Charity Begins @ Home

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

The volunteers Nipun recruits to work for his group are often enamored of him. Their first interaction with Nipun is usually by e-mail, and he always impresses. Ravi Devesetti ran across a Charity Focus posting while surfing the Internet late one night and sent out an inquiry. Within the hour, at 2:30 a.m., Nipun had personally replied. Soon, the two met and Devesetti was sold. "I started working with two other very 'pumped up' volunteers by the end of the week," Devesetti says, already using Nipun's favorite catch phrase. "It was the first time I spent three hours with any- one in Silicon Valley and didn't talk about stock options."

Nipun's mission resonated with Devesetti, who had done well financially working at Netscape but was looking for balance in his life. He viewed Nipun as a good role model. "He's so young, but filled with such spiritual knowledge and compassion," the 29-year-old Devesetti says. "I felt like I could learn a lot from this kid."

Yoo-Mi Lee, who works for a San Francisco-based Internet start-up, had the same reaction upon seeing Nipun in person at one of the Charity Focus volunteer orientation meetings. "He's a born leader," Lee says. "Nipun is really able to bring out the best in everyone and channel their energy. I was blown away by the entire organization, and by how much thinking and planning Nipun has put into the group. None of us can believe he's able to do so much."

Nipun knows such adulation can be dangerous to his psyche if he lets himself believe it too strongly. "I understand to a certain extent I am getting a kick out of this," he admits. "There are times I feel high and powerful. I might fall into these traps of fame and success, but I will not give up trying to rise again to the true spirit of service."

"Success, glory, and fame can be sought or it can be an outcome of something you do," he says. "If I enjoy the action and do all that I can, I will still reap the fruits of my actions -- but it is no longer about my reward. I am well aware of these temptations for myself and only time will tell if I will be able to stay real."

No one, though, questions Nipun's sincerity. Volunteers, friends, teachers, and colleagues all remark how real he is -- even longtime friends who are prospering in Silicon Valley and have so far rebuffed Nipun's invitations to join his cause. "I believe Nipun can motivate people because he lives by the principles that he believes in. He is genuine in his talk and manner," says Tushar Tank, a former classmate from Berkeley.

Nipun's parents are not ashamed to say their 23-year-old son has taught them life lessons.

"We are very proud," his father says. As a young man Dinesh had wanted to devote himself to charitable work. "I had a similar desire, but didn't do it fully. I got caught up in daily life and the pursuit of worldly things. Now I spend 80 percent of my time doing things in self-interest. What Nipun has demonstrated is that he can do the opposite, and I am happy he can carry out the wishes I was not able to fulfill."

"He influences us now," Nipun's mother says. "We can keep having bigger houses and better cars, but he makes us ask, 'What's the point?' He strikes a balance in the family, and he has earned a lot of respect from us. Maybe one day we will join him."

Nipun, who meditates regularly at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, also hosts Wednesday evening dinners with family and friends at which, after discussing a thought of the week, the guests eat and reflect in quiet. Nipun is well-versed in his family's Hindu culture, and has been influenced by his parents' blend of secular and spiritual values. Every Charity Focus volunteer meeting begins with 10 minutes of silence. The contemplation is important, Nipun says, for people to understand why they belong to Charity Focus. "I don't want this to be just another thing we're busy with."

He calls the silent time "observation." He's cautious not to apply any religious labels, even shying from the word "meditation." "Charity Focus is about the same compassion and humanity found in every religion," he says. "It is a way to step back and reconnect, not something you have to subscribe to. Personally, my goal is to live simple and free, outside any dogmas, beliefs, opinions, or judgments."

Nipun has also caught the attention of author Tom Mahon, who was one of the first to write about the Bay Area's technology-spawned wealth. His 1985 book, Charged Bodies: People, Power and Paradox in Silicon Valley, noted that charitable donations in Santa Clara County were among the lowest per capita in the nation, while Ferrari ownership was the highest. Mahon -- who also wrote a 1996 Wall Street Journalguest editorial on "Reconnecting the Spirit and Technology" -- has been advocating the humanization of high-tech culture for years. Yet the situation, he says, has only gotten worse.

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