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?”

“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.”

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. [page]

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.”

“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.

Charity Focus has built free Web sites for soup kitchens and international aid organizations. “They were like angels from heaven,” says Nancy Rivard, founder of Airline Ambassadors, which enlists frequent flyers to hand-deliver humanitarian aid to children around the world. Her group also donates flights so orphans can travel to new families and sick kids can receive medical care not available in their home countries. Rivard says that even if her un-computer-savvy staff did understand the benefits of a good Web site, they never could have afforded one as nice as what Charity Focus provided. “It has been an invaluable networking tool and has brought us hundreds of new members. Charity Focus appeared just when we needed them the most. I don't know what we would have done without them.”

The Leukemia Society of America's Northern California chapter could pay for an Internet presence, but because of Charity Focus it doesn't have to spend thousands of dollars to do so. “That would mean directly taking money away from research to cure cancer in order to fund a Web page,” says Erin Michelson, the chapter's marketing director. Having a functional and effective Web site is vital, she says, in order to spread her group's message, reach donors, and recruit volunteers — especially when people are spending more and more time online. Currently under construction, the Leukemia Society Web page is the biggest job Charity Focus has taken on. [page]

But while Michelson marvels at Nipun's organization, and is grateful for the time and skill his group donates, she admits that big checks can do more to advance a group's cause. She is reluctant, though, to say cash is a better form of giving. “Of course we want money; the more we raise, the more we can fund research. Given the choice, I'd be an idiot not to take a million-dollar check. I'd just go buy a Web site for a few thousand,” Michelson says. “But we also need people's expertise. That's worth a lot to us, and I'm not going to discount that as less than money. And considering Nipun's talent, if he were a consultant, we couldn't afford him.”

Besides, writing million-dollar checks to charity is almost unheard of in Silicon Valley. With rare exceptions — like computer moguls Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who each gave away hundreds of millions of dollars — the wealthy region is as infamous for its tightfistedness as it is famous for its technological innovation. Millionaires and billionaires in the valley tend to spend their money on what Nipun's potential recruit Paras calls “cool toys,” not on creating Andrew Carnegie-style foundations to endow universities and libraries or help the disadvantaged.

So Nipun's organization is getting attention because what he's doing is unusual: Overall, the level of giving in Silicon Valley is so incredibly low that the $250,000 in-kind donations from Charity Focus look great by comparison.

“[The amount] is peanuts,” Michelson admits. “But we're happy anybody in Silicon Valley is giving anything at all.”

Rob Hermanson, Silicon Valley chapter president of the National Society of Fundraising Executives, says he agrees. There are some optimistic indicators that giving is on the rise, he says — such as the Internet money that revived Santa Clara's United Way last July — but still concedes there is a long way to go. “The reality is that while this valley is making lots of money and enjoying enormous returns,” Hermanson says, “the donations by scale are still just a small percentage of their true potential.”

Nipun's outlook is different from that of his peers and even his parents, who came to the United States from India seeking opportunity for themselves, as well as for Nipun and his younger brother, Viral. Nipun's father, Dinesh Mehta, has long prospered in Silicon Valley's computer industry and now works for an Internet start-up himself. Nipun's mother, Harshida Mehta, is a vice president at Bank of America, where she oversees the bank's top accounts and is a confidante to some of the Bay Area's wealthiest people.

While supportive of their son's noble cause, Nipun's parents say they were at first perplexed by his strong convictions. And the sleeping bag, his mother thought, just went too far. “That used to bother me, probably because I wouldn't sleep on one,” Harshida says. “Nipun grew up in every comfort; he has the option to get anything he wants. What made him realize to live this way is hard to answer for me. I thought it was all a phase that would go away, and he would be one of the Silicon Valley crowd.”

But Nipun kept going, working the long hours his job at Sun demanded, while spending just as much time — if not more — organizing Charity Focus. “I worried like any mom would — he was not sleeping, eating, or taking care of himself,” Harshida says. “But Nipun would tell me, 'Mom, if I was working so hard to take a company public, to make money, you wouldn't mind all these hours.' That would shut me up. He made a good point.”

While in school at Berkeley, Nipun says he always tended to question the status quo, even when his thinking was at odds with his insatiable drive for success. “I would observe myself and see that I was conditioned into the senseless habit of pursue, pursue, pursue,” he says. “I had to choose whether to further that pattern or not.”

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.” [page]

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.

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.” [page]

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 Journal guest 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.

In Nipun, he sees promise.

“Nipun is saying there has to be more to life than endless consumption, and he is offering the hope that your worth as a human being does not have to equal your net worth,” Mahon says. “I am optimistic about Nipun. He's eloquent and passionate with his message, and those are the kind of people that get listened to. Look at Gandhi, Mandela, Walesa; these are individuals who could articulate what a lot of people were feeling, and who could create a critical mass. These men did incredible social good against some incredible powers. It has to start somewhere in Silicon Valley, and it's starting with a very earnest and capable person.”

While Nipun is clearly the leader of his movement, he publicly downplays his importance. “I'm just a simple guy, and if people are inspired by my actions, great,” he says. “But ultimately, the change has to come from within them.” He tries to emulate his role model, but seems to feel that to acknowledge any comparison to Gandhi would border on blasphemy. “I'm not a fully selfless person,” Nipun protests. “I'm a normal guy. I go to movies, I hang out with friends, I socialize. I like dancing. I'm not just talking about Charity Focus all the time.”

But increasingly, he is, devoting himself to spreading his message and rallying the troops to carry out his mission. After all, every cause needs an icon. And in the redemption of Silicon Valley, Nipun may be a good choice to play the reluctant hero. “If it happens, so it is,” he says. “I only want to act with compassion and continue with humility.”

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