His experiments with generosity

Small acts of kindness can change the world, says Nipun Mehta, the founder of volunteer-run ServiceSpace

November 28, 2015 04:39 pm | Updated 04:39 pm IST - Chennai

Nipun Mehta in Chennai Photo: M. Moorthy

Nipun Mehta in Chennai Photo: M. Moorthy

“You don’t even have to write this story,” says Nipun Mehta. “But give that bus conductor a box of sweets. You’ll see the difference.” We’ve all come across that grumpy conductor who snaps at us for not giving him the correct change. The poor man probably had a long day squeezing his way through a packed bus. But an act of kindness is all it takes to turn the tables, according to Nipun. The 40-year-old was in the city last week for a talk organised by the Rotary Club of Madras.

Who is Nipun Mehta? His website says that his life’s mission statement is ‘Bring smiles in the world and stillness in my heart.’ As the founder of ServiceSpace, an “incubator for generosity-driven projects”, Nipun spends the most part of his life thinking of ways to help people and supporting those with similar interests through technology. Born in Gujarat, Nipun migrated to the US with his family during his teens. After a degree in Computer Science and Philosophy at UC Berkeley, Nipun did what most educated youngsters of the time did — enter the dot-com world.

There he was, at Silicon Valley, earning a comfortable living. But he refused to be swept away into the materialistic wave. “I went out and surveyed people to find out if they were happy,” he remembers. The answers were diverse, but by then Nipun was sure of what made him happy: “I was happiest when I gave,” he says. That’s when he, along with three friends, started “experiments with generosity.” “We would go out for lunch with the homeless; hold up smile banners on the streets to make people smile; built a website for a non-profit organisation…” Nipun says that all this “felt right.”

“Initially, people thought we were crazy for doing this,” he says. But when they saw the difference Nipun and friends make to society, they joined them. “They said, ‘I’m crazy too, sign me up!’” he laughs. This is how ServiceSpace took shape. With over 500,000 members at present, the organisation creates and supports service-oriented projects. “We run Daily Good, a portal for good news; Karma Tube, a portal for inspirational stories; and Karma Kitchen, that operates on the pay-it-forward concept,” he explains. Karma Kitchen restaurants, where your meal is paid for by a diner who ate ahead of you, are present across the world, including 18 locations in India.

This concept of ‘gift-economy’ which aims to set in motion a smooth cycle of acts of kindness, is being followed by Udhay, an auto-driver in Ahmedabad. Experiments with experiences are not new to Nipun. In 2005, he and his wife Guri walked for 1000 kilometres across India over a span of three months, living on a dollar a day. It was not entirely a smooth journey; the couple did have their moments when they wondered ‘Why can’t people just be kind?’ “But then, I would think, why can’t I be kind?” says Nipun. “The experience taught us that the more you give, the happier you become.”

To him, all these years of working with people and helping others has only reinforced what Gandhi and Vinoba have taught us. “Fundamentally, every person has the ability to be kind,” he feels.

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