Sister charity

Ramona Russell

Photo By Larry Dalton

Ramona Russell naively thought she could launch a Web site, work on it a couple hours a day, then spend the rest of her time running her marketing-public relations firm. Wrong.

Her site, Uptown Liz, achieved surprise success, making it a full-time job. Operating under the MO “Where shopping gives back,” the site promotes buying products that support charitable causes. Russell named the site after her younger sister, Elizabeth, who died from breast cancer at 28 years old. The shock and sadness of her loss motivated Russell to find a way to support the causes she cared about.

Russell moved to Sacramento from Stockton more than a decade ago. She attended Sacramento State University, while working as a makeup artist at Nordstrom. She wanted to become a buyer, but then realized it’s a cutthroat, competitive, 80-hour work week, which isn’t how she wanted to live. Now, with the Web site, she works nonstop. But, for Russell, it’s all worth it.

How does Uptown Liz work?

I call it a retail-referral site, because I don’t sell the products, I link to them. The model is one-of-a-kind, because you can shop by product category, like jewelry or wine or clothing, or you can shop by cause category, like AIDS or cancer or world hunger.

Do you have a lot of users?

It’s based on Web traffic, and it’s been very high since I launched the site. I get 200,000 general hits a month.

What kind of causes do the products support?

I upload stuff every week, so that determines the causes, and it changes all the time. But there’s Alzheimer’s, AIDS, breast cancer, infant health, epidermolysis bullosa. There’s so much stuff.

Are there certain causes you’re especially passionate about?

Well, breast cancer, since that’s what my sister died from. People ask me if I thought about just making it a breast cancer shopping site and that never occurred to me. I wanted to cast a wide net. My dad, both my grandfathers and my brother were in the military, and I’ve always cared about military causes. I helped start up a children’s after-school nonprofit program here when I first got out of college, and I have an art background, so I’ve always cared about different things.

Tell me more about the concept of “retail philanthropy.”

I have a background in fundraising and nonprofits, and I know people are generous and want to give, and I know they feel bad about all the horrible things going on in the world. But we’re all too busy, our lives are crazy and we don’t have the money to give what we want, and we don’t have the time to volunteer. I wanted a way for people to be able to do something that made them feel good, that helps other people and doesn’t take a lot of time or effort.

How did the idea come about?

I’m a long-distance runner, and I don’t know how the idea formed, but it formed when I was running. I get good ideas then. I knew I didn’t want to sell anything or have a store or anything like that. But I had this feeling there were a lot of beautiful products out there from small companies—and I have large corporations and medium business, too—but didn’t have marketing budgets. And I was right. I incubated the idea with Ladies Who Launch and formed a focus group. That was April or May, and I launched on what would have been my sister’s 30th birthday in July.

What was your sister like?

She was very brilliant, very funny and just lit up a room. And very kind and compassionate and caring and, through her illness, very brave.

Did the cancer come about really fast?

She was misdiagnosed at 23, and she had a lump and her doctor said, “Oh, it’s nothing. Don’t even worry about it; this isn’t anything.” When you’re 23, you listen to your doctor. Then over the next three years, she’d have a backache or a neck ache, but she was healthy and worked out, so she didn’t think much about it. And then one day when she was 26, she woke up and she couldn’t walk, couldn’t get out of bed. It took several days at the hospital to figure out she had cancer and that it went to the bones, and that is the most pain a human being can be in. They diagnosed stage IV breast cancer, which is terminal.

Is this your way of honoring your sister?

Definitely. I wanted to create a legacy for her.