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May 21, 1999


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Free For Lunch Professionals Meet Up Over The Net

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Aparna Narayanan in New York

Behind the glamour of courtroom drama and megabucks, life in a law firm often involves long hours away from home, a stifling hierarchy at work, and great levels of stress.

Ketan Jhaveri, 24, a Harvard Law School student, was struck by the insularity and lack of communication in the New York law firm where he worked as a summer associate.

"Lawyers find it hard to talk about issues of isolation and compromise on the job, the loss of ideals, and the relationship between family and work," he says.

Jhaveri and three law school friends brainstormed on "a simple way for lawyers to expand their communities and have real interactions with people."

The result: 'Freeforlunch', an online venture designed to help professionals deal with, among other things, the unpalatable truths about corporate life.

Also designed to link minority professionals with common interests, the service hopes to make the corporate world they are about to enter a more pleasant place.

The free service will bring unrelated groups of professionals together over lunch via the Internet. "We hope to build a community of professionals that is different in how they relate to each other, and to facilitate communication on issues relating to corporate careers," says Jhaveri.

Scheduled to debut on Monday, May 24, the service requires the professional who registers online to provide basic biographical details. An advanced technological system developed by a Silicon Valley programmer will match professionals with similar interests in groups of three on a weekly basis.

From there, the users of the service will have to establish contact with each other. David Wilkins, an HLS professor, describes the team as "bright kids with lots of enthusiasm," and says Freeforlunch provides a much-needed forum for people across disciplines to talk about their jobs as professionals.

Samir Bukhari, 26, a co-founder, says the element of randomness in the process of matching professionals is "part of the beauty of the service. We assume that the type of person who might join desires to meet people with whom they would not otherwise have a conversation."

He dismisses the notion that Freeforlunch is just another online dating service. Neither will the professionals be matched according to gender, nor will they be paired in twos, says Bukhari. "We chose the name partly because it resonates with the concept of grouping three [professionals] for lunch," he adds.

His own isolating experience as a law firm summer associate made Bukhari realize that e-mail is the most practical way for corporate people to create relationships. "People's e-mail communications take on the qualities that their professional relationships lack. In fact, people's e-mail lives are bursting with the richness of new acquaintances," he says.

Bukhari's parents migrated from Pakistan to Winnipeg in Canada, where he was born. He attributes his entrepreneurial spirit to his father, a professor of mathematics who started a computer company in the Silicon Valley in the course of a midlife crisis.

Jhaveri was born in New Jersey, the son of immigrants from Bombay. He inherited a passion for new technology from his father, a civil engineer for New York Transit. Bukhari and Jhaveri were co-presidents of the South Asian Association at HLS last year, and say they are "very involved in the culture and politics of the region."

Their minority status is an important driving force for the Freeforlunch team. "One of our goals is to create supportive minority networks," says Jhaveri. "It is harder for women and minorities in professional jobs to find mentoring relationships. Mostly we navigate life in the corporate environment on our own."

Paul Oostburg Sanz, 29, a co-founder, says minorities, especially African-Americans like himself, are more isolated than others in the workplace, and are often left out of traditional formats for dialogue in the corporate world. "Hopefully, Freeforlunch will enable the creation of new subcommunities, for example, lawyers residing in Washington DC," he says.

Bukhari adds: "Right now there is a 'land grab' on the Net, which is the new locus of power and communication. It is important for us to claim some of that space as minorities, or the same thing that is happening in the real world will repeat itself in the virtual world."

The four law students have each made a small investment in the service. To help with the technical aspects, they hired a programmer and a Webster designer, both Californian residents of South Asian origin. Although they haven't ruled out eventually seeking venture capital, the final year students say their goal is not to create a money making business.

Jhaveri says, "Freeforlunch is a way to download our vibrant virtual communities into real life, and to help professionals build the social ties that are too easily lost in our society."

Oostburg Sanz adds: "Meeting professionals from other fields will hopefully inspire the mind in new ways and lead to ideas for transforming the workplace."

Testifying to the rise of the entrepreneur, Bukhari says that about nine or 10 companies have been started by his classmates at the law school alone.

"There is a lot of innovation here. People are looking to bypass the corporate setting and do their own thing."

Aparna Narayanan is a graduate journalism student at New York University.

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