Charity Begins @ Home

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

Having downed two cups of coffee and turned his place mat into a hand-drawn organizational flow chart, Nipun has finished his pitch. He is -- as his favorite phrase best expresses it -- "pumped up." This could be Nipun's mantra. "I'm pumped, are you pumped? Let's get pumped up!" Nipun will say, clenching his fists as though he's leading a locker room pep talk, whipping himself and his recruits into a frenzy over the prospect of serving others. Nipun's crusade is to motivate a charity mind-set among his computer-savvy and money-hungry peers, proving that Silicon Valley does have a heart. He wants to create a worldwide network of volunteers who can, via e-mail and the Internet, serve anyone, anywhere, anytime. "Charity @ your desktop" is another of his slogans.

Though it's after 1 a.m. at Denny's, Nipun's adrenalin surges as he senses a new convert in Paras. The young man is a bit dazed, but moved, by Nipun's performance. Paras wants to join, and Nipun doesn't waste any time closing the deal.

"Are you up for this?" Nipun asks, leaving little room to answer. "If you want, we can go home and get started."

Paras Dagli (left) is Nipun's newest recruit. Ashish Mehta (right; no relation) was one of the first and now helps run Charity Focus.
Anthony Pidgeon
Paras Dagli (left) is Nipun's newest recruit. Ashish Mehta (right; no relation) was one of the first and now helps run Charity Focus.
Nipun leads a Charity Focus "Tiger Team" meeting.
Anthony Pidgeon
Nipun leads a Charity Focus "Tiger Team" meeting.

Details

RELATED LINKS

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

Half of wealthy households are low-givers
From a November 1998 report on Silicon Valley's culture of giving

Charity Focus Sites

Airline Ambassadors

Sustainable Business Alliance: Berkeley

Allied Housing


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"We must become the change we want to see."

-- Gandhi

These words are scribbled on the wall of Nipun's nondescript office in Building 16 on Sun Microsystems' Menlo Park campus, where he works as a well-paid software engineer. The quote by his role model reminds Nipun to lead by action. "I like Gandhi," he says. "Now that guy was a selfless server." Nipun admits his intense work ethic has long been fueled by a selfish motivation to win and be recognized. Now that he is channeling his extraordinary talent and energy into charity, he realizes he must live his message if it is going to mean anything.

But Nipun faces a dilemma. There's a tension between his inherent ambition and the very nature of the philanthropic group he's ostensibly creating. While Nipun wants to be selfless and do good just for the sake of doing it, his overwhelming drive to succeed -- to be the best, to win -- makes it hard.

A bright child, Nipun began programming computers at 7. He finished high school early, at the top of his class. By 16, he was at UC Berkeley majoring in computer science and philosophy. Nipun says he's always pushed himself to succeed, despite his parents' attempts to downplay the importance of being No. 1. He also tore up the tennis courts, winning tournament after tournament as a youth. Though good enough to make Berkeley's team his freshman year, he was mostly relegated to the bench during competitions since his 16-year-old body was no match for top-conference upperclassmen. So he enrolled in a community college, where he would be a lesser team's star. Still intending to graduate from Berkeley and not wanting to get behind while taking time off for the tennis season, Nipun took 40 credits in one semester at Santa Clara's Mission College. "I was trying to find my limit and see what I could do," he says. "But it was all in my own self-interest."

Nipun was fixated on getting ahead, and he loved winning. He craved it. In college, he became hooked day-trading stocks on the Internet. He was obsessed, playing with thousands -- even tens of thousands -- of dollars, not quitting until he turned any losses into profit. At 20, he graduated and Sun offered him a full-time job developing software, where he remains three years later, making more money than a 23-year-old probably should. "I'm doing very well. I could afford a Beemer," Nipun says.

But he still drives the same late-model Toyota he had in high school. In fact, Nipun still lives at home with his parents, in the upper-middle-class Santa Clara neighborhood where he grew up, though now he rejects the trappings of his well-appointed house. His bedroom is empty, bare of any furniture or even a bed. There is only a sleeping bag on the floor, and a clock radio plugged into an exposed outlet. "This is my personality. I don't crowd myself with things," says Nipun, who keeps his computer in another room of the house. A vegetarian who avoids alcohol and other intoxicants, Nipun says he lives simply and frugally. He continues his day job at Sun because he likes the work and considers the generous income another tool for growing Charity Focus.

Nipun says he's constantly offered chances to strike it rich at Internet start-ups. But opportunities he once salivated over he now considers hollow. There is, in his mind, a limit to how much money a person needs. "A lot of people are fishing all their lives, never realizing they're going after the wrong fish," Nipun says. "They think it's money, when it's really satisfaction they want. One never leads to the other."

Charity Focus is where Nipun finds his satisfaction today. In a relatively short time, Nipun has successfully built a viable organization and attracted a loyal following. Charity Focus was recently incorporated as a nonprofit group, with IRS tax-exempt status likely to follow. At 250 volunteers and counting, Nipun figures 1,000 is not far off, meaning he will soon need to hire and fund full-time administrative support. What began as a small movement could become, Nipun senses, a major nonprofit entity.

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