratch QuickArrow, which provided cloud-based business management. It was snapped up by NetSuite. She keeps actively involved in business through her role as chapter chairwoman of the Women Presidents’ Organization, an international peer advisory group.
The dot-com bust at the turn of the century amplified some lessons she had learned from her multiple startups.
“Creating a great culture is so important to a strong business,” she says. “It takes you through the good and bad times. We grew really fast with a great customer base, then after the dot-com bust we had to cut back and move into survival mode. So many competitors fell off the face of the earth. After a couple of years, we were adding people back into system. It’s a profitable company.”
After the sale of QuickArrow, Davis took some time off and got really good at tennis. She switched to the nonprofit lane during the next startup cycle.
Boudreaux’s foundation had already worked miracles by taking on kids in India who were receiving only minimal care, out of the public eye.
“But it was a capital-intense model,” Davis says. “So we are moving away from running orphanages to helping others run orphanages. Premise: What if we found people who were helping orphans but don’t have consistent funding, the right staff or a staff with the right training? We partnered with existing homes and became almost an accelerator for orphanages.”
Nine people work for the foundation in its U.S. offices on West Sixth Street, while 25 are on the ground in India. The group codified best practices by using the Rights of the Child measures, which include height, weight and vaccinations as well as general health, education and opportunity.
“Children raised in that environment have every capability to lift themselves out of poverty,” Davis says. “We are training the caregivers and the tutors whose work can lead to vocational training or college or a job at a wage level that’s self-sustaining. At our centers, 98 percent of the kids graduate with high school equivalency, whereas in India at large, it’s 56 percent.”
The group has found that a lot of kids being raised in orphanages should not be there. They have family, but the parents are extremely poor, or maybe there is a single mother. So the foundation works with the orphanage to make sure they have a full care plan for each child.
“Is there a living relative they could potentially go live with, or is domestic adoption a possibility?” Davis says. “Making sure that every child grows up in a loving family is incredibly important. If the model works, every home we bring in will be successful. We’ll take them on one at a time.”
Beyond India, the Miracle Foundation is working via Skype to mentor orphanage managers in Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ethiopia.
“Eventually, they will help the homes around them,” she says. “It’s a great way to expand globally. To support this, we are building a digital tool kit, a combination of best practices and training.”
Now get this: recently Boudreaux visited the Vatican to share the Austin foundation’s methods with the Catholic Church, which runs 9,000 orphanages around the world.
“We stand for a loving family for every child,” Davis says. “That is our mission. Whether they are in an orphanage or in foster care, they all need and deserve our help.”