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Trishna Shah: Behind the Music
Getting the "dirt" on Trishna Shah is no easy assignment. This high-spirited director of the CharityFocus Projects Team has garnered a reputation as a well-focused, feet-on-the-ground, over-achiever ever since her formative years in California's San Joaquin Valley. One of her closest friends, Shilen, puts it this way: "I like to think that she must have been a wild child, but I just can't think of any stories to prove it." Her college roommate, Seema, refused comment.
When Trishna was five years old, her family immigrated to the United States from Kenya, settling in Bakersfield. Trishna was an academic superstar from the very beginning. When pressed, she concedes that
Even as a freshman at Bakersfield's Stockdale High School, Trishna was already leading a life of service. Inspired by her father, who was both the pillar of her immediate family and of a much larger, extended family, Trishna immediately took to his suggestion that she devote some of her energy to assisting with outpatient services at a local hospital. This was the first of many volunteer projects for Trishna. "Initially, my parents would throw out ideas, but once you start volunteering, it becomes natural to look around to see what needs to be done."
Trishna's energy and compassion would soon become a model for others, when she revived Stockdale High School's defunct Key Club. "The idea of the Key Club was to develop service projects in which students could participate: things like working at a local orphanage or the Association for Mentally Retarded Citizens, throwing a Christmas party at a homeless shelter, running book drives," she explains. "It was very cool because it created opportunities for others to serve." Several years and many "random volunteer things" later, Trishna would find an outlet for this same ideal in CharityFocus.
Her Stockdale High years were not all philanthropic, by any means. Trishna regularly tormented her family with clarinet practice and honed her lethal tennis strokes during this time. Still, the good seemed to outweigh the evil.
In 1996, Trishna packed up her academic skills, her insatiable curiosity, and her seemingly-bottomless well of energy and took them to the University of California at Berkeley. At Cal, she studied business administration, continued to play tennis, and immersed herself in the various crosscurrents of a diverse and stimulating campus life. "The greatest thing about Berkeley was that it promoted openness and exploration," she recalls. Trishna contributed to the mix by choreographing, staging, and directing a production of Indian folk dances in her senior year. By all accounts, the performance was exceptional. Shilen, who watched the production evolve, says that Trishna's work with the dancers showed her leadership skills early on: "She really cared about the people, and wanted them to enjoy the process; but she also wanted perfection during rehearsals. She really drilled them, but it was a great accomplishment, and they all said they wished it could have lasted forever."
Trishna's explorations also took her beyond the Berkeley campus. After her junior year, she spent six months studying abroad in a business administration program at the University of Delhi. Trishna embraced this chance to explore Indian culture on its native soil, and threw herself into the experience. "It was a total crack up," she remembers. "There were six American students, and we all showed up for class the first day wearing Indian clothing. Naturally, all the Indian students were wearing Levis! Still, I always tried to stay open to the local experience, even if there was this crazy role reversal sometimes."
No description of Trishna's Berkeley experience - or of any phase of her life - would be complete without mention of her community service. While maintaining a four-point grade average (she took her eyes off the stars just long enough to pull her lone A- in astronomy), she also managed to involve herself in a number of volunteer projects for the campus health center, a home for the aged, and a biotechnology group. In fact, it was at Berkeley that Trishna learned about CharityFocus - and got in on the ground floor.
"One day Viral told me that his brother had an idea for starting a non-profit to design websites for other non-profits," Trishna explains. "I thought that was totally cool and told him I wanted in." Viral recalls her enthusiasm a little differently. "She was practically jumping up and down. She couldn't wait to get started. She insisted on having a conference call right then and there."
The first CharityFocus meeting took place shortly after, in April of 1999. "It was really funny." says Trishna. " Everyone was being so serious and business-like. We were having these serious discussions about organizational structure and strategies. When we got to the end, I said, ‘Who are we kidding? There are not even 10 of us! What's with this organizational thing? We are going to be doing everything!' But six months later, with CF taking off and growing fast, it was already relevant."
The explosive growth of CharityFocus has continued to amaze Trishna. "One of my first jobs was to do outreach to NPOs, to try and generate awareness and get some website assignments," she says. "That didn't last long. When all the publicity started exploding in the summer of 1999, it became pretty clear that outreach was not going to be an issue. We were swamped!" Trishna turned her efforts to organizing the projects team, and has overseen the many structural changes that have allowed CharityFocus to keep pace with the incredible demand over the years.
Trishna's passion and energy carry into other aspects of her life as well. She is devoted to her family, and unwaveringly loyal to her friends. "She could not juggle her busy life without the aid of her PDA," laughs Shilen, "but knowing Trishna, she has backup systems in case it goes down."
For a young woman whose life has epitomized personal success and community service, one might imagine Trishna to be serious and unapproachable. Those who know her tell a different story. The consensus is that she's a goofball, known as much for her warm humor as her many accomplishments. This is not to say that she doesn't have a serious side, and she finds a great deal of tranquility and introspection through meditation. Still, the silliness is never far from the surface. Viral tells the story of a 10-day group meditation retreat that they did together in 2000. The first nine days were to be in complete silence - and not a word was spoken. On the morning of the tenth day, she approached him and pretended to be angry: "Some friend you are! You wouldn't even talk to me!"
Since her graduation from Cal in 2000, Trishna has been pursuing a career in management consulting. This fall, however, she is leaving work and California behind to enroll in a master's program in organizational behavior and social psychology at the London School of Economics. She sees this as a possible bridge between her talent for designing management strategies and her interest in public sector work.
Trishna's fans, however, see a clearer path for her: a musical path. London, of course, is the home of Trishna's most important artistic inspiration: Boy George of Culture Club. "I really loved the way he did his hair," she says wistfully, "but my mom would never let me do the front braid thing." Having endured years of Trishna's clarinet covers of "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" and "Karma Chameleon," her roommates recently stole her woodwind, and have refused to return it to her. Unbowed, Trishna has taken refuge in the guitar, an instrument better suited to her taste for 1980s rock- and-roll. Looking back, she feels the change was propitious. "They were right," she admits. "It was either switch instruments or learn to play Klezmer music. In many ways, this is helping me to grow as a person, or whatever."
Will Trishna return from England to lend her creativity and drive to the world of public policy? Will she tour the bar mitzvah and wedding circuit in a rock-and-roll band? Will England simply refuse to give her back? Stay tuned as "Trishna Shah: Behind the Music" continues…
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