Donna Auguste was a leading engineer for Apple Computer, Inc. when she helped invent the Newton.
In 1996 she and a colleague founded Freshwater Software, Inc., in Boulder, Colo., which revolutionized American business by making e-commerce and on-line banking dependable. When the company sold for $147 million in 2001, Auguste used a substantial portion of her fortune to fund the Leave a Little Room Foundation — a ministry she started with fellow parishioners at Denver’s Cure d’Ars Catholic Church to build houses and establish solar electricity for clinics in Africa and Mexico.
Auguste spoke Feb. 3 with Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen.
Tell me about your life, growing up.
My parents divorced when I was 3, and I grew up in Berkeley, Calif., in the ’60s. I attended St. Joseph the Worker Catholic School in Berkeley. St. Joseph’s was a terrific school, and an absolutely great foundation in education for me.
You’ve been fabulously successful in business. Did Catholic school have much to do with this?
I refer to St. Joseph’s almost daily. For me, that school was an incredible part of my educational foundation and gave me a launching pad for lots of the academics I learned later. My math fundamentals were very solid because of the way we learned at St. Joseph. Sister Catherine was the fifth grade teacher, and she had very high expectations. You could not go through Sister Catherine’s class without knowing how to spell, how to use prepositions, how to diagram a sentence and where to put your commas.
Now, in business situations, I can spot a typo or a misspelling a mile away. When someone hands me a document, in the first two seconds of skimming through I’ll say, “typo.” People laugh about it in the office and I just say, “That’s all about Sister Catherine.”
Has the Catholic faith played a role in your business and financial success, or is it something separate?
It’s at the core. Since I was a little child, I’ve always valued tremendously my relationship with God. I was often heard having conversations with God, and my mother would say “you can have that conversation with God while you sweep the kitchen floor, because I still want the floor swept.” Faith was an integral part of life in our family. At St. Joseph’s that closeness to God was affirmed. It wasn’t mandated, or handed out, but it was supported and encouraged.
Please explain the relation you draw between faith and your success as an engineer, entrepreneur, business executive and philanthropist.
The Lord makes a way out of no way. I’ve seen it so many times that I know that if you have the faith to trust in God, a way is made. That brick wall you’ve encountered, or that slammed door you’ve encountered, there’s an opportunity to go around and find an open window instead of standing at that slammed door saying “I can’t get in.” I’m not the one who makes the way. I often stand there at an obstacle and say, “Now what?” And then, the Lord makes a way.
The challenge for me is to have sufficient faith to trust that if I stand ready to do everything I can do, the Lord will make a way. I can’t just stand there and wait for a way to drop out of the sky. Part of being ready to be an instrument of the Lord is to be resourceful, to be listening, and learning, because the way that’s presented may not be the usual way, or the standard way.
Passion is another way the Lord works in my life. Life is just better for me when I dive into what I’m passionate about. It is a never-ending stream of exciting, fun experiences. If I hang back and stay at that obstacle, and say it can’t be done, there’s no fun in that. That’s just not what my life is about, hanging around looking at a brick wall and singing the blues.
I’d like to know more about your home life. Do you have siblings?
I have four sisters, and we were happy a lot of the time. Financially we were very poor. Our mother had to work two jobs always, and sometimes three jobs, just to keep us going. A constant concern was, “Can we pay the rent this month?” and, “Are the utilities and phone going to get shut off?” It wasn’t sad stuff, it was just part of living.
As one who’s made millions, you don’t look back at financial poverty as something awful in your past?
No, it was good training. In the early days at Freshwater, sales started off slowly. For months we were struggling, payroll to payroll, barely afloat. My peers who were the CEOs of other companies were also going through tough times, but they would spend scarce funds on trade shows and print ads.
I’m really glad I learned how to be poor when I was a kid because that translated to business survival skills. We were not spending money on anything that didn’t result in a purchase order coming through that fax machine with a check coming directly behind it in the mail.
In my family, I had learned to do things like call up the phone company and say, “Okay, here’s the deal. We can’t pay the bill this month, but next month we’ll pay at least a third of it and we’re going to try to get it caught up over the next six months.” That kept our phone on when I was a kid and kept our phones on at Freshwater.
What inspired you to establish the Leave a Little Room Foundation?
In the early part of 2000, a number of us at Cure d’Ars experienced a calling to look more broadly at who our neighbors are, and to initiate outreach programs with a more global perspective.
Several of us experienced this and we gathered together to pray together and discuss it. I offered to go on a fact-finding trip to eastern Africa, to see if I could find out what this calling might be. I went, asked questions, listened and learned. I learned about possibilities that we wouldn’t have guessed on our own. I came back and shared what I had experienced. We decided we should get started with projects to build bridges between our community and the people who are now our friends and colleagues abroad.
Like ways to refrigerate vaccine dosages?
I didn’t know that polio is still a very real issue in Tanzania. In remote areas, the vaccine isn’t available year-around because there’s no refrigeration. Again, my whole life the Lord has prepared me for his work. There I was, faced with an obstacle. But it didn’t look like an obstacle to me; it looked like a possibility to use solar electricity to power a vaccine refrigerator.
After you sold Freshwater, how much money did you give to Leave a Little Room?
About $9.6 million.
What are some things this money has helped with?
Our ministry is based around music we create, which helps fund our outreach programs. We invested in a $2 million state-of-the-art digital recording studio. This allows us to create the best quality digital content possible. For what we’re doing, sharing the word of God through music, we want to do that with the best quality content we can provide.
What kind of music do you produce?
We start with the Negro spirituals that emerged from slave experiences of early African Americans who were brought to this country. Out of that slave experience came songs that minister to people, songs that brought people through horrifying life experiences and tragic circumstances.
They not only came through it, they did so with amazing strength that is often reflected in the spirituals. They are such a testament to the fact that God will make a way out of no way.
Different musicians, artists, and singers come to the studio to help us produce these recordings, song by song by song. We’ve proposed to film studios that they use our music in movie soundtracks. We are also beginning to use our music as the audio soundtracks for audio books, which are being listened to in 26% of American households today.
Leave a Little Room stresses “sustainable” outreach programs. What does that mean?
It’s never our intention to create a dependency. We don’t view what we do as providing a solution, as if we are the problem solver. Instead, we look at ourselves as one more resource available to people who are solving problems for themselves.
We are a piece of a puzzle, and the whole puzzle is a solution that is owned by that community.
When we go out and install a solar electric system in a small hospital clinic, people in the community work with us, and that way they own it, they run it, they maintain it and it is their solar electric system when we leave.
Wayne Laugesen writes
from Boulder, Colorado.