Austin CEO Kathy Terry Calls Bullsh*t on Hostess Gifts, Launches a Donation App Instead

The founder of new charitable social app InLieu aspires to create the Venmo of giving

InLieu's Kathy Terry

On a recent summer evening at The Riveter Austin, community members gathered for an inspiring installment of the Female Founders Series featuring Austinite and serial entrepreneur Kathy Terry, who’s made a name for herself by cleverly combining her business acumen with her passion for philanthropy. Terry opened old-school burger diner P. Terry’s (now a thriving chain) with her husband Patrick in 2005; since then, the business has donated nearly one million dollars to local nonprofits.

In 2018, Terry launched InLieu, a social app that aims to be “the giving solution of the next generation.” Rather than bringing candles and wine to a dinner party that needs neither, Terry envisioned being able to shoot a donation to her host’s favorite charity, or to one that honors their interests, while sending a quick note to the recipient in tandem. InLieu leverages access to the 1.6 million nonprofits in the GuideStar 501(c)3 database so that users can “give the most sustainable gift on the market, guaranteed to make a difference.”

So, what’s in Terry’s secret sauce? Here are our top takeaways from the chat, moderated by The Riveter Austin GM Elisa Sepulveda.

On her backstory and inspiration:

Terry grew up in the West Texas oil city Midland, where she says “access wasn’t worth figuring out.” But a series of introductions to people with financial access and social charisma broadened her worldview, showing her both what’s beyond the town and what’s possible to do with education and vision. While attending a nearby state university, Terry met a woman who encouraged her to move to Austin, where she combined Pell Grants, student loans and working full-time for a law firm while attending the University of Texas for accounting. There she met another woman, a solo world traveler. “I was 24 and I packed a backpack, got a passport and traveled the world for six months. When I returned, that’s when I decided I was going to start my own business.” Her work as a contract paralegal “afforded me to work a shitload of hours, stash a bunch of cash and travel in between cases.”

On the importance of travel:

Traveling to 60 countries changed Terry’s life. Navigating foreign territory, mostly alone and pre-internet, was an exercise in problem-solving. Where she had been resentful that others seemed to have a lot of fun while she worked all the time, after traveling she felt commonalities with more people, and also realized her inherent luck and privilege, noting that it’s all about access. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if nobody opens that damn door you’ve been banging on, you’re not going to be successful.”

On the issue of access:

“I want people to realize that we are where we are because of the access that we’ve been given. And some of us are born with more access than others. Some of us are born with access to wealthy family, to education, to a strong community, even access to a vision. Just to even see a life outside of the one you live in, it’s hard. I want to acknowledge that I got here because of my access and I want to be able to give my access to other people and own it that I didn’t get here on my own.”

She stresses both learning to say no, and learning to ask for support. “We have to ask each other and we have to help each other, which is back to that [idea of] access. We have to give people access to be able to succeed.”

On corporate integrity:

As Terry and her husband Patrick opened the first P. Terry’s, she was inspired by Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal to “do it right,” with better ingredients that she’d be proud to serve her own family. They worked relentlessly to get their ingredients sourced and prepared in a manner true to their vision, while also building a team supportive of those efforts. “From day one our culture, what we do, and everything we’ve done has been based around supporting our employees and the community.”

On creating a culture of giving:

P. Terry’s “Giving Back Days,” on which 100% of the day’s proceeds are given to charity, have accumulated almost a million dollars for local nonprofits over the years. That company value appears to be well-rooted. Terry tells the story of one of her managers being approached by a community volunteer who lost their funding source for Christmas dinners at a shelter. “He was just talking to the manager, because he comes in all the time, and the manager goes, ‘Well P. Terry’s will provide dinner. We’ll just do it.’ And I love the fact that he knew we were going to say yes. He didn’t ask us. He just said, ‘We’ll do it.’ And then he called and said, ‘Hey, I said we would do that.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah.'”

On moving toward meaningful gifting:

Terry began noticing a trend among her friends of receiving frequent gifts they didn’t need, such as hostess and birthday gifts. In our culture, she says, “It’s totally acceptable. And I’m calling bullshit. What is this about? This is crazy, and it’s something you don’t even want or need, right? And thanks to Marie Kondo, we’re all trying to purge. I kept thinking, ‘What if we could redirect all this money that we’re spending on the stuff that we don’t need and give it to social impact?’ For me it was like, ‘How can I show my friend how I feel? Why don’t I support something that she’s passionate about? Why can’t I make a donation in her name to her cause and, thereby, create this deeper connection with her?'”

Terry’s InLieu app combines a social network with a messenger system and a secure way to make a donation to any nonprofit. She calls it “Venmo for donating.” “You can link to your contacts and you can pick a friend, pick a nonprofit, put in a message and send them a gift in a minute or less.”

On changing cultural norms:

The social aspect of Terry’s app validates behavior, and behavior change is a slow process. “We’re all at our own place in our giving journey, and there’s so much psychology behind gifting and the whole acceptability of it, right? People don’t want to show up empty-handed. It’s getting past that and saying, ‘No, you can show empty handed. Your friend is going to much more appreciate a donation to her favorite cause.'”

On investors with integrity:

At present, most of the money Terry has invested in InLieu has been in development. Marketing and advertising to the right people will follow. “We’re lucky because we had the resources to pay for the development, so I didn’t have to get investors early on. But I have to say, it’s harder to get investments once you have the products. It’s so much easier to sell an idea. It’s so much easier to sell a vision. I would make sure [that] whoever you take money from, they have your back, and they believe in your vision and believe in what you’re building.”

On using tech to shape a sustainable future:

“We have to change our behaviors. Look at the plastic straws. It took people that were just irate and just so fed up saying, ‘This is ridiculous, guys. Look at what you’re doing.’ And then all of a sudden we’re all screwing around looking for paper straws. Somebody made us aware of what we’re doing.

So for me, it’s all about us participating, and I feel like we can create the change that we want to see in the world, but we all have to participate. And I do feel like it’s coming.

And we have to connect differently. I’m very hopeful because I think the younger generation, they don’t have a lot, but they’re very intentional with their dollars. And they want to support brands that are sustainable.

[With InLieu], Nobody sees the amount you give. It’s just the gesture. There’s 325 million people in the U.S. If we all give $5 on one day, how much clean water could we provide to the world? [With InLieu] you can support your friends and the cause they love, you’re reducing waste and the use of natural resources, you’re building awareness and increasing social impact, and you’re also creating this more authentic and closer community. What the hell? It’s all in one place.”

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Rachel Shimp is a copy editor with a background in journalism on arts and culture.