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Startup: ‘Charge It’ to Make a Difference

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Charity Charge founder Stephen Garten uses his card to stock up on burnt orange essentials.

Charity Charge founder Stephen Garten uses his card to stock up on burnt orange essentials.

Larry Garten always impressed upon his son, Stephen, the importance of doing the right thing and giving back to his community. When Larry died of cancer at age 53, Stephen, then a college sophomore, vowed to honor him by upholding that ethic.

Stephen Garten grew up in Baltimore and went to school at Washington University in St. Louis. On his first visit to Austin, after college, he knew he had found his new home. Four months later, in 2010, he was a resident. Now, he says, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Part of what inspired Garten at the time was Austin’s vibrancy, even amidst the lingering effects of the global recession. But with few connections in his adopted city, he pursued job leads fruitlessly for months.

Looking to get into an environmentally friendly industry, he followed his entrepreneurial instincts and landed an internship working on clean energy initiatives at UT’s Austin Technology Incubator (ATI). Later he became a paid ATI staff member.

Now 30, Garten has flown the UT nest. When he discovered that every year more than $16 billion in credit card reward points go unused and expire, he seized on the idea for a new business — and a way to pay tribute to his father’s principles. Drawing inspiration from his experience at ATI, as well as the expertise of entrepreneurs he encountered at the Jon Brumley Texas Venture Labs in the McCombs School of Business, he created Charity Charge.

“UT took me in, and that’s
where I got inspired.”

Charity Charge offers a unique MasterCard through Commerce Bank, in partnership with Guidestar and Network for Good, that allows its cardholders to direct 1 percent of their spending to any nonprofit organization, including charities and schools, to benefit causes they believe in.

After garnering national media coverage with its launch in June, Garten pledged an equity percentage in the company to UT, making for a potentially large donation down the line. In the meantime, his own card is set up to support the Forty Acres.

“I absolutely credit my experience there with giving me my start,” he says. “It formed the foundation that enabled me to create Charity Charge, and I wanted to honor my mentors,” he says. “UT took me in, and that’s where I got inspired.”

The founder made his first purchase with the card at — where else? — the University Co-op. Among his burnt orange acquisitions was a mug he spotted with a special name on it: Larry.

 

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