Nipun Mehta: Change the world by serving others

The social entrepreneur had a career ahead of him in Silicon Valley when he decided to dedicate his life to serving others. The proponent of the gift economy says: giving is the currency for more fulfillment - also on the job.

Nipun Mehta, Service Space
Nipun Mehta has founded social businesses and has established the concept of "giftivism" - gifts and activism for social change ©ServiceSpace

We are about 50 people who have just taken a devout seat in a large circle on the marble floor of a James Bond villa in Burgenland. Invited to the Laddership DreamA Circle were Harald Katzenschläger and Hermann Gams from DreamAcademia, an accelerator for social entrepreneurs, innovators and changemakers. The atmosphere is relaxed, but also devoutly festive. Everyone here is here for one reason: they want to change something in the world. 


One of them is the star guest of this day: Nipun Mehta smiles a lot, distributes free hugs to people he sometimes knows better, sometimes not at all, he carries his heart on his tongue. Nipun Mehta makes giving a gift. The founder of "Giftivism" (a word mixture of gift and activism) and founder of Service Space, a worldwide movement for generosity and volunteerism, travels internationally. He is here to give all that he has: a new attitude towards capital, a vision of a flourishing economy where generosity and gratitude are the key essentials. Nipun Mehta's words are no idealistic blah-blah: His Service Space platform is an incubator for social projects with around 500,000 volunteers worldwide. Service Space also organizes Awakening Circles, meditation evenings, and the Laddership Circles, which are profound serving leadership workshops for managers and entrepreneurs. Nipun also launched the SmileCard for promoting a giver culture in companies, founded the restaurant chain KarmaKitchen and DailyGood, a portal for positive news. With his visionary attitude and effective actions, Nipun Mehta was even appointed by Barack Obama to his Advisory Council on Poverty and Inequality in 2015.


In an interview with New Work Stories, he talks about his path and his journey from the aspired Silicon Valley to serving people, inspiring companies to use many forms of capital.


New Work Stories: You studied at Berkeley, had a career in Silicon Valley ahead of you. Today you promote the the gift economy and serving others as a foundation of meaningful business. How did you choose this path back then?

Nipun Mehta: I practically grew up in Silicon Valley. I studied Computer Sciences and Philosophy at Berkeley, and witnessed the peak of the DotCom movement. The stories around me were about people who made a lot of money very quickly with their startups. There was enthusiasm, creativity, and purpose everywhere. But I still had the feeling that it was a dead end for me.



This incessant greed as a motivator for innovation and entrepreneurial activity seemed hollow to me. I wanted a higher power as motivation. I wasn't sure what that was, but I wanted to find out and dedicate my life to it. Instead of accumulating more and more capital and then doing something good with it, I thought: why not just go into the flow and be the change along the way? I started interviewing many people. I wanted to find out: if you have a lot, are you automatically happier? I found out that happiness is not related to possessions. At the core of my being, I suspected that it was not about having and taking, but about giving.


In your youth you travelled a lot. Has that shaped you?

It was more of a process. You don't get six feet taller overnight. I've always had this imprint of wanting to help others. At 17, I suppose my inner journey began more consciously. I did a lot of research, I did a lot of volunteer work, at 18 I was working in terminal care. That does something to you. You help these people, make friends with them and two weeks later they are dead. Then you realize: everything in the world is transitory. I thought to myself, if that is so, how do I get into my strength: by persevering or by just riding the wave? And if the second is true, how do I learn to ride the wave? For me, serving became the way to get away from this accumulation mindset and into flow.


Was there a moment that made you think: I want to give something to others?

I have always been happy to give to others. But I also had dramatic moments of realization. I was in high school and on my way home, I saw a man limping in the street. I suddenly thought: I wish I could give him my legs. It didn't make sense rationally at first, and I was always an intellectual person. He was limping and trying to get the bus. I sat down and closed my eyes and just wished him strength. It was outside my norm, even I didn't understand what I was doing. It was just a longing to connect and serve him. I felt a moment of a great connection. The boundary between me and the other one was beginning to dissolve. Also later I noticed: if I give others something that makes them happy, it makes me happy too. I began to feel this more and more through other experiences. Whenever I worked as a volunteer, I didn't think I was helping the other person, but: wow, I get so much back from the other person for my modest help. I thought to myself, thank you for the opportunity to give something. Often we just don't know how we can help others.


You studied economics and as a young man you planned a career in Silicon Valley.

It was all about making big money. I had it all in front of me: money, career, a great apartment. But there was this call to serve other people. So we got a few people together and made a website for a homeless shelter pro bono. From day one, we were driven by an inner transformation. We wanted no money, no badge, nothing. It was fun and I wanted to make this form of giving my maxim. So I decided to quit my job and serve others. My parents thought I was crazy. I just had this call for serving others.


That's how Service Space evolved, with more than 500,000 volunteers worldwide. How did it get so big?

It's the power of love. We grow up in our mothers' wombs. It's nature. We are connected. If we get out of the way with our ego and our plans, a lot can flow through us. When I serve others, I go from I to We. Then I no longer need coercion to be prosocial and cooperative.



"For me, money is like toothpaste. I'm not gonna sit around all day thinking:

Oh, my God, where am I gonna get my next toothpaste?"



What is your attitude towards money? How do you pay your rent?

It's not about figuring out how to pay your bills. To me, money is like toothpaste. I'm not sitting around all day thinking, "Oh, my God, where am I gonna get my next toothpaste?" It's there, you leave it there, but you're not obsessed with it. It's a small part of the day, but not the core. My core of the day is service. My core is, how can I contribute? A tree that is well rooted gives its fruit to the community. And it will always be watered. Sometimes rain comes unexpectedly, which is grace. Over time, you build up generosity and you get a lot in return. If I give you a thousand apples, what will you do with them? You won't be able to eat them, you can pass them on.


What do you think about donations or foundations like Bill Gates', which supports social projects?

You can create impact in the world with money or with a foundation, but not yet a transformation. There are three levels of social change: awareness, impact and transformation. Suppose you are a smoker. Awareness means: I point out to you that smoking is harmful to your lungs. Impact means I give you a nicotine patch. Transformation is where you really overcome your cravings and change your behaviour. Awareness and Impact are helpful, but transformation will actually change behaviour - on an individual and social level. Mother Theresa and Gandhi - true heroes of social change - created Impact but led with inner transformation.


That sounds so radical. Does that mean that with inner transformation we would no longer have this form of capitalism?

I have no idea what kind of ism we'd have then. We'd probably just be human. To establish a system, be it capitalism or communism, you need a certain form of coercion. The question is, how do we recognize that we're connected as human beings? That it's not the right arm fighting against the left arm, but that we recognize that we are identified with the whole body? When we come into humanity, we no longer need compulsion. The question is, how can we remove these clouds in our heads? I have removed these clouds, at least in part, by serving man. I realized through that: My happiness comes from the happiness of others.


Nipun Mehta with the Dalai Lama
Nipun Mehta with the Dalai Lama (©Service Space)

Sounds good. But how does the gift economy really work at the level of organizations?

Psychologist and famous author Adam Grant identified three types of people: the givers who only give, the takers who only take, and the matchers who do both, depending on the context. He did research, he expected the givers to rank at the bottom of the success pyramid. This was not true: they were at the top. When a giver is successful, everyone around him is successful. If a taker succeeds, it's at the expense of others. Grant, in his research on leadership, recognized that givers had much greater advantages than takers. The question is, how do we establish a gift culture? In any ecosystem, there will always be some givers, some matchers and some takers. The exciting thing is: if there is one in a group who gives continuously, then the behavior of the matchers will change: they will also become givers. This will increase the trust in the group more and more and thus productivity will skyrocket. So all it takes is a consistent giver who wants to establish a giver culture. This works just as well in the family or in relationships of two. And it also works for ecosystems. There are of course some things that are beneficial in companies at a systemic level.


Such as?

To recognize that capital is always multidimensional. There are different forms of capital: we know a lot about financial capital, but there is also cultural capital, time capital, attention capital, community capital. The question is: how can we in the company contribute to all these forms? For example, if you are good at writing, it is not just a question of you contributing that part. But how can we see our groups as living organisms, where individual members cannot simply be exchanged for others? So seeing it this way: you contribute to the group in many ways, including writing. You just need to make people's strengths visible.


"You can only see the wholeness in others if you see it in yourself." 


What does it take to do this in the companies? A lot is at stake in our image of people. How can we change that at the executive level?

I have a very good friend who, as an executive, has 5000 people reporting to him. One day his newborn son was diagnosed with autism. He said he just went into the bathroom and started crying. In the end he hired five people with autism for one of his projects. He had studied them, recognized their strengths and integrated them into the work. It turned into a Harvard case study and at some point the CEO of SAP came to him and announced that by 2020, one percent of the global workforce would be made up of autistic people. It's also about looking in a holistic way at groups of people and seeing them as a living system. You can be very creative if you have an inclusive heart. You can only see the wholeness in others if you see it in yourself. And you can only be the change yourself. Basically we design ourselves who we are.


"Why a culture of giving makes companies more successful": On Tuesday, the 28th of January, Nipun Mehta holds a keynote lecture at WU Executive Academy. Click here for more information!

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Nicole Thurn

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