February Spot Light
Tell us about yourself.
Ever since I was a kid, I would always ask the big questions of life. What's the purpose of this whole charade? What happens after you die? What is the motive for action? Often, I didn't find the answers I was looking for, so I would start investigating. Seventeen was a turning point of sorts in my life, when my spiritual search came into the foreground. I was playing a lot of tennis (secretly hoping to turn pro), I took a lot of advanced academic classes and was already a junior in college, and I was en route to start studying Computer Science at UC Berkeley. My first (and only) job was as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems but my prime focus had shifted, somehow, to dealing with my unanswered existential questions. The journey still continues to this day, but where previously I was looking for answers, I now look to dissolve the questions.
How do you deal with setbacks?
Buddha's attendant, Ananda, asked once him: "You speak a lot about noble friends. It seems like that's half the path." And Buddha replied, "No, Ananda, that's not half the path. Its the full path." When we serve others, we create affinities with them and the web of those affinities has been my greatest security against personal challenges. For instance, when I quit my job in my early twenties and became a "full time volunteer", there was a lot of pushback from our social community. In their eyes, I was being careless with my potential, and that I should focus on making money before thinking of service. Yet, I intuitively knew that when going gets tough, don't fight force with force. Meet it with love instead. I would do small acts of kindness for all those people, and over time, the entire community has come around to whole heartedly supporting not just my decision -- but my work. Taking that route of love is a slow process, but it’s will last you a long time.
What is the most exciting part of being an entrepreneur?
An entrepreneur is always trying to build a bigger pie. It’s not about managing the current pie, or scheming to secure a piece from someone’s else part, or even optimizing the pie for a marginal gain in utility. An good entrepreneur thinks completely out of the box, reinvents the rules, and attempts to divine the impossible into reality. That’s exciting! For me, though, it goes even one step further. My Uncle, who is arguably one of India’s most influential entrepreneurs of the previous generation, often jokes: “I’ve done entrepreneurship with money, but Nipun does it without money.” That is, I play in the world of alternate capitals, like time, compassion and community, and unlike money, these are regenerative resources. The more that we use it, the more there is to use. So every time I’m approaching my blank canvas of creation, I feel like I’m holding infinite possibilities. And then, the real question becomes -- what will you create? It starts to beg the question of what I value. In that sense, the more I try to create, the more I discover what I value and who I am.
How do you use Jainism in your day to day life?
Technically, I’m not a Jain. But one tenet of Jainism that I use every single day is “Anekantvaad.” Honoring multiplicity of views. We typically find security in fixed views, beliefs and ideologies. We create ecosystems of support that further that security. But the practice of Anekantvaad tells us to do something radically different -- to let go of that false security, and in that surrender, find a deeper organizing principle of oneness. That’s profound. I have seen that a mark of a good leader, or a truly compassionate person, is one who is able to hold conflicting, competing, or even paradoxical world views together. Rumi said it eloquently, “Out beyond the field of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Whenever I encounter things that oppose my world view, I try to expand my heart so I can contain it. That’s not an easy practice, but that’s what Anekantvaad invites us to do.
What goals do you hope to accomplish 5 years from now?
You know, I never know how to answer such questions. I’ll tell you why. I used to be very goal oriented, because that’s how we’re trained in our culture. In my journey, I started seeing that when I’m hyper focused on a goal, the best case scenario is that I achieve it -- but then I set another goal. Get good grades in high school, get into a good college, get a high-paying job, fancy car, then a startup or promotion, then some awards, family life, big house, status in society, grandkids, and then hospital. :) Even if I achieve every single goal, I not guaranteed satisfaction. Instead, the question I ask myself is -- who is giving me my goal? My ego, conditioned by my social and culture influences? Einstein once shared a great thought, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would spend the first 55 minutes to ask the right question.” Then, getting to the answer, or achieving the goal is easy. So I ask myself what exactly is the goal worth pursuing? Anything I find worth doing is rooted in the present, not in the future, so I just stick to that. Deepen awareness, purify the mind, do acts of service. Beyond that, I’m not sure I could honestly say I have any serious accomplishments that I’m gunning for.
Who inspires you?
I tend to believe that we're all disciples of our experience. Many larger-than-life inspirations from Gandhi to Krishnamurti to Vivekananda to Goenka have significantly influenced my thinking, but on a regular basis, it is my brother and my wife who always hold up a higher road for me. In terms of life experiences, perhaps my walking pilgrimage in 2005, where my wife and I walked 1000 kilometers while eating whatever food was offered and slept wherever place was offered, was truly paradigm pending. Our sound byte was that we used our hands to do small acts of kindness, our heads to write stories of everyday heroes, and our hearts to cultivate truth. But really it was a process of renunciation through the deep abyss of our minds, and a process that is still in progress, without an end in sight. :)
What advice do you have for future Jain Professionals?
When someone recently asked me what advice I would have for my younger self, I remembered finding a five dollar bill on the street. And I wrote this to my younger self: “You will be taught to work hard, to drive your destiny, to make something of your precious life. That's valuable, but don't forget that underneath the waves of your effort lie the undefinable laws of the ocean. Listen carefully because these laws won't be as loud as the commercials on TV; they will instead whisper with the poetry of serendipity. That five dollar bill you find on the streets, don't ignore it just because you haven't earned it. When reverence become the crucible for the subtlest accidents of life, grace will wake you up every morning. Grace isn't deserved or undeserved, understandable or mysterious, pain or pleasure. It is simply grace -- and it is aligned with the laws of the ocean. May you live a life of grace.”
Smile Cards have really spread globally now. Can you tell us more about how they work and what made you start that project?
Many years ago, we started a kindness experiment called Smile Cards. The idea is that you do a kind act for someone and leave a Smile Card behind that instructs them to pay it forward. It could be anything from a conversation with a homeless person to paying for the person behind you in line to trading your first-class seat in an airplane with a stranger in economy-class to thanking the local janitor to even just listening to a friend or calling up your parents. In search of the big ideas that will change the world, we often forget the invisible acts that are the backbone of humanity. Anyone can order these cards at no charge. They can use them to do an act of kindness and attach the Smile Card to tell the recipient to pay it forward. And then, you can share stories online, see what other people are doing, or engage in all kinds of other activities. We started by printing 100 cards, without the foggiest idea of how we'd sustain ourselves and today, there are more than a million Smile Cards in distribution and the site is full of ideas, inspiration and stories. It never fails to reinvigorate me. And now, we’ve even got a Smile Deck, which is collection of 52 ideas across 4 themes, and 21-day kindness challenges and a whole lot more. You can learn more about all this at Kind Spring
You came up with a very interesting concept in the form of Karma Kitchen. How did this idea strike you? Can you tell us about the functioning of the Kitchen?
Karma Kitchen is a pop-up, gift-economy restaurant. Like any other restaurant, you walk in and have a meal but here, your bill reads zero. It’s zero because someone before you paid for your meal, and you have a chance to pay forward for someone after you. Most people think that you can’t trust people like that, because people are fundamentally selfish. So that was our experiment. It turns out, that if you build a strong context, people respond to generosity with even greater generosity. In the same way, we run a rickshaw in Ahmedabad, an art magazine in the US, and so much more. Such a "gift economy" model that cultivates a shift from transaction to trust can be applied in umpteen ways, and is much needed in our culture today.