The Gate
Originally published by SF Chronicle March 2, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle All rights reserved.

Nipun Mehta, who made $100,000 a year at his Silicon Valley job, quit months ago to devote himself to the volunteer effort. Chronicle photo by Michael Maloney Nipun Mehta, a Gandhi admirer, spends Wednesdays meditating in his sparsely furnished room. Chronicle photo by Michael Maloney Volunteers in the Virtual World
Silicon Valley dot-commers do charity work on the Web

At 25, software developer Nipun Mehta would seem too young to be thought of as a sage.

But that's what this bright, intense, Silicon Valley visionary has become to many of his peers with his message of service to others in a high-tech world notorious for the self-absorbed pursuit of money and the perks of wealth.

Two years ago, Mehta, already embarked on a quest for more balance in his highly competitive life, invited a dozen or so friends -- mostly Indian Americans like himself whose dot-com careers were flourishing -- to his parents' Santa Clara home for pizza and talk.

What he had in mind was enlisting them in what has become one of Silicon Valley's most innovative approaches to charity, organizing volunteers to donate their highly valued technological skills in helping low-budget, nonprofit organizations build Web sites.

"It seemed like a good fit," recalls Mehta. "Nonprofits often don't have the financial resources to afford a good Web site, and we have these special skills that could really help."

What emerged from that initial meeting was CharityFocus Inc., an online organization that now has more than 900 volunteers in several nations. Breaking up into teams of three or four and working largely through the Internet, they have provided free services worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to 450 nonprofits in the Bay Area and beyond.

But just as important as helping others, says Mehta, is the role he sees his charity playing in "inspiring a spirit of service in ourselves, working on the fundamental principle of compassion."

Even as dot-com stocks have plunged in recent months, the number of volunteers continues to grow, says Mehta, including some who have been laid off by corporate cutbacks.

Beneficiaries of his talented volunteers have ranged from soup kitchens and senior centers to dental programs for the poor, grassroots housing projects and, more recently, newly emerging groups in Mehta's native India devoted, among other things, to rural economic development, literacy and population control.

One of those who came to Mehta for help was Airline Ambassadors International, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that arranges for airline personnel and other frequent travelers to deliver clothing, medical supplies and other humanitarian aid to children around the world.

''We didn't have the skills or the money for a professionally designed Web site. But what Nipun and his team created was not only beautiful, but became an essential ingredient to our success as an organization," said Nancy Rivard, a Burlingame flight attendant and the nonprofit's founder.

She was also greatly impressed by Mehta's dedication to doing good works, which has spread to other projects, including a program to help exiled Tibetan teenagers living in India that has attracted the attention of the Dalai Lama and the Richard Gere Foundation.

Mehta's online charity operates on a shoestring annual budget of little more than $5,000, with most of its software and Web hosting needs donated by a half-dozen Silicon Valley companies he lobbied for help. "This is all volunteer," says Mehta.

He is now devoting himself full-time to his charity work, having resigned in June from his job at Sun Microsystems, where he says he was earning upward of $100,000 a year. When he left, he had stockpiled enough savings to take care of his needs for several months. "When I need more money, I'll go back to work for a while and get it," he says.

Mehta's savings also helped pay the cost of a trip late in December to India that was prompted by a flood of e-mail inquiries from there following a CNN report on his charitable work.

Behind his inspirational rhetoric is a shrewd, skeptical mind. Mehta admits that while his purpose in traveling to India was ostensibly to test interest in setting up CharityFocus chapters, he also wanted to make sure those he was dealing with weren't hoping to financially exploit a connection to the fabled riches of Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, several contacts he made in India have already become part of an Internet link to people in the Bay Area who want to help in the massive rebuilding effort in the earthquake-shattered state of Gujarat.

Mehta, who first programmed a computer at age 7 and graduated from Santa Clara's Wilcox High School at 16, has a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a member of the tennis team.

The living room of his parents' house is lined with more than two dozen of his tennis trophies, but he says he has little time now for the sport, even though the Wilcox High courts are just a few blocks away.

A Hindu and an admirer of India's famed Mohandas Gandhi, whom he often quotes and whose ascetic life he seeks to emulate, the lean 6-footer beds down at night in a sleeping bag in a sparsely furnished room down the hall from his computers.

''In a sense, it symbolizes simplicity for me and living in the moment," he said. "I don't want to be defined by all my stuff."

One of Mehta's biggest fans is author Tom Mahon, a longtime critic of Silicon Valley's historically low ranking in charitable giving. "A lot of people worried that Generation X was soulless and focused only on the technology, but Nipun Mehta is living testimony to the fact it ain't necessarily so," said Mahon.

CharityFocus Inc. can be found on the Web at

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