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Patel has made it his mission to help kids in the slums of India, including creating theatrical productions for them to perform in on tour.
Photo by Rahul Pardasani courtesy Empty Hands Music.

How a journey of self-discovery led to a life of service and spreading goodness through uplifting music.

Nimesh “Nimo” Patel W’00 had just finished a meeting with the Wharton Undergraduate Media & Entertainment Club he cofounded at Penn. Slicing through campus on College Green, he chatted with his friend about the bright futures they saw for themselves. “We were like, Dude, we’re gonna make such a big impact on this world,” Patel remembers.

At the time, he planned on becoming CEO of Warner Bros. someday and owning a beach house in Santa Monica. He laughs thinking back on that. What would the Wharton undergrad he was then think of the Nimo Patel he is now: someone who meditates and serves underprivileged kids out of an ashram in India; who writes uplifting songs about gratitude and kindness and performs them all over the world for free?

It’s been a twisty road to get there, but “now I live more from the lens of purpose,” Patel says. “I just want to be of service while I’m alive.”

When he graduated from Penn 24 years ago, he took off on a typical post-Wharton path: a job with American Express in lower Manhattan. That’s where he was during the September 11 attacks, working next door to the World Trade Center when the first tower fell. “That obviously would make you ask questions, whatever they are,” he says. “For me, it was: What am I really doing with my life? Life could end at any moment. This was a reality check.”

He quit his Wall Street job and moved back to Los Angeles—where he’s from originally—to pursue a music career. As a junior at Penn, Patel had helped start Karmacy with Swapnil Shah C’99 W’99 and two non-Penn friends. The group blended American hip-hop with Indian music, which in the late ’90s and early 2000s put them on the vanguard of South Asian fusion. Karmacy continued booking more and more performances, and even found airtime on a new MTV Desi channel.

Meanwhile, Patel and some other friends launched a South Asian comic strip called Badmash. They emailed it to some friends, who sent it to more friends, and by the mid-2000s, it had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Karmacy ended their run in 2008 when Patel opened a well-funded animation studio.

On the surface, things were going well. But then the questions that first surfaced after 9/11 came back. “What am I doing?” Patel remembers thinking. “Internally, I was really suffering. I reached this point, this goal, and I didn’t feel happy. The inner compass was misaligned.” He came across a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

“I started thinking, I haven’t done anything for others,” he says. “I’m just trying to juice everything for my own experiences.” He shut down Badmash Animation Studios and committed to spending a full year volunteering with the nonprofit Manav Sadhna, based out of an ashram in India. “That was the beginning of a new life,” he says.

Though his parents are both originally from India, Patel grew up as a California kid. He didn’t even speak their language much. But he showed up at the Gandhi Ashram in 2010, ready to start his year serving slum communities. He brought a few clothes he’d kept and whatever money he had saved. Everything else he’d already given away—even the hundreds of CDs and DVDs he’d been collecting since his Penn days.

His focus became helping to uplift families in dire poverty through “education, health, nutrition, love,” he says. “In that one year, I grew more than I could imagine in the previous 10 years.”

By his second year in India, Patel was creating a theatrical production for talented kids from slum communities to perform. It featured 16 kids singing and dancing, and in 2012, he took them on a tour across the US and UK. “I was able to be a big brother, a father, a mother—they used to call me mustache mom—to these kids,” he says.

The tour brought attention and press coverage, but for the first time, he didn’t lean in. It wasn’t easy for him to hop off a wave of momentum. “I had to keep saying no to myself,” he says. And it was during that time of deliberately standing still that music came back to him. For the first time in five years, he felt like writing songs again.

In 2013, he put out three songs, each with its own music video: “Being Kind,” “Planting Seeds,” and “Grateful: A Love Song to the World,” the latter of which has amassed more than 2.5 million views on YouTube. Back in his Karmacy days, Patel saw himself as an entertainer, but “this time around, when I reconnected to music, I saw the opportunity to serve through music,” he says.

He took off on a tour the following year, renting a car for seven months and performing across the US for free. He gave away copies of his album, too. “I’m not going to charge for the message of kindness or gratitude or service,” he says.

Since then, he’s created 20 music videos through his nonprofit Empty Hands Music, while also taking kids on another performance tour in 2019 and continuing to work with Manav Sadhna. In more than 600 performances, all still free of charge, he’s brought his inspirational messages to Syrian refugee camps, high-security prisons, peace conferences, and dozens of schools.

This isn’t about fame or fortune, he says, and these aren’t typical shows. He strives to help audiences “love more, connect more, judge less, be kind.” Attendees can share their own stories, and often a concert ends with everyone in a large circle, “so we are interconnected, rather than everyone looking at one person on stage,” he says. Hugs are encouraged.

Next year, anyone at Penn may find themselves in one of those circles, as Patel will become an Equity in Action Visiting Scholar for the 2024–25 academic year. Launched in 2023 and sponsored by Penn’s Office of Social Equity and Community, the EAV program brings scholars and activists to campus for a year of research, teaching, and public events.

“I have reached a point where I feel so blessed with the path that I’ve been able to walk on,” Patel says. “If today’s my last day, I am good. That, to me, is the point that I wanted to reach. And then the remaining time is like extra credit—keep living and learning and growing and trying to be an instrument of whatever good I can be while I’m here.”

Molly Petrilla C’06

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