In the latest Around Town column, a local mom makes her pitch to celebrity business moguls on a national TV show, a nonprofit ushers in a new leader and Santa Clara County announces $3.5 million in unclaimed property tax money.
ENTERING THE 'SHARK TANK' ... Palo Alto resident Whitney Lundeen, founder of Sonnet James, which creates play dresses for moms, took a chance by leaving Silicon Valley where investors abound for "Shark Tank," an ABC reality show for rising entrepreneurs. The mother of two boys, Satchel, 10, and Eero, 7, will make her pitch to five celebrity business moguls who will decide if they want to back her company on an episode airing this Sunday, Jan. 20. Lundeen, 32, prepared for her presentation by talking to pictures of the panelists taped on her mirror and reviewing lists with 100 to 200 potential questions from the "sharks." She also practiced with venture capitalists to learn which parts of her presentation were interesting and what type of deal they would sign. Before getting on the show, Lundeen said she felt disconnected from the panelists and was surprised when she was approached by the network to compete. Her fears peaked the moment she stepped through the doors on the show's set. "Literally, all I was thinking was, 'Don't pee in your pants,'" she said.
Lundeen felt that saying she was from Palo Alto would give the impression of being wealthy, but she's a single mom who lives in low-income housing. "I don't think it's the most typical Palo Alto story," she said. About six-and-a-half years ago she was walking with her sons down University Avenue when a "Now Hiring" sign outside a CVS store made her wonder how she could afford the costs of child care as a single parent. As they continued walking, they passed by businessmen in suits sipping drinks at cafes, which inspired her to find her own success and planted the idea that would later become Sonnet James.
The idea of creating a play dress for moms grew out of the lessons she learned while her sons attended Bing Nursery School at Stanford University on scholarship. She wanted to communicate the importance of increasing attachment and connection between parents and children, which can be formed through playtime. The dresses started out as a re-creation of her favorite designs but made in a stretchable fabric, such as modal spandex made from beech trees. Her first batch of dresses quickly sold online in 2013, motivating her to continue producing clothing that can fit for almost any occasion — from work to picking up the kids from school to date night. The dresses can be thrown into the wash rather than requiring dry cleaning.
As soon as Lundeen dove into her pitch, she found the "sharks" to be kind and supportive, and their smiles put her at ease. While she can't share yet whether her pitch paid off, she said she was happy with the experience and remains hopeful for the future of her company. "This is going to be the biggest year of growth," she said.
Update: Lundeen's bid for $350,000 was matched by guest "shark" Sara Blakely, the founder of intimate apparel company Spanx, for a 25 percent stake in Sonnet James.
A WELCOME SIGHT ... The new year will mark a new beginning for the Vista Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired, which now has a new executive director in Karae Lisle, the Palo Alto-based nonprofit announced Wednesday. Lisle may be familiar to some for her role as CEO of InnVision Shelter Network, where she spearheaded a merger between two leading service providers for the homeless that is now known as LifeMoves, which provides 1,000 beds each night in Silicon Valley. "Karae's experience with mergers and organizational growth is just the right skillset for Vista Center, following our recent merger with the San Jose," Vista Center board President Marc O'Boyle said in a press release. "She is a true nonprofit leader, with the right balance of tenacious advocacy, client compassion, and dedication to development/donor growth." Lisle also has a background in the tech industry through the Burroughs Corporation, where she worked with emerging and Fortune 500 companies on strategy, marketing sales and consulting. "It is an privilege to lead this organization that has such a respected nonprofit tradition, a breadth and strength of programs, and recent geographic service expansion," Lisle said in a press release. She will succeed Pam Brandin, who retired at the end of 2018 following 24 years with the Vista Center.
TAKE THE MONEY ... More than $3.5 million is waiting to be claimed by 4,900 Santa Clara County taxpayers who have yet to take ownership of their property tax money. The money is collected from the county's Department of Tax and Collections, which sends out more than 500,000 property tax bills and gathers over $6 billion each year. They can stem from reduced assessments, overpayments and duplicate payments. The department has contacted these taxpayers about their unclaimed funds by phone and mail. In some cases, the money never went to its rightful owner because the notification was returned by mail, left alone or refused by the recipient. "We make every effort to refund the rightful owners of the unclaimed property tax money," department Director Margaret Olaiya said in a press release issued Tuesday. "We encourage taxpayers to file a claim if they believe that they may be due a refund based on their published names." The agency is giving residents who qualify for a refund until Feb. 28 to file their claims. After that date, unclaimed money in the property tax trust fund will be moved to the county general fund. To find out if you're among the residents who hasn't claimed their money, visit sccdtac.org/unclaimedrefunds. Anyone with questions can reach out to the department's Fiscal Services Division at 408-808-8949 or email@example.com.