RapidChat: Ashima Saigal

Ashima Saigal just returned from the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco where she was recognized as a Salesforce MVP (one of approximately 100 nationwide) for her work helping nonprofits make peace with their data. In typical Ashima fashion, she took a moment during the conference to lead attendees in meditation at Yerba Buena gardens and also rapped about apps. She was an early adopter of both cloud-based computing and yoga, making each a strong focus of her life before they were mainstream practices. Now that the world is catching up, she’s zooming ahead: weaving a thread of mindfulness throughout life and work, observing more women entering her field, and, finally, moving to a new home in Grand Rapids proper. Read on as we chat all about it.
Ashima Saigal just returned from the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco where she was recognized for her work helping nonprofits make peace with their data. Ashima has always been ahead of her time: she studied Computer Science at MSU and was an early adopter of both cloud-based computing and yoga. Now that the world is catching up, she’s zooming ahead: weaving a thread of mindfulness throughout life and work, observing more women entering her field, and, finally, moving to a new home in Grand Rapids proper. Read on as we chat all about it.
Rapid Growth: So you have your own consultancy, Database Sherpa. What exactly do you do?

Ashima Saigal: I help nonprofits make peace with their data, specifically by implementing Salesforce, the world’s leading Customer Relationship Management application. We take a DIY approach and help train nonprofit staff to create and manage their databases.

RG: Database Sherpa is an interesting name. Have you been on a trek with a sherpa?

AS: Yes, I went to the Himalayan Mountains in India with my family when I was 19. We did a Hindu trek and had three guides and two horses.

The guides would run ahead and set up camp. They’d say, “Just walk that way and you’ll find us.” It would take me all day but they’d be there. I still remember the first time they wouldn’t tell me exactly where I was going to go. They said, “If there’s a fork, just pick one, you’ll get there.” The first day I was freaking out, but then by day two, he told me to follow the path, and then wow, I just did it. There were hours when no one was with me, but it was great.

RG: And now you apply that approach to your business. So, what do you like about Salesforce?

AS: In the past few years, Salesforce has created a community. They use their own platform to encourage dialog. They take input from users. I can post my feedback and people vote it up and they might make a change to the software. When you think of entrepreneurship, the most important thing is to know your customers. The best way to do that is to give them a platform that is interactive, and invite them to engage with you.

Salesforce is free for nonprofits. Salesforce wants nonprofits to put money into programming and the work they do, not software.

RG: Why do you work exclusively with nonprofits?

AS: I understand their needs and how their operations function. It’s helpful that I understand their niche. Nonprofits generally don’t have a lot of resources and Salesforce is a great solution for them.

When I first moved to Grand Rapids in 1994, I met Dirk Koning, who founded the Community Media Center and ran it until he passed away in 2005. Dirk introduced me to the nonprofit sector.

At that time, I was helping businesses implement technology, including the Internet. Actually, I just found some old documents; it was hilarious… I found my guide for businesses detailing why they should have a website. Dirk helped me get some grants and I enjoyed doing technology consulting work for nonprofits. Eventually I went back to programming, working for a small development firm using Adobe API. Then I worked for Steelcase in Lean Manufacturing, which was very interesting.

But the nonprofit sector kept calling me. I worked at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy for seven years. When the ED, Kathy Agard retired, she urged me to leave, too, and I ended up helping the Michigan Nonprofit Association implement Salesforce. I had implemented Salesforce at the Johnson Center. MNA was my first client and then next, the East Lansing Educational Foundation. And from there it was word of mouth.

Data has always been my thing. My love.

RG: Why?

AS: It’s so valuable. Data can tell you so much and inform your decisions.

RG: You are moving?

AS: Yes, my husband and I lived in a home designed by Harold Turner, a master builder for Frank Lloyd Wright. It was a 1200-square-foot cottage in Caledonia, a mid-century modern studio home. Then we found a contemporary home in Ada, off Honey Creek. We totally gutted the house and did everything we wanted. We’ve been there 14 years but five and a half years ago we had a daughter. Now we want more of a family home, with neighbors.

Zola goes to GR Montessori at North Park, part of Grand Rapids Public Schools. We bought a house near the school. We’ve always lived on acreage, so it’ll be interesting. I’ve worked on campaigns for Ruth Kelly and Rosalynn Bliss and been involved with the city. I’m excited to officially live there and be in their ward.

RG: So you’re moving from Forest Hills to GR for your daughter's schooling? Tell me more.

AS: I recently read a book about Maria Montessori. She was the first female physician in her town in Italy. She worked with kids in the slums and learned a lot from them. I was so impressed with her and her methodology. I wondered, how effective can the methods be in a public school district? Well, I visited the school and everyone is trained and held accountable to Montessori standards. They also do really well on annual statewide testing.

Zola is five and a half and reading books at a second grade level. She saw kids doing math and asked her teacher to teach her and she just ate it up. This summer she would check out books at the library every day. She will read a word and then ask what it means.

We thought we’d send her to North Park for a year and see how it goes. It is going great and the school is good. The superintendent is putting more emphasis on theme schools. Teachers are getting more and more training. The PTA is super strong. I wish I could go back to Montessori. I’m so excited for Zola.

RG: What do you like to do as a family?

AS: We are just packing right now. Packing 14 years of stuff. Wondering, where did this stuff come from? We have a growing Goodwill pile.

ArtPrize is a big thing for us. The three of us enjoyed walking around looking at art and talking about it. Meijer Gardens is amazing. We get tickets to Actors' Theatre. Zola loves going to the Civic Theatre. She takes classes at Civic Theatre; they do a great job. We like to travel.

RG: What’s your favorite thing about travel?

AS: Going to the grocery store. I like watching things there; it’s a little mini community. I also like to stay in bed and breakfasts and see the beat of a place.

RG: So you work from home?

AS: Yes, in fact my husband works for AT&T and we both work from home. His co-workers are all over the world. I work out of my house, doing most meetings and trainings virtually.

It is really nice to work from home. We spend time together. There’s more flexibility. We can be more effective and have a life. Not just a 9-to-5. Not everyone works well 9 to 5. He works better late at night. I close my door when I’m done with work. I might check in on something but work is done.

RG: What roles do yoga and meditation play in your life and work?

AS: I’ve been meditating my whole life. I’ve practiced yoga for 15 years. I got started at From the Heart Yoga learning from Rick and Behnje. I met Carol Hendershot at From the Heart Yoga. She went on to open her own studio, Expressions of Grace, and also co-founded Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness. I went to the workshops, wanting to learn more about it. I went through the 8-Week Mindfulness program and it showed me the importance of a daily practice. I do a lot of meditation and yoga with my daughter. I’ve been contemplating going into meditation with young kids.

RG: And you incorporate mindfulness into Database Sherpa?

AS: I attended a cool conference in Boulder called Buddhist Geeks. The conversation was about how Buddhism will express itself in the U.S. I was there because I think mindfulness is an important part of organizational development and running a business. I didn’t find other attendees with the same approach but I did find it interesting that some of the leading Buddhist thinkers said it has yet to be discovered how Buddhism will emerge in this country. It’s in our hands. It’s less about the result and more about the journey. Same with large data projects; for me, it’s always about peace with the data.
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