This past fall Debbie Kiederer celebrated the 21st year of her company, ChalkDust Consulting. The company focuses on digital technology, ecommerce and tool options for enterprise clients in Beauty/Fashion, the nonprofit sector, or for companies selling consumer products. ChalkDust is able to work successfully with a company of any size, so long as the relationship is highly collaborative, innovative, and committed to achieving excellence.
Explaining what ChalkDust does to those of us who are not technically savvy is best described by the types of glitches that we encounter on ecommerce sites. We’ve all experienced frustration when we’re unable to buy what we want without a site throwing out error messages, or we can’t find the product that we want, or there is a disconnect between the website’s messaging and the types of products that are actually offered for sale. We get so frustrated that we give up and go shopping somewhere else.
ChalkDust implements the tools of engagement to ensure that you, the consumer, do not want to go shopping anywhere else. A lot of what ChalkDust does is related to how well consumers are able to engage with a company online. You, the consumer, only know that your online ecommerce experience was seamless and positive. You got what you wanted and feel satisfied enough to come back for more. Chalk it up to one more happy customer experience.
It was no accident that Debbie Kiederer got into technology. Her work today is a confluence of two great strengths. First, as a young girl, she was a coder and worked in the earliest languages: Cobol, Fortran, Basic, etc.; eventually she decided she did not want to code. “I have more of a creative side to me,” she said. In college at SUNY Cortland, she focused on communications and journalism. Her second major strength is an avowed passion for messaging and branding—honing the right message for the consumer.
For fifteen years she was a corporate executive at Estee Lauder. She ran the creative department and was part of the early team to launch Clinique, Bobby Brown and other Estee Lauder companies, where she had the opportunity to work with strong digital properties. She quickly discovered that she had always had a technology expertise, but when the internet emerged, she could offer companies the perfect blend of creativity, communications and technology.
With ChalkDust, her work included website development, rebranding projects, and utilizing management tools for implementation on ecommerce sites. Kiederer notes, “We went from building websites to utilizing tools to create digital transformation.” The emphasis is on analyzing how well these new tools are engaging with consumers.With ChalkDust, her work included website development, rebranding projects, and utilizing management tools for implementation on ecommerce sites. Kiederer notes, “We went from building websites to utilizing tools to create digital transformation.” The emphasis is on analyzing how well these new tools are engaging with consumers.
ChalkDust might be the perfect name for a business whose behind the scenes work is often transparent to the naked eye. There are two messaging components related to the name ChalkDust. Debbie Kiederer said, “I wanted to do projects and teach the clients to do it so I could then leave.” Also, there is the team’s core work ethic. “We as a team work feverishly. The chalk dust was falling and we were writing so furiously,” Kiederer said, then added, “We’ve always been innovative.”
The company has a team of forty-five consultants and has never had an office. At one time, Kiederer recalls the lack of having a physical office was risky; it meant not being perceived as a real company. Yet the company continued to operate remotely. The ChalkDust team communicated via Yahoo chat and by phone. At one time there were no other platforms to communicate. Later when Zoom came out, the team was already very strong. Then Covid happened. ChalkDust already had a solid infrastructure for working remotely, while other companies were left scrambling.
Debbie Kiederer recounts an anniversary event that was celebrated by hiring an improvisational facilitator to work with the ChalkDust team in a four-hour session. The facilitator told her, “Debbie, I have never seen a more cohesive, bonded group, in all of the years I have been working. It’s truly remarkable that you are an aligned company and you never see each other except once or twice a year.”
Kiederer explains the cohesiveness is due, in part, to the people on the team who feel that their work is a personal as well as a professional endeavor. Team members expressed gratitude for having the ability to work on great projects with a company that cares about their needs, not just their output. Many are women who have small children or passions for pursuing the arts. Some are caretakers who need to have flexibility with the hours they work.
If anyone understands being a caretaker, it’s Debbie Kiederer. She started the company because she had three small children and a sick husband. “I wanted to be able to be with my kids so I could be part of their life.” At the time her children were ages six, five and one, and her husband was forty. He had a chronic blood condition, that ultimately took his life just before the pandemic hit. “When you work for someone else, you work at what they believe you are good at. When you are an owner, you work according to your own vision.”
What was amazing is that no one thought her husband would live past his forties, but he lived until he was almost sixty-two. “I did all of these things because of my husband’s illness but I also wanted a strong career, and also to spend as much time as possible with my husband.” She recalls the years when she was building her business as a state of being in the present, of always living in the moment. “When you live with someone who is sick, you don’t live in the future. You just live presently. Because you don’t know when that person is going to leave you. Living in the present—that has been a huge blessing for us as a family and for me as a person.”
Aside from ChalkDust, Kiederer works with the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO). She was the EO NYC President for the 2021-22 term. She also sits on the board in an advisory capacity for two startups. She’s heavily invested in doing more work with leadership. One of her passions is leadership coupled with mentorship. “One of my strengths is that I see things in people they do not see—the values and skills that they have but can’t see in themselves. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve repositioned in different areas.” She currently mentors twelve people.
Over time Kiederer’s company has evolved from being a startup to a company that is oft-compared to being a small Accenture. No easy feat or overnight success. How it evolves in the future is up to Debbie Kiederer. She is someone to watch.
Keep in mind the concept of chalk itself has evolved over time. It’s no secret that we don’t use chalk and blackboards any longer. In fact, clients have jokingly commented to Kiederer, “Your name is so retro.” Chalk has taken on a different connotation in our culture. No more squeaking on the blackboard and no more chalk dust flying in the air. Those days are gone. Chalk is now most often associated as a primary tool for making sidewalk art—very visual, meaningful and in the moment.