Seattle tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Bard Richmond — a pioneer in the telecom industry who founded Active Voice Corp. in the early 1980s and served as its CEO until its sale to Cisco in 2000 — died recently at the age of 67.
Richmond had a significant impact on the Seattle tech community and the global telecom industry, and was an innovator in the use of technology to address important social issues. He was also a musician, playing bass in the rock band The Road Apples, which notched a Top 40 hit called “Let’s Live Together” in 1975-1976. After seven years in the band, Richmond returned to MIT where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in computer science and engineering.
Richmond and his fellow MIT alum Robert (Bob) Greco launched Active Voice Corporation in 1983 with a vision of turning an off-the-shelf PC into a powerful automated receptionist and voice messaging platform for organizations.
It’s easy to forget that in the pre-internet, pre-mobile world that voice messaging was as important for business communications as cell-phones and email are today. But it was expensive and available to only the largest companies. Bard saw the personal computer as an opportunity to bring low-cost voice messaging to every organization.
With Bard as CEO, Active Voice grew quickly through the 1980’s. When it went public in December of 1993, it was ranked #17 on Inc.’s list of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. The company was recognized by both BusinessWeek and Forbes magazine as one of the Best Small Companies in America, and in 1994, Bard was named Northwest Software Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. Magazine, Merrill Lynch, and Ernst & Young. If you’ve used a voice mail system that asked you to “press 1 for yes, or 2 for no,” you’ve used an Active Voice system.
Under Bard’s leadership the company doubled down on R&D investments to create a next-generation Unified Communication system, called Unity. The industry’s largest telephone system manufacturers, including Siemens, Alcatel, NEC, and Phillips, all partnered to deploy the Unity solution.
Cisco acquired Active Voice for $ 300 million in 2000, and integrated Unity into their IP-telephone system. The Active Voice engineering team became the basis for Cisco’s first engineering office in Seattle — an office that operates to this day.
During his time at Active Voice, Bard became intrigued with how technology could help those who were without a home and saw the opportunity to bring voice messaging to homeless individuals as a way to help them find jobs, housing, and medical care.
He felt that if you didn’t have a phone or a voice messaging system, you were disconnected from society.
Bard helped start a non-profit to provide voice mail for the homeless called Community Voice Mail (later called Springwire) and in its 20-year history, the organization contributed voice mail systems to social service agencies across the country, helping more than 500,000 homeless people find jobs and housing.
For developing Community Voice Mail, Bard received the prestigious Point of Light award from President Bill Clinton for “outstanding effort and commitment to bettering the lives of tens of thousands of poor and homeless.” Bard was the first corporate executive ever to win the award.
At the ceremony, he noted:
“We’ve learned from case managers and Community Voice Mail users that you can’t be a human being without a phone or voicemail. Once you get them, you can pull yourself back up into society. And, any company, like our software company, can find a way to use its talents and its people to help give back to society. It’s more than money.”
Richmond also supported The University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Science, the University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering building and Seattle Academy.
In addition to his professional and philanthropic achievements, Bard will be remembered as a kind and intelligent friend with an insatiable curiosity. And for those us who were fortunate enough to work with him, we will remember the integrity, compassion, and fun he brought to the role as CEO of Active Voice.
What other Seattle company put a slide between two floors of a commercial building?
Bard is survived by his sons Eli, Max, and Owen Richmond; his wife, Julie Richmond, and his sister, Wendy Richmond. A celebration of his life will be held in 2018.
“Those qualities that describe Bard as a CEO and friend—curiosity, intelligence, integrity, compassion and fun— are the very qualities that he brought to his family, along with a bursting, overwhelming pride as he watched each of his sons grow into adulthood,” said his wife Julie Richmond.
Madrona Venture Group managing director Tom Alberg is a former Active Voice board member and Ken Myer is a former Active Voice executive vice president.