Groundbreaking social entrepreneur Priya Haji dies

SaveUp, World of Good and Free At Last co-founder collapsed at home

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose socially minded work included East Palo Alto's seminal drug-treatment nonprofit, Free At Last, has died, friends and colleagues said.

Priya Haji, 44, unexpectedly died on July 14 at her San Francisco home. She had two young children, Zen and Omi, friends said.

She was with them when she collapsed. Her nanny called 911, but emergency responders were unable to revive her, according to her family's Facebook post.

"We are still waiting for the autopsy results, but early indications are that it was a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs)," her family wrote.

Haji was a Stanford University student in 1992 when she met David Lewis, an East Palo Alto community leader and a member of a men's recovery group. Haji and Lewis saw a need for a long-term solution to addiction. She obtained an Echoing Green Fellowship, which provided the seed grant to open the Neighborhood Recovery Center in January 1993, according to Free At Last's website. Still in her 20s, Haji became Free At Last's executive director. The program grew to help 3,000 people a year.

Although she left its helm to pursue other business interests, Haji helped Free At Last after Lewis was murdered in 2010, said Robert Hoover, director at Free At Last and The David Lewis Community Re-entry Center. She remained a consultant and was assisting the current executive director with obtaining funding.

"She set the foundation for the administration of the organization, and she continued to be an adviser and supporter in any way she can in the last 10 years. She is definitely going to be hugely missed," he said.

Vicki Smothers, another co-founder and the board president, was devastated by the news.

"She was like a daughter to me, and she called me 'Mom,' so it's been very difficult. I met her when she was 20 years old and would never have known or dreamt of the impact she would have on my life," she said in an email to the Palo Alto Weekly.

Former executive director Gerardo Barragan, who worked with Haji from the beginning, said she was the kind of person who thought nothing was beneath her.

"She would do everything from clean the floors to meeting with very high-level people -- heads of foundations and politicians. She was that kind of woman, and she would do it all well. She was very wonderful; she was beautiful, passionate about helping the community, very strong and very committed. She was definitely a mentor," he said.

Kathleen Alexander, communications director for the nonprofit Ravenswood Family Health Center, said she worked with Haji for five years.

"She was one of the greatest leaders I've ever known. It is a great loss for this troubled world. Priya was charismatic, warmhearted and wise about people. She had great gift for leading people and getting them to work together," Alexander said.

Haji had a bachelor's degree from Stanford and a master's in business administration from U.C. Berkeley. She went on to start two socially conscious San Francisco startups, the for-profit SaveUp, which helps people rebuild savings and pay off debt with incentives through a sweepstakes, and World of Good, Inc., which helps artisans in developing countries gain access to mainstream retail markets.

World of Good has worked with more than 40,000 individual artisans in 70 countries. EBay acquired the company in 2010, according to the company website.

Haji also founded World of Good Development Organization, a nonprofit aimed at improving the lives of low-income women in the developing world.

In a 2011 interview with Forbes magazine, Haji said she was inspired to social entrepreneurship by her father and grandmother.

"My grandmother was part of Gandhi's movement in India, and she showed me the importance of a commitment to improving the world," Haji said.

She started her first social venture while in high school with her father. They created a free health clinic in her hometown of Bryan, Texas. It still serves thousands of people, she told Forbes.

A memorial service for Haji will take place on Saturday, July 19, at 11 a.m. at U.C. Berkeley. The exact location on campus has not yet been determined. Further information will be posted on a Facebook memorial page by her family.

A crowdfunding campaign for Haji's children has been set up on Fundly.

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1 person likes this
Posted by another mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2014 at 6:17 pm

This is so tragic. A real loss to our community. Condolences to her family. My heart is broken for her children.

1 person likes this
Posted by Matra Majmundar
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 18, 2014 at 9:14 am

I remembered her for her abundance of energy to make the difference in the world!
Indeed a such a great loss to the community in needs.
Peace. Matra Majmundar.

1 person likes this
Posted by Megan Swezey Fogarty
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2014 at 11:00 am

Priya was an amazing woman who changed our world. What a role model for Stanford students and all of us. Peace to all who loved her and thanks to Priya. We are all better for having known your energy, your humility, and your commitment to our world.

1 person likes this
Posted by scary
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 18, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Wow, I cant believe how incredibely terrifying this must have been!! OMG- hope her kids and nanny can heal with this trauma. Simply devastating.

1 person likes this
Posted by Shyam V Nath
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2014 at 9:38 pm

I had met Priya Haji in person during the Pan IIT event in 2007. It is really sad to hear this news.

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