Charity Begins @ Home

A young software engineer has a plan to teach Silicon Valley to change its tightfisted ways

It's going on midnight and the waitress makes her way through the Santa Clara Denny's, offering another round of coffee to every wired, sleepless, overworked soul occupying a booth at the all-night eatery in the heart of Silicon Valley. Monday is about to blend into Tuesday, but for the young Internet start-up employees taking a break here, it's just another day on the job. Having a Grand Slam breakfast for dinner at 1 o'clock in the morning is typical of their 80-hour work week, even when Christmas is a few days away.

The talk at each table revolves around the narrow lexicon of a Webmaster: buttons, drops, navbars ... stock options. But there is one bleary-eyed, unshaven 23-year-old computer whiz who has something else to say. Nipun Mehta puts in crazy hours, but he's not on the same quest for quick Initial Public Offering riches that has produced so many young millionaires -- and so many more who yearn for their own chances to cash in. He keeps his eyes on a very different prize, opting instead to try to proselytize his peers. His message? No matter how easy and obscene the money in Silicon Valley seems these days, there is more to life than an IPO.

Nipun sips his coffee and hums with a childlike verve to the "Jingle Bells" Muzak piped through the restaurant. Tall and lanky, he bounces in his seat, displaying the superhuman level of energy seen mostly in zealots. He is flush, grinning feverishly as he talks outright heresy. "People think I'm out of my mind, but I don't know if money is my thing," Nipun tells Paras Dagli, a young man he met only a few minutes earlier in the restaurant's lobby, who's now sitting across from him. "So what have you worked this week -- 80 hours?"

Nipun Mehta.
Anthony Pidgeon
Nipun Mehta.

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Includes an online portfolio, e-mail newsletter sign up, and info on volunteer opportunities.

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"Something like that," Paras, also 23 and a veteran of three start-up companies, answers. "I'm becoming nocturnal. I've still got a lot more work to do tonight."

"Options always keeping you there, huh? So, did Yahoo make another 10 billion today? Man, the Internet is changing everything, but it's so intense. What's your take on the Internet? What do you think of the culture?"

Nipun's high-strung manner and rapid-fire questioning leave Paras speechless. But Nipun is on a roll, as he always is when it comes to delivering his message of charity and compassion to a potential new recruit, whatever the hour. His drive is unrelenting, his passion visibly burning behind his bloodshot eyes. Nipun leans over the table and looks directly at Paras, lowering his voice and slowing his words now as his soliloquy builds to one climactic question: "Do you think money satisfies?"

Nipun takes a long breath, letting Paras respond this time.

"To a certain extent," Paras says, tentatively.

"Yeah, you can get a nice car, but how many do you need? How many can you drive?" Nipun interrupts.

"Well, it is nice to have money," Paras admits, speaking with a little more boldness. "And cool toys."

"But some people get too much into it. They associate their worth with their money," Nipun continues. "Money is all they eat, drink, and sleep. I know you know those people. I do, and having been selfish myself, I can definitely relate to them. But when I'm 60, I don't want to think how big my bank account is; I want to feel satisfied and fulfilled." Suddenly, Nipun stops himself midlecture and looks at Paras quizzically, as if Paras' comment about cool toys has just registered. "You're into helping others, right?"

Paras nods affirmatively.

Nipun hopes so, because tonight's meeting is not coincidental. The two have been exchanging e-mails, with Paras open to hearing more about Nipun's promise that long hours and potential riches do not have to be the only measure of an Internet speculator's life. In fact, more than 250 people around the Bay Area and beyond have contacted Nipun's new Charity Focus organization as word has spread electronically in recent months that there is a movement afoot calling for more humanity and less greed in Silicon Valley.

Nipun's idea is simple: Use the Internet to aid the less fortunate by enlisting the Internet's makers and profiteers as its cybervolunteers. "Helping others help others" is the Charity Focus slogan, and the group's aim is to put Silicon Valley's best talent to work building free Web sites for nonprofit groups that haven't grasped the power of the Internet, or can't afford to. Arguing that an effective Web site can go a long way in advancing a nonprofit's cause, Nipun says the gifts of time and expertise are a better form of Silicon Valley charity than simply writing a check.

In six months, Nipun's volunteers have created sites for 75 nonprofit service groups by donating more than $250,000 in billable time. Obviously, this is a paltry sum when compared to the immense wealth of Silicon Valley. But for Nipun and others who hold lucrative industry jobs, this is an important first step in feeling good about prospering through the Internet.

"Giving of yourself is better than just writing code and thinking, 'Cha-ching! There's my stock price going up,'" Nipun tells Paras, who listens intently while fiddling with the silverware on the table. The people in nearby booths listen, too. They've begun to eavesdrop, grabbed by Nipun's loud, impassioned, and infectious pleas. "You change. You start thinking and caring about people. It changes your whole sphere of influence, and it's been very beneficial -- obviously -- for me. That's what Charity Focus is all about. Now you know."

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