It’s a professional organization that’s been in existence for 43 years and has made $5 million in charitable grants, but ICA – Indians for Collective Action – is still pretty much an unknown in the Bay Area, its former president says.
But that may be changing as more young professionals decide to get involved.
“Nowadays you see so many young people who want to make an impact, who want to reconnect with their South Asian roots after being brought up in the Bay Area,” says Bhupen Mehta. “But changing the mind-set of older people, people in my age group, to give back has been much harder.”
That concept of service is at the core of ICA – an association of Bay Area professionals who have established careers in technology and business but want to make a social impact, too.
So they gather monthly to assess social projects, primarily in India, in need of funding and support. Among the projects the group has helped support are women’s empowerment communities, low-cost prosthetics units, annual health camps and care for senior citizens.
Making a difference
ICA is, in many ways, a sort of LinkedIn for social impact in the Bay Area, says current President Unmesh Sheth. It’s not merely the funds that they dole out, but also the massive network that they’ve built over the past four decades that creates an impact.
For Sheth, ICA is not only about supporting grassroots organizations back in India but also about capturing the talent in Silicon Valley and applying it to new challenges.
“For several years, I was pondering over the wisdom, value and practical impact of my own involvement in technology and management to society, just to come up empty,” says Sheth. Now, as leader of ICA, he is asking a different question: “Can we use (our) skills to empower the economics of global poverty?”
Abhay Bhushan, another former president of ICA, aimed to do just that. A longtime employee of Xerox, he had a desire to blend social impact with his everyday working career after a stint in 1978 when he took a “social service leave” from the company to learn about rural development in his native India.
He returned to work with an outlook of “creative simplicity” – the genesis of many rural innovations. For Bhushan, the focus became making an environmental impact – personally and professionally.
He made small modifications in his own life; riding a bicycle instead of using a car and generally becoming more environmentally aware. He also got Xerox to start thinking more about environmental impacts, helping lead the company to decrease energy usage, recycle more and consider the materials it used, all long before it became hip to be eco-friendly.
Other notables involved in ICA include Paul Polak, who was instrumental in building San Francisco’s D-Rev (Design Revolution), whose mission is to improve the lives of people living on less than $4 per day. Polak has spent considerable time in the farming villages of Southeast Asia, devising tools such as water pumps for farmers that are low-cost and effective.
‘Connecting the dots’
In 2001, ICA spawned the better-known America India Foundation (AIF), a Bay Area-based network that also works on development projects in India, funded by the South Asian community in the United States.
Over the past decade, AIF has garnered much media attention and connected with high-profile individuals such as former President Bill Clinton through the Clinton Fellowship for Service. ICA, meanwhile, has remained relatively low-key, “connecting the dots and keeping no overhead,” says Mehta.
Still, ICA has worked with massive grassroots organizations and social entrepreneurs such as Jaipur Foot, which makes low-cost prosthetics for the disabled and the injured, and SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, which has more than 12 million members spanning nine states of India.
Working with some of these grassroots organizations has led Sheth to make one conclusion: Giving out more money doesn’t mean more impact.