Kris Rallapalli was a Silicon Valley giant that you've never heard of.
No, he didn't start Google (GOOG), Facebook, Apple (AAPL) or any other household name company. But before he died late last year, he did leave his mark on the world by leveraging the kind of innovation that most of us pay far too little attention to. See, Rallapalli, who died of heart failure at 71, understood that doing a little beats doing nothing at all.
"What he was trying to do, especially in India," his wife, Philine Rallapalli, told me this week, "was to encourage people to follow his lead and get involved in helping other people, if you can, to what extent you can."
Rallapalli was the driving force behind the Huguenin Rallapalli Foundation, a nonprofit he started with Philine (maiden name Huguenin) in 2000. "It's a small foundation," Kris Rallapalli told me a few years ago.
Right. Small, unless you are the child of a subsistence farmer living high in the Himalayas, or a young woman yearning for education in West Bengal, or a fishing family who lost everything in the terrifying tsunami
Rallapalli was no doubt one of thousands in the valley who quietly contribute relatively small amounts that in turn bring big results. I think of the Rallapalli foundation and others like it as the angel investors for doing good. In some cases, somebody has to get a good idea off the ground. Once the ideas shows promise, it's all the easier to attract bigger donors with deeper pockets. Think of it as a startup model for positive change.
Yes, it's wonderful when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims its considerable wealth and power at wiping out a childhood disease or when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donates $500 million to improve health and education.
But part of Rallapalli's legacy is to remind us that you don't have to be Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to make a real difference. Rallapalli, who was born in India, came to the valley to work in the semiconductor field -- Fairchild, AMD, Raytheon. He and Philine saved and invested, bought some real estate. Eventually, they started their own business, Kepnet, a dial-up Internet service provider that served about 1,000 customers in the early 2000s.
As the sun began to set on dial-up as a technology, the couple took inventory. They could move up to compete with broadband providers or they could concentrate on their new foundation, which they funded with the money they made from selling a Sunnyvale apartment building. They went with the foundation, which Philine Rallapalli points out provided the couple with a tax break and the chance to travel while vetting projects.
The foundation started out making about $20,000 in grants a year, a figure that grew as investments bolstered their endowment. Philine Rallapalli, who married Kris in 1966, figures the foundation has given away about $300,000 since its launch.
The money has done good from the Bay of Bengal, where the Rallapalli foundation donated a fishing boat to a village devastated by the tsunami, to Bullhead City, Ariz., where it has supported solar power projects at the local Boys & Girls Club and community college. But my personal favorite is the project in Nangi, Nepal, about 7,300 feet up in the Himalayas. (Directions: Take seven-hour bus ride from Katmandu to Pokhara; another five hours by bus to Beni, then a six- to nine-hour hike up to the village.) That's where Mahabir Pun has launched the Himanchal Higher Secondary School. In 2002, the Rallapalli foundation donated $16,000 to help build the four-room school. The foundation has donated thousands more for a computer and science lab and to build four fish ponds that the school uses to raise money.
"He was a great person with a great heart to serve people in need, no matter where they are from," Pun wrote in an email.
But the school was only the start and the Rallapalli donations were only a part of what's happened since. Seed money, remember? The school has gotten additional money from foundations around the world. Pun, who attended the University of Nebraska and then returned to help the village where he grew up, says 178 students have graduated from Himanchal. He knows of 46 who have gone on to college, including three who have received master's degrees.
Pun also launched the Nepal Wireless Network, which has so far connected 140 remote villages to the Internet and each other. Yes, it's taken a huge number of people to accomplish it all (sometimes it takes a village to raise a village), but the Rallapalli foundation and the spirit of Kris Rallapalli were there near the beginning.
And the foundation will continue to live on, Philine Rallapalli says, and so will her husband's spirit and his belief that even with a little, you can do a lot.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.
Born: May 25, 1941, in Tellarevu, India
Died: Dec. 5, 2012, in San Jose
Survivors: Wife, Philine Rallapalli; daughter, Emelia Rallapalli; son-in-law, David Driver; grandson, Jacques Krishna Rallapalli Driver.
Services: Have been held