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Indian Community Center Opens in Silicon Valley Area - 2003-05-03

The San Francisco Bay area is home to a large variety of ethnic groups from all over the world. The Indian community has grown rapidly over the past 20 years, as skilled engineers came to work in the high tech industry. Now, there's a gathering place that reflects that growth the largest of the handful of Indian Community centers in North America opened in Silicon Valley in February. The Center is designed to meet the cultural and social needs of the 150,000 strong local Indian community. In building the center, the founders received inspiration and practical advice from a more established group, San Francisco's Jewish community.

Just two months after its grand opening, the Indian Community Center is already a busy place. People of all ages play ping-pong and the Indian board game Carom, read in the large library; and participate in an impressive schedule of classes and activities. Gurmukh Gambehir came to the United States 20 years ago. He says he's been waiting since then for a place like this to open. "The moment I read about this facility in the newspaper I was very excited and my family was excited too, because we never had these services for our community," he said. Mr. Gambehir says he'd like to see his son, Sandeep, take a class on Indian languages, music, yoga or mediation. There are also free legal and medical clinics and orientations for recent émigrés. Seniors can attend daily programs, and young people can drop in for karaoke and Bollywood movies.

Co-founder Gautam Godhwani says the center represents a coming of age for the Bay Area's Indian community. "Really the community established its roots largely in the last 20 years with the entire computer boom, uh, brief biotech boom, followed by the whole internet boom, and with that it is essential that you have a lot of infrastructure to take the community to the next level, and this is that time," said Gautam Godhwani.

Mr. Godhwani and his brother Anil were the driving force behind the opening of the facility. They were dot-com entrepreneurs who made their fortunes, retired, and then turned full time to creating this center.

Anil Godhwani admits that when they started the process 18 months ago, it was really just an idea. To make it real, they needed to study a functioning model. So they looked to the seven Jewish community centers in the Bay Area, and made an appointment with the executive director of the San Francisco JCC, Nate Levine. "Well these two guys who are very young and very energetic show up at my office with a power point presentation, and they had really done their homework, and frankly just impressed the heck out of me, I was blown away by their thoughtfulness, except they knew nothing about the inner workings of a community center," he said.

So Mr. Levine agreed to advise them. The first thing he did was sit them down and talk about fundraising. Jewish community fundraising is one of the big success stories of the non-profit world. Over the years, the American Jewish community has cultivated a culture of giving. But Anil Godhwani says the Indian community is only now developing a philanthropic tradition. "If you look at the last decade, a lot of new wealth has been created in the Indian community, and it's only now in the last 3 or 4 years that a lot of these wealthy individuals and families are getting down to setting up foundations, thinking of 'Hey I going to take all this money with me, do I need all this?' So it's very new," he said.

The Godhwani brothers originally thought about funding the center entirely with their own money. "But then it wouldn't be the India community center, it would be the Godhwani brothers Community Center, and that was never our intent from day one," said Anil Godhwani.

Instead, they contributed half a million dollars in seed money for renovating the facility, hiring initial staff, and doing research. Then they raised $1 million from the Indian Community to fund the operating budget for the first year.

Along with guidance on raising capital, Nate Levine also offered advice on the nitty-gritty details of daily operations, like setting a schedule of classes, and recruiting volunteers. And he provided some inspiration for the next step: the JCC has about 250 centers across the United States, serving a population of 6 million American Jews. Anil Godhwani did the math and came up with a parallel grand design for the county's Indian community. "With 1.7 millions Indians in US, and about another million in Canada, we can easily see the need for as many as 100 such centers, but we've started with this one, and our goal is to work and make this successful and see where we can take it," he said.

And judging by the fast growing membership and sold out events at the center, it appears their plan is off to a running start.