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Originally published Monday, July 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Nonprofit BEAN sprouts social network

Is Seattle really a social black hole, as some believe, particularly for 20- and 30-somethings? One tech-savvy Microsoft employee, drawing...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Is Seattle really a social black hole, as some believe, particularly for 20- and 30-somethings?

One tech-savvy Microsoft employee, drawing on the possibilities presented by online social networking, has found a way to take things a step further and give people opportunities to meet and mingle in both social and social-service settings.

Howard Wu created Business and Engineering Activists Network (BEAN), a nonprofit group to link like-minded young professionals, three years ago when he graduated from the University of Washington.

His brainchild has blossomed into a Puget Sound-area network of more than 800 members from all professional backgrounds that hosts monthly gatherings and participates in local volunteer efforts.

"My friends coming from out of town always complain that it's hard to get to know people," said Wu, who lives in Seattle but works at Microsoft's Redmond campus. "There was a serious on-tap need for a professionally oriented networking group to fill the young-20s to mid-30s age gap."

According to Wu, BEAN attracts new members — more than 40 each month — because of its informal nature. The organization is a hybrid of online social networks like Friendster and formal professional clubs such as Rotary.

The group's Web site gets about 600 hits each day, Wu said, and serves as a hub for members. He posts sign-ups and notices for upcoming events, including book clubs, softball games, happy hours at popular watering holes, hiking trips and bimonthly community-service projects. All applicants are welcomed.

Information


Business and Engineering Activists Network (BEAN): www.beanonline.org

"What I'm inspired by is the fact that you put [together] a group of people that individually have little resources but are goodwilled and miraculous things happen," Wu said. "Take some random pre-member, plant them in our little pot and watch them grow."

An example is Jean Rhee, a 24-year-old judicial law clerk who was among seven BEAN members who volunteered at a Kirkland social-service organization, Friends of Youth, Friday night. Rhee grew up in Hong Kong and moved to Seattle in September. She joined BEAN in November after searching Google for a "Seattle volunteer opportunity" and discovering Wu's group.

Like many members, Rhee volunteers with BEAN sporadically when an event fits her schedule.

"The beauty of a big group of people is it ... takes all the work out of volunteering," Rhee said. "Someone arranges all the details for you, posts the information online and sends you updates. There's really no excuse not to participate."

Many members also hear about BEAN through the online message board Craig's List, said Leo Gilbert, a 27-year-old computer engineer who is BEAN's vice president of service.

"It's great that I can bring more than myself to an event and leverage more than just my own energy," he said. "We help where we can."

Gilbert has helped BEAN's volunteer projects grow from sending a handful of members to the annual Holiday Gala at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to raising $12,000 to support an Ethiopian hospital featured on the "Oprah" television show.

But for many members, BEAN is simply a way to meet other young professionals in a casual social setting.

"Connections are fostered naturally here," said Heba Danish, 26, who met her boyfriend through BEAN.

BEAN members also can sign up for social gatherings online. According to MSN.com, Seattle has the highest percentage of online daters in the nation. Wu anticipates that Web-site use and group membership will continue to flourish because "online networking alone never replaces face-to-face contact." BEAN offers both.

Also, unlike online social-networking companies that have generated millions of dollars in venture capital, BEAN is a nonprofit. Membership is free, and small poker games fund its minor printing and Web-site expenses.

Lara Bain: 206-464-2112 or lbain@seattletimes.com

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