High-tech help for low-tech activists: Computer geek Sarmeesha Reddy helps bleeding heart nonprofits kick butt with better, stronger, faster tools to leverage their causes.
by Melissa Bond
Sarmeesha Reddy is in many ways your typical computer geek. She's happy in front of a computer screen. She actually digs programming. But Reddy's heart lies in the environmental movement, and it's her love of activism that inspired her to put together a tech company whose stated aim is being a kind of Robin Hood without the thieving sensibility. She wants to give nonprofits tools that will, she says, even the playing field. She wants to give them technology that will have them living and breathing and acting as one so they can push their work forward and fight the Borg of Big Business.
DharmaTech gets its name from the Sanskrit term 'dharma' meaning essentially righteous path, law, virtue or duty. Reddy made the decision to form DharmaTech as a nonprofit so the company could wear its mission on its sleeve. In a culture where good computer technicians are a prized commodity, some in the industry view her not-for-profit decision with disbelief. It's crazy.
Reddy grew up in Oklahoma as the daughter of first generation immigrants from Tirupati, India. She loved classic rock (Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" still ranks) and muscle cars and like most American kids, she schlepped her way through high school. She played competitive sports, participated in academic decathlons, hung out at Mr. Daddy's Pizza and rode the waves of ennui and disaffection that were part adolescence and part the razor blade of looking different-of not looking white. In 1979, when a group of militant university students took over the U.S. diplomatic mission in Tehran, the racial tension that had existed in this country ballooned. In places like Oklahoma, if you looked exotic at all, you were in for it; fear had found itself a new target.
The '79 Iran hostage crisis was then what 9-11 is to today's generation. For 444 days, this country beat itself against the wall of failed diplomatic efforts. Fear coalesced and anyone with glossy black hair and dark skin got the short end of the mean stick. Iranian. Reddy remembers the word being hissed at her, thrown like a stone at her head. It didn't matter that she was Indian, not Iranian. It didn't matter that she had been raised in the States since she was an infant. She remembers going to a national tennis tournament in Oklahoma City and having a parent press up against the fence and ask her what the hell she was doing there. Taunts became commonplace.
Reddy points out that you can never really know the elements that conspire to set a person on a particular path (towards social activism, say) and that she's always had a James Dean style of rebelliousness. But she admits that the whole Iran hostage thing was seminal. Maybe it solidified her strong stance for the underdog. Maybe it clarified for her how quickly a small difference can be perceived as very, very different and how before you know it your civil liberties can be snatched away from you like a sack lunch. And if someone was trying to steal her sack lunch, Reddy surmised, then probably others were getting theirs stolen.
Whatever the cause, the effect has been a perfect storm pushing Reddy towards a shore of social activism that has the potential to buoy up nonprofits in the Intermountain West. This is her vision. She wants to enliven the Punk Rock in all of them, to give them the kind of techie heft that Fortune 500 companies have enjoyed for over 20 years. With DharmaTech, founded in 2002, and a host of techies whose love is social activism, Reddy plans on starting a revolution. Reddy wants to take the Honda of a computer operating system that serves many nonprofits (competent but sluggish on hills) and replace it with a Ferrari. She wants to make them better than they were before. Better. Stronger. Faster.
Reddy earned her stripes as a tech geek after graduating from Texas A & M in the Department of Engineering in Computer Science. Motorola hired her right out of school. For five years she was one of 1,000 engineers designing two-way radios for the secret service and the police. She smiles at the irony. "I wanted to work outside of the system," she says, "and there I was working for the Man."
The supersterile cubicle environment had its plusses. You could get your dry cleaning and your photos processed at work. The floors weren't too bad if you had the right sleeping bag. It was life in the Big Conglomerate, and despite the obvious and easy criticisms about the lifelessness of Corporate America, Reddy thrived. The collective brain power was phenomenal. She had access to a tool library that was an engineer's wet dream. And, much as the James Dean in her hated it, the structure gave her room to hone her skills and to dream.
She left Motorola in the summer of 2000. While traveling in Alaska, she met some environmental activists who encouraged her to check out their offices in Arcata, California. These people were doing their best to protect old growth redwoods from being logged by powerful lumber companies.
Reddy was moved. She was also stunned at their level of disorganization. These activists stumbled with technology. They scraped time and resources together as best they could, but they didn't know how to leverage themselves. And in one of those moments where your future is illuminated like the flash from an old time camera, Reddy saw a way to tie her activist's heart to her training in the computer industry. She settled in Salt Lake. Less than a year later, DharmaTech was born.
Reddy and a rotating host of techies ran DharmaTech for the first couple of years when it was primarily a 'virtual organization' with no locus to speak of, no office, no desks with computers blinking their ready blue lights.
This all changed last June. DharmaTech moved itself into an office space downtown and brought with it new staff. Tony Guzman, Walt Haas and Lindsey Oswald joined Reddy to comprise the muscle of DharmaTech. And all of them have activist backgrounds. They're a bleeding heart collective, which is part of what makes their work unique.
Guzman acts as the client liason – he's the one who translates techie language into something the clients can grok without raising their blood pressure. Haas and Reddy are the hard core techies. They're the ones writing code and pushing to build more efficient, more accessible systems. Oswald is the fundraising arm. This is the part that those in the high-tech world view as crazy. DharmaTech, like all other nonprofits, constantly searches for funds to supplement its mission. A hefty sum from a private benefactor or venture capitalist translates into cheaper services for the nonprofits that hire them. And cheaper often means that they can do more, which translates into greater leverage. Better. Stronger. Faster.
Haas points out that part of the way they build trust with their clients is by demonstrating that they use all of their own products. All database, fundraising and firewall systems that they use with their clients are the ones that DharmaTech uses internally. "Basically," he says, "we eat our own dog food."
Haas' 40-year background in software engineering includes 16 years with the University of Utah's Computer Science department during the early years of the Internet. In the days before most nonprofits knew what the Internet was, he was helping groups like Save Our Canyons, Utah Avalanche Center and the Wasatch Mountain Club develop listservs and websites. Haas joined DharmaTech because of the Bleeding Heart Factor -his soul food is working in the environmental field. DharmaTech offered him the right arena-technology woven with smart activism. Leverage. He couldn't resist.
The biggest obstacle DharmaTech faces is the time it takes to create social change. Technology is a huge tool in the creation of social change, but the human animal is slow. Guzman notes that the last nonprofit he worked with was still tracking their operations via spreadsheets. And while spreadsheets are great for tracking raw numbers, Guzman notes that they're not sufficient for tracking qualitative information. "In the nonprofit world," Guzman says, "describing and tracking relationships is key." And tracking relationships just doesn't lend itself well to figures. You need something that will give you a little more juice-say, a database that can cross-reference lots of types of information at once.
Reddy knows a lot of their clients are overwhelmed by what DharmaTech proposes. "We can't give them a Ferrari right off the bat when they're used to riding a tricycle. They won't know how to handle it." So, part of DharmaTech's approach is to go slow, work a piece at a time until people feel comfortable, until they get smooth with the gears.
Reddy tries to communicate the tremendous power that technology offers to the nonprofits DharmaTech works with. "Integrated technology" is the term she uses. And DharmaTech wants to get these small nonprofits purring so smoothly that a group of 10 has the power of an exponentially larger group. The technology will allow them to function like a Goliath when they're up against one of the Biggies. Imagine HEAL Utah (small dinner party of activists fighting nuclear and toxic waste in Utah) against Energy Solutions (makes its cash by disposing nuclear and toxic waste in Utah). Imagine these activists sharing files instead of navigating multiple copies of the same document and having difficulty identifying the most recent version. Imagine them being able, as Christopher Thomas of HEAL Utah claims, to "have a web-based system that we can all use-regardless of operating system." Imagine them not waiting for access to the one computer that holds their database. This is leverage born out of efficiency. DharmaTech's work with the Wild Utah Project (slightly bigger dinner party of activists trying to preserve parts of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau) was so successful that the Society of Conservation asked them to present a paper on how they built their GIS (Geographic Information Systems-for mapping) server. So, DharmaTech not only helped the Wild Utah Project with their efficiency, they also built them a server for $1,700. This same server would have cost nearly $30,000 on the open market. This leaves a lot of financial capital for fighting the state and federal land agencies.
Reddy and DharmaTech simply want to even the playing field. They want nonprofits to be bigger, faster, and stronger so everyone has a voice and so, if anyone's sack lunch gets stolen, there'll be enough muscle to put up a good fight.
Melissa Bond is a poet, essayist and artist living in Salt Lake City. You can find her first book of poems and collages, Hush, at Ken Sanders' Rare Books. A multi-media exhibit, The New Orleans Project, that she co-authored with Beth Hoffman and Alice McNamara will be at the Art Access Gallery this February.