Philanthropy: Transplants from South Asia Put a New Spin on Giving.

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Indians and other South Asians make up a fast-growing segment of the Puget Sound region’s population base. Census figures show the Indian population in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties totaled more than 52,000 in 2010 — almost triple what it was a decade earlier. 

Many of these new arrivals are 30-somethings connected to a tech industry that is booming and, in many respects, led by their countrymen — like Sunny Singh at Edifecs, Aman Bhutani at Exepdia, Sunny Gupta at Apptio, Steve Singh at Concur Technologies and Pradeep Rathinam at Aditi Technologies.

These young tech stars are eager to redistribute some of their wealth. In doing so, they continue a local tradition of international philanthropy and development work by organizations that range from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to a constellation of small nonprofits that are bringing Pacific Northwest ingenuity — and funds — to some of the world’s poorest communities.

“We are definitely hitting a more diverse pool than before,” says Sachi Shenoy, cofounder and executive director of Upaya Social Ventures, a Seattle nonprofit that invests in job-generating businesses in India. 

But these aren’t just well-paid programmers looking to attend a gala and write a check. Some of these young idealists are starting their own nonprofits and family foundations. Their efforts are changing the face of global giving in Seattle and bringing cultural context — not to mention entrepreneurial spirit and tech savvy — to a sector that has sometimes struggled to embrace diversity.

This trend has roots that reach back to an earlier tech boom, when South Lake Union was just a dingy corridor between Capitol Hill and downtown, and a growing city on the Eastside got all the attention.

“Microsoft … comes in and you get this new infusion of talent as the company grows,” says Akhtar Badshah, who ran Microsoft’s global giving programs from 2004 to 2014 and says many of the company’s international hires founded and funded nonprofits. 

Much of that earlier giving, doubled by Microsoft’s matching-donation program, was aimed at large national and international nonprofits that funded development projects in India.

“There is a propensity for the Indian community to give to organizations that are doing work in India,” says Badshah. The contributions helped establish a culture of global giving at the burgeoning tech giant and came at a time when the region as a whole was re-envisioning itself as an international economic player.

“The economic explosion and upward mobility of the tech sector and of Seattle has been paralleled in certain communities.…South Asians are an example,” says Amy Bhatt, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Bhatt, who earned her doctorate at the University of Washington, studies South Asian migration trends in the tech industry. “There’s a lot of wealth that has accumulated here,” she says.

As a result, that first generation of international tech workers helped incubate a number of nonprofits and foundations. For Srilata Remala’s father, Rao Remala, Microsoft’s first Indian hire, giving back was a way to stay connected to his home country.

“He really struggled to get an education,” says Remala of her father, who wrote the original code for Microsoft Windows. “The village [he grew up in] didn’t have a hospital. … He decided he wanted to give back so that children can have a better chance to succeed, like he did.”

That giving back took the form of a family foundation, now primarily run by Remala, 31, and her sister, Srilakshmi Remala Kamdar, 36. The foundation distributes the family’s charitable funds locally and abroad. It recently made a $500,000 donation to the United Way of King County for youth programming and a $15,000 donation to the Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute to help combat chikungunya, a mosquito-borne disease that has infected members of the Remala family in southern India. 

Reducing economic inequality in Bangladesh is the goal of the Spreeha Foundation, situated in a squat office building turned sleek coworking space across from the Overlake Fashion Plaza in Redmond.

“Our vision is life without poverty,” says 35-year-old Tazin Shadid, founder of the 4-year-old nonprofit. Shadid wanted to find real solutions for the poorest of the poor in his native Bangladesh, using the expertise he has developed in researching consumer behavior while working on Microsoft products such as Bing. For example, he wanted to understand why small children in Bangladesh’s slums don’t attend school, despite living only a few miles from one. Shadid spent time in the community, asking questions and observing behavior. He concluded that working parents were unable to accompany their children on the long walk to existing schools and chose instead to keep them in the care of neighbors or relatives. In response, Spreeha began renting shacks in the slums to convert into local preschools. 

Raised in dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, Shadid moved to Texas, then to the Pacific Northwest for a job at Microsoft in 2006. “I love learning about people,” he says. “I have spent hundreds of hours in the slums, understanding the needs of these people.”

Shadid was able to spend those hours in Dhaka’s slums by taking advantage of a Microsoft program that compensates him $25 an hour for time spent on his organization, up to $15,000 per year — a limit he quickly maxes out. It has allowed him to develop a full-service approach to poverty alleviation — one that brings health care, education, job training and social workers to poor families in the neighborhoods where they live.

Being an outsider, even in a global community like Microsoft, isn’t always easy. Shadid says his first years in Seattle were tough as he struggled to make friends and break through the “Seattle freeze.”

“I was from Texas and thought I was going to a really diverse city. Life was going to be so much fun. And I moved here and I was like, ‘What’s up with these people? They don’t want to talk to me!’”

Shadid finds that working in the nonprofit sector has helped him connect with other Seattleites. “It’s getting better,” he says.

Indeed, Bhatt says South Asians are becoming more visible in Seattle’s philanthropic community and as leaders in the nonprofit sector. 

“You’re seeing more markers of South Asian leaders in general…in American organizations and institutions,” says Bhatt, citing the local examples of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and state Senator Pramila Jayapal. Earlier leaders led the way for this generation, she says. “As a result of a multitiered, multigenerational community, you have much richer examples of South Asian leaders in philanthropy.”

But Bhatt says there are still barriers for South Asians when it comes to getting involved in the nonprofit sector. Older generations, Bhatt says, often have concerns over mismanagement and corruption in philanthropy and nonprofits, born from bad experiences in their birth countries.

It’s a barrier Nadia Mahmud knows well. She and her husband, Adnan, founded Jolkona, a nonprofit that brings social entrepreneurs from Asian countries and elsewhere to Seattle for intensive technology and business trainings.

“In Bangladesh, there’s a lot of corruption, so you end up giving your money to family members, because everybody knows somebody who is poor or living in the village,” says Mahmud. “People don’t tend to give to organizations because people don’t really trust them.”

Trust was a key consideration for Shash Mody, 32, a recent Amazon arrival who — with climbing partner and fellow techie Vinay Patel, 39 — summited Mount Rainier and Mount Whitney to raise money for Upaya Social Ventures and a California-based education nonprofit called Green Dot Public Schools. Mody grew up climbing in the Himalayas and saw climbing for donations as a kind of Indian-turned-Northwestern spin on charity walks and marathons.

Mody says he looked for organizations that were transparent, trustworthy and focused on long-term solutions instead of short-term charity. “I want to see measurable impact, and I make decisions with that in mind,” says Mody. “I think giving for the sake of giving can actually hurt economies and make populations dependent.”

Upaya’s approach, which includes investing in entrepreneurs who will create jobs for India’s impoverished instead of giving directly to the needy, appeals to him and other South Asian tech-industry donors.

“All these folks in tech are acutely aware of venture capital,” says Upaya cofounder Shenoy. “It’s the language of Silicon Valley and Seattle. They really want us to harness that in our model to ensure sustainability.”

Shenoy explains that “patient angel investments,” which help entrepreneurs get on their feet, instead of loans, which would have to be paid back, serve poor communities better than a free market approach. “This demographic loves to think about investing in startups,” she notes, “and the returns they could possibly get.”

Despite some differences of opinion over approach, the impulse to help runs deep.

“We want to do something good for local communities and communities across the world,” says Mody, who believes that witnessing extreme poverty drives many Indians in his generation to take action. “We grew up around a lot of poverty. Even if we weren’t in poverty ourselves, we could see poverty on our doorsteps every day. We come to this country and it’s hard to forget that there are people living on very little. I feel empathy for the poor; they don’t want a handout. Rather, they want access to jobs, education and respect in the same manner we do.”

Shadid clearly shares this sense of empathy: He left his job at Microsoft in the fall to work full time for his nonprofit. “It’s scary in a way [leaving Microsoft],” he says. “I had this high-paying, amazing job, the most fun job I could have had. But this [mission] is too important and too big. The reward is totally different; you see all these people and see their lives changing.” 

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