If I have a mantra in life, it is this:
If Nipun Mehta were ordinary he would have been zipping on the Golden Gate Bridge in a BMW, live in a plush house, spend his money on caviar and champagne, hurry up the corporate ladder and yes, remain ordinary.
Remember, Mehta is not ordinary. At 28, he has won the President's medal for community service at the UN, the Jefferson award, sits on the board of several Foundations, has addressed think-tank panel that included a Nobel laureate, CNN is not the only that sat up and took notice, reams have been written about him in the press. In Santa Clara, one of the richest neighborhoods in the US, everyone is trying to understand how Mehta spurred a revolution of giving through Charity Focus (www.charityfocus.org), how 5,000 volunteers worldwide have expended their time and talent without getting anything in return. Nothing at all! How in the world can a dot org takeover a dot com and how Charity Focus could flout all making-money rules and yet be successful even by business calibrations. Mehta's Charity Focus has built more than 1,000 websites for non-profits, started a site to put up random messages of compassion that soon had Google as a partner and 100 million views, even initiated an epidemic with its Smile cards, of the 100,000 that got printed within six months some even reached the Dalai Lama and the Pope. If one were to compute the contribution of Charity Focus in terms of dollars it would probably run into millions, but Mehta refuses to juggle numbers, "Can you really count what counts?"
Mehta, who was born in Ahmedabad and moved to the US when he was 12, is not Everyday Joe either. He drives an old Toyota, has a sleeping bag and a radio clock in his room (that's it), has double majored in computer science and philosophy from University of California, Berkeley, has been a tennis champion and an avid skater and has a cult following for giving away selflessly, leads a hermit's life and believes in the mantra of 'I don't know'.
What brought the idea of Charity Focus -- to make websites for non-profits?
In parallel, Silicon Valley had created a vicious default culture -- bigger, faster and better. For so many, it was thoroughly unsatisfying and there was a desperate need to be selfless, to serve without any conditions. We put two and two together and came up with CharityFocus. Our first project was with four friends, all of whom are still actively involved with CharityFocus.
To begin with, what did you think would be the basic advantage/reach? Did you begin with the larger picture in mind, or did it emerge as more people joined and the more you reached out?
It's great that CharityFocus is changing so many lives and is so "successful", even by business school metrics. But even if we just did just one project, that would be fine so long as we put our heart into it. We never expected thousands to join, and we don't really know what tomorrow will hold. If I have a mantra, for life, CharityFocus and everything in between, it is this: I don't know.
Tell me about your journey -- its beginnings, its important milestones.
So I experimented with the opposite. Instead of getting, I tried giving. I started giving in little ways; started with money, and moved on to time ... very quickly I saw how much I enjoyed that. Even if it was anonymous, it was awesome to make people smile.
Such journeys are always are fraught with pitfalls, how easy was it to walk this path. Weren't you ever tempted?
That success isn't about CharityFocus or me; rather it's a testimony to the nature of things -- selflessness sustains life. It may take a while, but love will always triumph over greed. At some point, I was determined that that's how I wanted to live my life. Everyone talked about practical this and that, but I wondered if I could just challenge the universe -- what if I just jump and trust that nature will open its vast arms to contain me? What if? And then I did it. And I'm still smiling.
Every time the media talks about you, Gandhi's adage, 'We must become the change we want to see' always comes up. When did you start thinking, believing that you could become the change you wanted to see?
Where does CharityFocus go from here?
If a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas, why can't an act of love set off a Napster of compassionate action? If Everyday Joes can come together to create a free, open-source encyclopedia with 198,083 articles, why can't we create a repository of good news? If MIT can give away every lecture, every handout, every quiz, why can't NPOs share their best practices? We can and we will.
Where does Nipun go from here?