In a converted auto body shop a few blocks from Stanford University, the maelstrom of money and competitive tension known as the Silicon Valley has produced its oddest byproduct, a group of affluent dropouts bent on saving the world.

Gene Richeson had cofounded one of the world's most successful high-technology electronic firms by the time he was 30. Ed Kyser had helped perfect a profitable ink jet-printer before he was 40. Jim Burch was a writer and vice president with the West Coast branch of a leading advertising firm. Mike Helft was vice president of an electronics firm.

Today each works full time, without salary, at the Creative Initiative Foundation, a startling demonstration of what can occur when boredom and midlife self-examination catch up with those favored few Americans who have made it big in their 30s and 40s.

The foundation, which has tackled a range of contemporary problems, from energy conservation to chemical contamination to the nuclear arms race, is drawing a new kind of volunteer: bright and wealthy people willing to abandon lucrative careers in the Silicon Valley, the dense collection of electronics firms south of San Francisco that offers chances for rapid advancement and instant riches.

Now headed by Richard Rathbun, an architect whose father helped build one of this area's first high-tech firms, Creative Initiative has 28 couples with one or both partners engaged in trying to stop the nuclear arms race. Most of the men are on unpaid leave from high-salaried positions. Mark Blitz, assistant director of the federal Action agency and an expert on volunteer programs in the United States, said he knows of no other program outside Silicon Valley that has so many successful executives abandoning their careers for full-time volunteer work.

Blitz said some large firms are now offering paid leaves to executives to do nonprofit volunteer work. Among such volunteers is Pete Paffrath of the Creative Initiative staff, an IBM executive on a year's paid leave to work on the foundation's "Beyond War" film project.

Before he decided to spend his time telling other businessmen of the need to create an alternative to a nuclear holocaust, Richeson, 41, had climbed from a small-town boyhood in Talco, Tex., to success as a CIA surveillance satellite systems engineer, to the top of the ROLM Corp., which he helped form in 1969.

"When we were first married, we had defined a number of goals," said Donna Richeson, 38, a former CIA staff employe who works for Creative Initiative. "We would have a family, Gene would advance himself in his career. But we thought it would take much longer than it took. We had our children, we had a nice home, and we thought, 'What else is it that life is all about?' "

Richeson's father died at age 60, when Richeson was 30. "I began to think that I did not have an unlimited amount of time," he said. With the stock he had accumulated in his company he knew he could afford to do something else. One partner applauded his plan, another "thought I was crazy," but he dropped it all in 1977 and went to work for Creative Initiative.

Bob Harwell was a divisional controller with Hewlett-Packard, a certified public accountant with a cautious approach to life. But he happened to take one of the courses in philosophy and human relationships sponsored by Creative Initiative a decade ago, and found it to be "a revelation."

When the group began its "Beyond War" project, Harwell "made a very quick decision" and took a year off last May. The reaction at Hewlett-Packard, which he calls "a very conservative company," was surprisingly favorable. With his company stock holdings and a trust fund left to his wife by an uncle, they could still support themselves and their three sons.

The philosophical core of the Creative Initiative Foundation started with an electrical engineer, lawyer and Stanford Business School professor named Harry Rathbun, now 87, and his wife Amelia, now 77. The couple turned an interest in philosophy into a series of seminars on personal relationships and alternative approaches to contemporary problems, attracting people from the San Francisco area.

Richard Roney, 38, on leave from ROLM Corp. to work for Creative Initiative, said he and his wife Regina, 37, attended a foundation course called "Challenge for Change" 10 years ago.

He was struck by a book in the course written by Victor Frankel, a psychiatrist who had survived the Nazi concentration camps of World War II.

"His point was, if you had a larger purpose in life, you could survive anything," Roney said. "We all follow a pattern. We grow up, get married, get a job, have children, but somehow it doesn't all add up, so the idea of meaning in life becomes very important."

The course encouraged members to look beyond their daily concerns to those factors that threatened the survival of the world. It encouraged people to think in terms of their relationships to each other and whether they were addressing their mutual problems or just concentrating on greater personal gain.

"I considered myself a sensitive person, but I hadn't had much training. I was an engineer," Roney said. After course meetings, "I remember having deep discussions with Regina about things we didn't realize we could talk about."

The philosophy that has drawn people to Creative Initiative is "very eclectic," Rathbun said. "We try to look at the great religious geniuses and see what they were really saying." Favorite readings have included Carl Jung and Fritz Kunkel. Rathbun said many of the writers argue that men are moved by basic drives, such as procreation or acquisitiveness, which must be taken out and examined to see if they fit in the modern world. These discussions led to the foundation's projects in support of energy conservation and to reduce the threat of chemical contamination and now nuclear war.

Juliet Helft, 39, a physical therapist, said that when friends who had taken a Rathbun seminar told her "they would stay up all night talking about it, I said, 'that's for me.' "

Wileta Burch, 54, who recently led a six-member team spreading the foundation's message in St. Louis, discovered Creative Initiative in 1960 and pulled in her husband Jim, now 57. "I was so totally preoccupied with business, with the excitement of it ...that I didn't even know she had been searching for something like this," said Burch, a former vice president of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn.

In 1974 they sold their six-bedroom house in San Carlos for a smaller place and joined the foundation full time while living off their investments.

Wileta Burch recalled asking her husband, "We're not going to get a check every two weeks?"

"No," he replied.

"Well, what are we going to get?" she asked.

"We'll get a dividend check every three months," he said.

It has helped the foundation, Richeson said, that the Silicon Valley environment "is so vibrant and accessible to change . . . . People who are usually open to new ideas are the kind of people who tend to come here."

"If we had stayed in New York," Juliet Helft said, "we would have stayed in the tradition in which we grew up."

The Creative Initiative Foundation offices on a Palo Alto side street are a warren of cubicles full of computer terminals, videotape equipment and people conferring in meetings often punctuated by laughter. Foundation participants, who include several individuals who have kept their full-time jobs, display such enthusiasm for their succession of seminars and antiwar projects that some who have dealt with them in the antinuclear movement have begun to wonder about their motives.

"They are bringing in good people but I do not want any cult-like aspects to permeate this movement," said Josh Baran, state director for the antinuclear project, Ground Zero.

A former member, Valerie Matzger, said she left the foundation because she was uncomfortable with the group's emphasis on self-denial, getting a smaller house, forsaking a big salary for the sake of the movement. But she said the Creative Initiative members that she knows are productive people, not following anyone's orders.

Ruth Hodos, the spokesman for the foundation, acknowledges that the group has acquired a reputation in some quarters as a collection of "middle-aged Moonies."

"They see people with a lot of energy, highly motivated, who take on a project and get it done," she said. "A lot of people think that must mean there is a great leader mesmerizing them."

One San Francisco area antiwar organizer said she was impressed with the way Creative Initiative cooperated with other groups, and with its ability to attract such speakers as former U.S. arms negotiator Paul C. Warnke for gatherings of Bay area business leaders. Rathbun and other members said that they use their nonprofit, nonpartisan status to advantage, bringing in people who otherwise would be put off by political debates.

"The precedent for major shifts in human thinking is established," Rathbun said in a draft of the group's "Beyond War" program. It illustrates the goal of stimulating discussion and personal decisions, rather than presenting a set program, to ultimately "move beyond war."

"The decision and the responsibility lie with people," he concluded. "A small minority is needed to begin the change."