A Native Son Returns to Chicago After Facebook

RD-Facebook---Verge

Randall DeVaul, 29, is now one of the new Facebook millionaires with a fistful of crisp dollars and a newly focused ambition. Out in Palo Alto, California, at Facebook, the 2005 Stanford graduate worked as part of the team that focused on user security, education, and experience, but now wants to go wherever his urge to do good, and his new capital, can take him.

He is also a Chicagoan, from his childhood in the tough Austin neighborhood on the West Side to the Bears baseball cap with “Chicago” written in script across the front that he wore during a recent interview on Skype from California.

DeVaul, who is known as Randy, longs to come home.

“I’ve always been a Chicagoan. I’ve been in California for eleven years,” he said. “If I want to do a startup or a non-profit, I can do that pretty much anywhere. When it comes to where I want to set up roots and try to make an impact, the place I want to do that is back home.”

Despite the aftermath of the recession, today is “an exciting time for Chicago,” he said.

While he won’t say how much he made from the recent Facebook initial public offering, DeVaul was roughly Employee No. 300 when he started at Facebook at a time when it still numbered its members in the tens of millions rather than 1 billion. DeVaul will confirm that he is a millionaire.

DeVaul learned a lot from his five years at Facebook:

  • Vision. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, “could have sold to Yahoo for a billion dollars, but you really couldn’t put a price on the vision he had, and he chose to hold on to it and see it through.”
  • Passion.  “Going from a non-profit background to the corporate arena led me to realize that I am more passionate about the non-profit work.”
  • Scalability, or a company’s ability to take its products and services from small to less-small and, perhaps, explosively big. “I realized that this is easily transferrable to any idea.

DeVaul, who is African-American, was born in Chicago. He grew up in the Austin neighborhood as an only child to a single mother. It was the 1980s, a time when a crime wave began to hit the West Side hard, and where families began to dissolve as drugs like crack-cocaine proliferated.

DeVaul’s mother, Donna Coleman-Jones, worked as an account manager at an insurance company in the Chicago suburbs,  meaning she had to drive 45 minutes or more from the Austin neighborhood to get to work. She dropped off the young DeVaul at his grandmother’s house in the morning for years, until he was 16. “I really look at my grandmother as kind of a second mother,” he said.

His father was a flight attendant for United Airlines. DeVaul’s parents divorced when he was two, and he had sporadic contact with his father until he was 17. DeVaul says his father battled a drug addiction and is now recovering. He is now back in DeVaul’s life.

DeVaul attended grade school in the West Loop at Mark T. Skinner Elementary, which has programs for gifted students, going on to high school at Providence St. Mel, a small private school in Garfield Park which was part of a former Catholic school set to be closed, when parents and administrators saved it.

DeVaul excelled in school, graduating second in his high school class. He applied to Stanford, Yale, New York University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Illinois. He was admitted to all and chose Stanford. DeVaul and this reporter met at Stanford in 2001.

“Despite a great education and growing up in a great household, I was still exposed to poverty and the ills of the West Side,” DeVaul said.

At Stanford, DeVaul wanted to do more than study the world’s problems. East Palo Alto, a few miles and a world away from campus, was once one of the worst ghettos in the country and remains impoverished with a relatively high crime rate. DeVaul saw a place to turn his social-justice ideas into action.

There, he signed up as a mentor for the East Palo Alto Mural, Music, and Arts Project, which seeks to instill educational discipline in young people through art and music.

“It really moved me to meet kids with backgrounds very much like mine, and to see their eyes light up when they found out that I went to Stanford, and that they could be like me,” he said.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication in 2005, DeVaul worked full-time on the Mural Project for a modest salary. “It turned out to be great training for working at a startup,” he said.

The project was only three years old and still growing. He wrote press releases, developed the website, wrote grants, raised funds, and stayed in touch with donors. “It gave me a well-rounded view of how to run various parts of an organization,” he says.

But, at one point, he was in danger of running out of money. Through the Stanford network, DeVaul got a job at Facebook in 2007 in its early days.

He started in what was known as “user operations,” responding to abuse reports and various infractions like spam, lewd pictures and other inappropriate content, and use by pre-teens.

There were only several hundred Facebook employees and DeVaul saw the the high-growth years when Facebook expanded from colleges and high schools to the nation and eventually 100 million users in August 2008. The reports of abuse were a torrent and DeVaul, and Facebook, learned how to deal with them on the job.

He eventually rose, as employees tend to do in a hot startup, to more important positions, winding up as a manager of teams of user operations analysts, his most recent position before the public offering in May 2012.

Just as he felt homesick seven years ago when he returned for a time after graduation, DeVaul feels Chicago is calling him back home.

“One thing I could see myself doing is to start some sort of social service organization, specifically one focusing on the family,” He said.

DeVaul’s father saw such organizations from the sidewalk up. So DeVaul knows what a good (and bad) homeless shelter looks like and what a good (and bad) soup kitchen looks like.

DeVaul knows little about the startup scene in Chicago, but that may help. He doesn’t know what he can’t do. ❒

1 Comment

  • Susan Ege says:

    Great success story..right place at the right time! I relocated briefly in San Bruno,CA in 2004-2007 and had a great time &opportunity to work in Palo Alto at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in the Business Office.

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