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How Silicon Valley’s Community Gives Back

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Editor’s note: “Silicon Valley is a unique, vibrant intermingling of different ideas and cultures resulting in innovation coming from all parts of the world,” says Raju Reddy, executive vice president of global services at Hitachi Consulting. And it was the ideal location for the recent Sevathon 2012, the annual walkathon that brought together more than 60 Bay area profit organizations to raise funds for nonprofit orgs. In this interview, Raju shares insights about the Indian technology community in both the valley and in India and how U.S. technology companies can get involved in “giving back” and helping others.

SandHill.com: My Internet search reveals that you’ve been very involved in helping young entrepreneurs for many years.

Raju Reddy: Professionally, for me, mentoring others is very important. Like other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, I’ve been a big beneficiary of people giving back. Many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley kind of take it for granted, but we’re surrounded by such a wonderful infrastructure of people and organizations to help build a company. I have always really appreciated that and tried to work with other entrepreneurs and help them build companies.

I spent about 10 years in Intel before I started my own company, Sierra Atlantic, in 1993. We were venture funded by NEA, Walden and GE Capital, and I had some great board members and mentors. At the end of 2010 Hitachi bought my company. I also had been mentoring an entrepreneur in Toronto, and that startup was successfully acquired by Intel about the same time as the Sierra Atlantic acquisition. Currently I serve on the board of RedBus and GharPay, both in the consumer Internet space.

SandHill.com: Do you have first-hand knowledge of the culture among the software startups in India? Does it resemble Silicon Valley in the way that they mentor and help each other grow?

Raju Reddy: Yes. I’m very familiar with that. I was involved a few years ago in starting the TiE chapter in Hyperabad, which is my home town. TiE was started in Silicon Valley and is today the world’s largest organization focused on entrepreneurship. I established the Hyderabad chapter jointly with the ISB (Indian School of Business), which is now ranked in the top 15 business schools in the world.

As I mentioned, I’m on the board at RedBus and GharPay. They are now among the fastest growing consumer Internet companies in India, and RedBus was recently ranked as one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world by Fast Company.

We’re starting to see a nice ecosystem of angel investors, mentors and VCs starting to form, especially in the larger cities in India. And we’re starting to see positive outcomes from those experiences.

I am also very involved with a program called BITS Spark, started by the alumni of BITS Pilani, India’s #1 ranked private University. BITS Spark is focused exclusively on fostering entrepreneurship with the goal of making BITS Pilani one of the top three schools in Asia for entrepreneurship. So overall, the startup environment in India today is very encouraging, mostly led by first=time and young entrepreneurs.

For the folks here in Silicon Valley and other tech centers in the United States, I think it’s beneficial for us to be more tuned in to what’s happening in India and China in particular as innovation becomes increasingly global.

SandHill.com: You’re also involved in organizations related to the Indo-American community in Silicon Valley.

Raju Reddy: Yes, mostly with nonprofit organizations. I’m the chairman for BITSAA International, which is an alumni organization for BITS Pilani. BITS stands for the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, part of the Indian Ivy League. BITSAA has 30,000 alumni worldwide, many of whom now work and lead at some of the world’s most innovative companies.

I also serve on the board for the India Community Center in Milpitas, Calif., and it’s through them that I got involved with Sevathon and the annual walkathon.

SandHill.com: What is the India Community Center (ICC) about?

Raju Reddy: The India technology community has always been known as great engineers and entrepreneurs. But we’re not as widely known for philanthropy. The ICC and through Sevathon puts the spotlight on that aspect of our community, as people who care and volunteer for different causes.

SandHill.com: Tell me about Sevathon.

Raju Reddy: It was started by the India Community Center. Its objective is to recognize, promote and nurture a spirit of “Seva” or service to others. The main event is an annual half-day walkathon through which we raise awareness and funds for different non-profits. It grew from a very small pilot of about 100 people three years ago to almost 3,000 people this year. And now it’s spreading beyond the Bay area into other U.S. cities. Chicago started Sevathon last year. So we’re very excited about what is happening.

SandHill.com: Is the tech community in Silicon Valley really involved in this?

Raju Reddy: The focus is not so much on technology, but the tech community is certainly very involved. To me, it is so exciting when I go into a weekly Sevathon planning meeting. There are 30-40 people, all busy engineers and executives from Silicon Valley companies, all selflessly devoting their time. It’s exciting to find so many good selfless people in one room. That is a big reason why I get involved. They are all very smart people and each one has some innovative ideas about ways to give back.

Having lived in both India and the United States, I am always impressed by how philanthropic Americans are by nature, and I believe the Indo-American community can bring the best of both cultures to make a meaningful social impact in the world. I feel I’m gaining lot more than I’m giving back when I participate in some of these initiatives.

SandHill.com: There are a lot of walkathons for various causes throughout the United States. What is special about this one?

Raju Reddy: The reason why Sevathon is so unique is it’s not tied to one particular cause. Most walkathons benefit one specific cause. In Sevathon, you pick whatever cause interests you in the community. This year we had 62 different nonprofits that came together. Some of them focused on education, some on health and some on climate change. A non-profit focused on curable blindness, and another organization focused on families with special-needs children.

Interestingly, the idea of walking for a cause has roots in India’s independence movement. Probably the most famous walk ever for a cause is Gandi ji’s salt march for 240 miles on unpaved roads. However, the western world has mastered the art of raising funds and awareness through walks held for a cause. The earliest of such was the hunger walk in England in the 1970s.

Besides raising awareness, Sevathon is a great forum for nonprofits to share best practices — it is mentoring in some form for the younger non-profits. Some very good things also come out of the interaction between different non-profits that have complementary interests in addressing a particular social issue — that’s possible only when you have a platform like Sevathon.

SandHill.com: Please share an example of a result from these various groups coming together and sharing ideas.

Raju Reddy: Last year there was an organization called Khan Academy and an organization focused on promoting and preserving the “Telugu” arts and literature. Telugu is spoken by about 80 million people in India. Khan Academy is a nonprofit organization started in the Bay area, which is transforming education at the middle school and high school levels. A donor came forward and said they liked what Khan Academy is doing in English and wanted to make their content available in Telugu language — an initiative that was subsequently funded. That would not have happened unless these two organizations came together in a forum like Sevathon.

SandHill.com: What were some of the causes in Sevathon 2012?

Raju Reddy: BITSAA, which I mentioned earlier, started BITSConnect a year ago and hopes to launch later this year. It will bring high-definition video conferencing capabilities to classroom learning at universities in India, where you can have 200 students in each classroom in each of their four campuses and one professor conducting the lecture, yet creating the feel of all being in the same classroom.

Faculty shortage is a big issue now in India. BITSConnect is a $5 million initiative, and they’re raising awareness through Sevathon because they believe it can become a model for other universities in India.

SandHill.com: The India Community Center also has an awards program. Do these awards recognize anything having to do with technology?

Raju Reddy: Yes, in the ICC Seva Awards, we recognize the best organizations in different categories. One of the categories is “scale” (most nonprofits don’t scale well). Another category is innovation (it could be technology or some form of innovation to address a challenge). Another category is for the organization that does the best job of engaging youth in pursuing the cause. And the last category is “local,” for addressing community needs here in the Bay area. We have an independent judging panel represented by community leaders and each award is $5,000.

SandHill.com: What is the most important thing for people to realize about Sevathon and other opportunities that help other people?

Raju Reddy: The main thing is to get involved and volunteer for a cause — whatever cause appeals to you. And spread the message so others will get involved and volunteer too.

Read more about the India Community Center in Silicon Valley and Sevathon 2012: www.IndiaCC.org and http://www.indiacc.org/sevathon.

Read more about the BITSConnect 2.0 project: http://www.indiawest.com/news/4341-alumni-aim-to-redefine-education-with-bit.

Raju Reddy is the executive vice president for global services at Hitachi Consulting. Previously he was founder and CEO of Sierra Atlantic (acquired by Hitachi Consulting). He serves on the board of India Community Center in Milpitas, California, and is the chairman of BITSAAl, the alumni body of India’s #1 private university, BITS Pilani. He served as a member of the board of trustees for Puente, a Wharton School non-profit program helping underprivileged communities worldwide gain access to technology.

Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor at SandHill.com.

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