Charity Begins @ Home

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

He continued to seek a computer degree at Berkeley, but added a minor in philosophy to get some perspective. "I wanted to understand myself as more than someone who went to school, got married, had kids, made money, and died. It's a fine journey, but I didn't want to do that. People get bitter when they are old and have regrets," Nipun says. "I wanted to live completely in each moment, and I realized I couldn't do that with all my dogmas and biases. It's hard to live without worry about the past or future; it requires a lot of mental stability and peace in your heart. And that's what I wanted."

Nipun didn't find many answers in his philosophical studies, though. "Philosophy is a mental drama," he says. "You can ask 'why' infinitely. But I realized if I just do an act of compassion, what's there to question? When you really aren't selfish, it opens you up to compassion, and true compassion always serves others. I decided I was not going to serve myself."

He felt that lesson most powerfully on a visit to his birthplace in the western Indian state of Gujarat. There, Nipun's family belongs to what is considered a desirable social class under the culture's old caste system. But on a return trip during college, Nipun traveled outside that comfort zone, and witnessed firsthand the immense poverty of greater India. His Americanized body was not accustomed to his Third World homeland, and he became sick from the food. Nipun was throwing up uncontrollably on a crowded street when an elderly man -- dirty, feeble, and emaciated -- approached him. The man reached into his sack, pulled out a lemon, cut it in half, and offered a piece to sooth the ill boy's stomach. "He was a stranger and very poor, and for all I knew that was his last lemon. Yet he shared it with me," Nipun says. "At the time, I wasn't sure if I would've done the same. But now I wouldn't think twice."

Barreling along Highway 101, Nipun blasts the CD player in his car as he heads home at 3:30 in the morning after a late night of Charity Focus-related functions in Berkeley, Menlo Park, and Santa Clara. The high-octane world fusion music -- a multicultural mix of exotic and tribal sounds blended with pulsing beats and haunting chants -- gives Nipun a charge. It inspires him, and takes him to the next level when it seems the last bit of his energy should have long been depleted. "I love this music," Nipun says. "On the surface it's crazy, busy, and intense. A lot is going on. Yet underneath it all, it doesn't feel busy, because there's a smooth and peaceful flow. That's kind of like how I am."

Already well-versed in the soundbite and able to package himself effectively, Nipun is media-savvy, and realizes that he's raising his own profile as he builds an increasingly successful organization. He also knows there are plenty of reasons to join Charity Focus that have more to do with getting than giving. Volunteers can build up their résumés with valuable technical and managerial experience. And in the often solitary computer world, the group can be a fun social outlet for meeting people. "There's nothing wrong with enjoying positive side benefits, but hopefully no one is joining with that as their only intention," Nipun says. "The ratio of self-interest versus altruism varies from person to person, and we all need to be aware that it can be tempting to help people for selfish reasons."

Nipun wants Charity Focus to realize its full potential, but is afraid of letting his personal drive to win take control, like it did in school and on the tennis courts when he was so easily addicted to the high of being the best. "That kick is so ingrained in me, but the kick is selfish in nature," Nipun says. "The dichotomy between serving that inner kick, and serving others, constantly stares me in the face. My biggest temptation is using Charity Focus to feel good and proud about myself."

For now, a tightknit group of volunteers -- including Nipun's brother and some of Nipun's closest friends -- help Nipun oversee the entire operation. They call themselves the Tiger Team: "Bold and tough in the face of temptations and challenges," Nipun says. Having created a very detailed and surprisingly well-oiled system to build and maintain free Web sites for their nonprofit clients, the Tiger Team recently completed a KQED-sponsored media workshop to define their target audience, message, and publicity objectives. "It's part of the maturing process. As we grow, we need to be clear on our strategy," Nipun says. "It may look like Charity Focus is spreading the word and selling its image like any IPO would, but we are inherently different. The world of difference is in our mind-set and intentions."

But just like a young high-tech entrepreneur with a successful IPO, Nipun is finding that when accolades come easily, keeping perspective is hard. Nipun is starting to get noticed. As an alumnus of Berkeley, he has become a darling of academia, and has already found himself invited to functions frequented by the Nobel crowd.

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