July 6, 2012 9:12 pm

Expat lives: A blueprint to go green

After moving from Kashmir to California, social entrepreneur Aseem Das is spreading sustainability from the heart of Silicon Valley
Aseem Das©Winni Wintermeyer

Aseem Das near his home in Palo Alto, California

Although he was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, as a youth Aseem Das did not engage in eastern transcendental practices. The future chief executive had his mind very much on the concrete realities of making the world a better place. Then, 14 years ago, he moved to Palo Alto in the San Francisco Bay area. “It wasn’t long,” says the social entrepreneur, 49, “before I was into meditation and yoga.” The west-coast lifestyle had an eastern convert and Das soon discovered that, in California, centring your chakras is also about turning a profit. “Yoga was a huge business,” he says. “I even saw studios opening up in strip malls.”

Add high-tech to the yoga-in-strip-malls model and you pretty much have the business blueprint for Palo Alto, the capital of Silicon Valley, where the idealistic and the single-mindedly commercial come together. This is where Apple developed, and the city made a natural home for World Centric, founded by Das in 2004 to sell Fair Trade products and natural plant-based alternatives to plastic and Styrofoam packaging. At the same time, World Centric aims to spread the message of ethical entrepreneurship by reinvesting its profits in social projects in the developing world.

Home to Das since 1999, and also to Stanford University and Hewlett-Packard, the city of 65,000 is only 30 miles south of San Francisco. It combines a small-town feel with an international and high-achieving population.

“The town has a very high IQ. In engineering terms, the people here have made it,” says Das, whose own father is an engineer. The family followed Das senior’s career around India before moving to the US in 1981, when the 19-year-old Das enrolled at the prestigious Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “I missed my friends,” he recalls. “But perhaps the most difficult part of being in a new country is how you become part of its culture while retaining part of the culture you grew up in.”

Das came from a country where there was (and still is) huge disparity in wealth and, 30 years ago, little regard for environmental issues. “Things were focused very much on making sure you had enough food to eat rather than what impact you might have environmentally,” he says. “But as there was, at that point, hardly any waste in India, that impact was minimal, even as a middle-class family.”

The contrast at that time – the early 1980s – with the waste produced by the average American family spurred Das to find a business venture that would raise environmental awareness. After thinking about opening a Fair Trade café, he opted instead to launch World Centric, initially to sell “green” products online, and then to make the compostable food packaging that, in 2011, brought in sales of $11m. Last year, 46 per cent of profits were given to social projects.

World Centric hopes to pass on 60 per cent of profits in 2012 and another 10 per cent next year, funding projects that promote economic self-sufficiency in some of the world’s poorest communities. The contrast with Palo Alto – where property is very expensive – is stark, and Das and Sylvia, his French-Canadian wife, rent a small cottage in College Terrace, a residential area that borders Stanford University. “It’s maybe 800 or 1,000 sq ft – essentially one and a half bedrooms – but it would probably be close to $1m to buy,” he says.

Das clearly believes he has achieved a happy balance between the two countries that he calls home. “I feel very Indian and I feel very Californian. There’s a very strong Indian cultural basis that makes me who I am, but I have developed a cognitive, conscious approach to looking at things, which is much more Californian.

“I haven’t been to India in 10 years now, but when I did last go, I realised that there’s some intrinsic level where you connect to the life, the rhythm – the way the sun sets. I have an intellectual involvement with Palo Alto. It’s here that I talk about ideas, and it’s here I work.”

Work is very close at hand: World Centric’s headquarters is only five minutes’ walk from the cottage, and Das cycles to the grocery store. “And if I want to get out into nature,” he says, “I can bike into the hills in 15 minutes.”

Foothills Park, 1,400 acres of forests and lakes on the edge of the city, abounds with wildlife, including coyotes and bobcats. Park visitors are obliged to prove they are residents of the city or guests of residents but, as Das says, even Palo Alto’s streets are green and pleasant. And amid the foliage planted by the city fathers, a lively community spirit blossoms, especially on Sundays, when locals wander down to the farmers market, which sells food from producers from across the San Francisco Bay area.

Food is an essential part of any national identity, not least the Indian one. “I’m not one of those guys who really misses things,” says Das, “but I do like Indian food. There are three Indian restaurants in Palo Alto. One of them is very good: the people who run it are from north India and it is very authentic. Or I can go just a little bit south from Palo Alto, run into Sunnyvale or Santa Clara, and it’s full of Indian restaurants.”

The abundance of such eateries in the heart of Silicon Valley is a reminder that the area has attracted thousands of highly qualified “tech” immigrants from across the sub-continent. But there is one obvious gap in Palo Alto’s impressive array of food outlets that remains unfinished business for this caring capitalist: “I still don’t know of a café in Palo Alto that is only serving 100 per cent Fair Trade, organic coffee and that’s all they do. And I think: why not?”

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Buying guide

Pros

● Fantastic countryside only minutes away, including the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve and Foothills Park

● Intellectually stimulating environment

Cons

● The Pearson-Arastradero Preserve is mountain lion territory, so never hike or camp alone

● Palo Alto ranks among America’s costliest cities in which to buy property

What you can buy for ...

$100,000 A mobile home

$1m A 1,000 to 1,200 sq ft, two or three-bedroom house

Contacts

www.apr.com/lkou

www.morganlashley.com

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