OAKLAND -- Founding chief financial officer of Restoration Hardware. CFO of Safeway.com and Ask Jeeves. Controller of Home Express.

What would lead a high-powered executive to leave the corporate world and its dizzyingly high salaries to join an Oakland nonprofit that brings education, clean water and health care to impoverished villages?

"The first time I visited Vietnam, in 2006, I saw sick children with swollen bellies and skinny arms at a clinic in the village of Phu Quoc. Four hundred people stood in line all day to see a doctor," said Oakland's Tom Low, 53. "At East Meets West Foundation, I can help people like them. This is much more rewarding."

Low didn't immediately leave his then-job as a partner with executive search firm Bridges SF after his trip to Vietnam. He did, however, forge a strong connection to East Meets West, a nonprofit international development agency founded in 1988.

While in Vietnam, he started reading the memoir of East Meets West's founder, Le Ly Hayslip, who described the organization's goal of helping the disadvantaged.

"I said, 'These folks are doing good things, and they are near me,'" said Low, referring to the group's office in downtown Oakland, not far from his Rockridge home. He volunteered with the organization soon after his return from Vietnam.

Two-for-one help


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Low's wife, Priscilla Joe, a pediatrician who is associate director of the intensive care nursery at Children's Hospital Oakland, volunteered along with him.

"They got two for the price of one," Low said.

Jumping in headlong, he joined the board of directors, serving on numerous committees and acting as a host for visiting doctors.

Five years later, in 2011, Low took a six-figure salary cut and accepted a position as executive vice president of East Meets West.

"He became somewhat disenchanted with the motivations of people he had worked with in the business world, and found something that surrounded him with people who were really smart and committed and were thinking of others, not themselves," said Joe, who trains medical personnel in East Meets West's Breath of Life program. "When you are around people like that, you develop a huge amount of energy, and that definitely motivated him."

These days, he's busy: making speeches, meeting with potential partners, packaging medical equipment to send to other countries.

"No detail is too small," he said.

He travels 30 to 50 days a year, flying in economy class -- quite a contrast to his former life, when he flew in private jets and stayed at the Four Seasons. But Low doesn't regret his choice.

"It gives me a sense of purpose," he said of his new job.

From the beginning, Low was impressed that 92 cents of every dollar donated to the 110-employee, $14 million organization goes directly to its program work. More than anything else, though, he wanted to help babies and children like the ones he saw waiting in line at the clinic in Vietnam.

The Breath of Life program donates technologies such as CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machines to newborn intensive-care units in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Timor-Leste, and is expanding the service to India, the Philippines and Myanmar.

Dr. Thanh Cong Ha, head of neonatal intensive care at Vietnam-Cuba Friendship Hospital in Quang Binh, said through an interpreter in a telephone interview from Vietnam that the neonatal mortality rate in the province fell from 16 percent in 2006, before the Breath of Life program began there, to 3.6 percent in 2011.

Low has a finger in just about every pie at East Meets West.

In June, he flew to India to identify potential recipients for educational scholarships, as part of the group's Scholarship Program to Enhance Literacy and Learning. Designed to keep poor students from dropping out of school, the program supports 14,000 students in Vietnam. It is just now launching in India.

Family at his core

Low is proud of his oldest child, Olivia, 21, a political-science major who is in Uganda working on a global health project. His family also includes Russell, 17, and Charlotte, 11, whom he and his wife adopted from an orphanage in China.

His charitable activities aren't confined to Asia. He is active with Ascend, one of the major Asian-American leadership organizations in the Bay Area. Low also coaches small businesses at Inner City Advisors, an Oakland nonprofit consisting of business professionals who provide free advice for inner city businesses.

One of the businesses he advised is 479 Popcorn, a successful Asian-American-owned business based in San Francisco that creates artisan popcorn.

But since that fateful trip in 2006, Asia has had a special place in his heart. Low said of Vietnam, "I was taken by the country, the culture, the people, their sense of innovation and entrepreneurship. It's a warm, engaging country. When (East Meets West staff members) visit, the kids are intrigued to see the foreigners. They have a tremendous spirit.

"In helping them, I can embrace that spirit."

HOMETOWN HERO
Name: Tom Low
Hometown: Oakland
Age: 53
Education: Master's of business administration from UC Irvine and a bachelor's degree from UC Davis
Family: Wife Priscilla Joe; daughter Olivia, 21; son Russell, 17; and youngest daughter Charlotte, 11.
Claim to fame: Founding chief financial officer of Restoration Hardware who oversaw its initial public offering, one of the most successful IPOs of 1998; took a six-figure pay cut to work for Oakland nonprofit East Meets West Foundation. East Meets West has consistently received a four-star rating on a scale of one to four from charity evaluation service Charity Navigator for its financial practices and accountability.
Quote: "When I visited Vietnam in 2006, I learned that we need to do things that will have a long-term impact. We are part of a global community, and our programs address the United Nations' goals of reducing infant and child mortality."
To learn more: Visit the East Meets West website, www.eastmeetswest.org
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the Hometown Heroes feature aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofits and key causes in the area and create a spirit of giving.
Read about a new Hometown Hero every other Tuesday and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes.
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