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Alums Illuminate 10th Annual ‘Women Inspire’ Event

Apparel Entrepreneur and Scientific Leader Relate Triumphs, Struggles on Way to the Top

By Pablo Suarez

Ali von Paris '12 and Wendy Sanhai MBA '09

Photos courtesy of the Robert H. Smith School of Business

Route One Apparel founder and CEO Ali von Paris ’12 (left) and Deloitte executive Dr. Wendy Sanhai MBA ’09 headlined the Smith School’s 10th annual “Women Inspire” event.

The road to success for Route One Apparel’s Ali von Paris ’12 stretched from her University of Maryland dorm room, where she designed her first T-shirts, to the Towson headquarters of her company selling distinctive Maryland-themed merchandise now worn by everyone from students to political leaders and pro sports figures. 

For Dr. Wendy Sanhai, MBA ’09, it wound through personal tragedy along the way to leadership roles in the pharmaceutical, biomedical and medical-device industries and the federal government, including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and most recently, Deloitte Consulting.

Both talked about the potholes and detours they overcame on their career journeys as the keynote speakers at Thursday night's 10th annual Women Inspire event hosted by the Robert H. School of Business. Each year, it showcases fearless female alumni leaders and offers a thought-provoking conversation about their own professional journey.

“Women Inspire is a special evening to honor our Smith alumnae at the start of Women’s History Month,” said Dean Probhudev Konana. “This year, we were proud to recognize two more distinguished Smith alumnae who have shown great dedication to their communities, the Smith School and to the University of Maryland.”

Associate Clinical Professor Nicole M. Coomber moderated the virtual discussion, attended by over 250 Maryland Smith students, faculty, staff and alumni. Afterward, attendees were invited to take part in a virtual networking hour in breakout rooms catering to specific industries and general networking.

Sanhai and von Paris shared the following lessons that attendees can apply in their respective journeys:

Relinquish the reins. Sanhai, who has a doctorate in clinical biochemistry and structural biology and is Senior Executive Education Fellow at Maryland Smith, said there are moments in life when we must lend a helping hand, and others when we may need to accept one. When her husband of almost 22 years died suddenly, she said, “Overnight, I became a single mom. We had no family close by, no backup plan, mounting bills, and two young sons who were now totally dependent on me. It was my support group at the FDA and at Smith, and friends and my father who were there to support us.” She recommends dispelling the notion of having to be completely self-reliant and independent at all times. “By not accepting help and the kindness of others, we are robbing them of the blessing to be of service. When needed, we must be willing to humbly accept help and guidance from others. And we must do so knowing that we will also be granted opportunities to pay it forward and do the same for others in their time of need.”

Silence the self-doubt. When von Paris founded her company following that first tee touting the old Thirsty Turtle bar, she worried about failing and disappointing her loved ones. “I knew, though, that as long as I didn’t slow down because of that self-doubt, I was going to make it. Over time, I wasn’t as concerned about disappointing others –– it gets easier as you get older.”

Rise to the occasion. Every opportunity presents new challenges and vice versa, said Sanhai. She was overwhelmed when she first stepped into an emergency room as a clinical fellow at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, but she saw an opportunity to grow. “When life throws different challenges your way, you must be willing to accept these challenges with the understanding that there’s going to be much to learn,” said Sanhai. “Don’t waste time complaining about it, because it’s time that you’ll never get back.”

Open your parachute. One key ingredient to professional success is viewing everything as an opportunity to learn and grow, Sanhai said. “Your mind is like a parachute in that it only works well when it’s open. We need to be open to trying new things and making the most of them.” 

Stay present and focused. Young people often get wrapped up in trying to map the next stages of their lives — von Paris said she did exactly that. But in tunnel visioning on one career, we lose sight of the little things that help shape us as we grow. “Find opportunities you gravitate to because you’re passionate about them, not just because they offer a pathway to making a lot of money.”



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