By Matthew Kelsey
Martinsville, VA, a pocket-sized city buttoned to the foothills of the Appalachians, is known mostly for its motor speedway and its once-robust textile and furniture industries. Someday, though, it might commonly be known as the hometown of Finley Underwood (McIntire ’25).
Back from a fast-paced summer trip to the United Kingdom, where he and a friend studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Underwood says he made sure to make the most of his experience, visiting a constellation of intriguing European cities, including Milan, Valencia, Brussels, and Amsterdam. But as compelling as these travels are, they’re nowhere near as captivating as the longer journey Underwood took just to get to the Commerce School. It’s a path that portends a phenomenal life ahead, as well as a mutually beneficial relationship between school and student that will flourish for decades to come.
Underwood says he is “very, very proud” of that southwest swath of Virginia. In fact, he feels the region is often overlooked. It’s this affinity for small-town life, combined with healthy, lasting ties to family, that originally contributed to Underwood’s decision to attend UVA. His grandfather is an avid fan of Cavaliers basketball, which compelled him to favor UVA over other in-state schools at an early age. When Underwood enrolled at UVA—and again when he was accepted into McIntire—his grandfather cried with joy. But this rich and supportive tandem of family and place didn’t just bring him to Charlottesville. It also informs his character in deep and enduring ways.
“My parents always instilled in me the importance of helping others, especially in Martinsville,” he says, noting the local unemployment rate, which is staggeringly high. According to the Virginia Employment Commission, Martinsville’s unemployment rate this past May was 3.5%, higher than the national rate (3.4%) and well above Virginia’s collective rate (2.7%).
Community Matters, Too
Underwood’s hometown, once dubbed the “Sweatshirt Capital of the World,” has been impacted by looser trade laws, and seen many of its textile and furniture jobs outsourced or altogether replaced. This all exacerbates the already vast wealth gap, Underwood explains. And though the future McIntire grad acknowledges he was fortunate to not face some of these issues firsthand, he was taught to assume them as a priority in his life all the same.
Joining the youth board of Martinsville’s Harvest Foundation as a child, Underwood helped the nonprofit, seeded in 2002 with funds from the sale of Memorial Hospital of Martinsville, in supporting the local community through youth-organized food banks and dinners. Through events like the Richard’s Dinner and the W. Dan Prince III Thanksgiving Eve Dinner, the latter of which took the better part of a year to curate, he recalls, he and his fellow volunteers were able to serve approximately 3,000 meals during his last year of participation.
In addition to making food more accessible and affordable, Underwood believes education should be more widely available, too. A few years ago, The Harvest Foundation teamed up with Patrick & Henry Community College to support the SEED Fund, which ensures that Martinsville-Henry County students who have completed high school can obtain a free associate’s degree from P&HCC after meeting several requirements. Underwood, whose mother, Tiffani, is the Executive Director of Patrick & Henry Community College Foundation at P&HCC, benefited greatly from tuition-free college coursework made possible by his high school, which allowed him to obtain dual enrollment while he completed 11th and 12th grades.
He lauds the educational initiative, which recognizes that many local students either don’t wish to leave home and attend a larger, four-year university, or else can’t afford to: “I came out of school with 60 credits, which obviously helped me a ton at UVA. [This grant is] one of the best things that’s happened to our community.”
With a mother who’s so invested in community advancement and parents who taught Underwood to orient his work around community involvement, it’s no wonder that his younger sister is now on the Harvest Youth Board.
Here’s the Kicker
But even with such a supportive, altruistic family and a stellar education, not everything has gone according to plan for Underwood. After submitting four brilliant years as a kicker for the high school football team, he sought a spot on the UVA roster. All was looking bright until the day before his 18th birthday, when he suffered a partially torn ACL. This was followed by a fully torn ACL, a torn MCL, and a torn meniscus, all by the time he graduated and stepped onto the Lawn as a matriculated student.
Although he was able to rehabilitate his body and earn himself a spot in the 2022 Spring Game, Underwood knew it was time to recalibrate and position himself to assume new goals: “Football was an amazing experience for me, but realizing how far I still had to go before I was ready for the Saturday night lights, I stepped back to focus on building for my future after school and athletics.”
Reviving an Old Passion
It was at this time that Underwood reprioritized Utopia, a company he started as a high schooler, through which he resells high-end fashion. Deriving satisfaction from the process of generating attention toward a brand while turning a profit, Underwood says that the passion project allows him to channel his love for creative expression.
After launching the company on his 16th birthday, Underwood sold 50 pieces in his very first half hour. And now that he’s officially stepped away from football and purchased new screen-printing and vinyl machinery, Underwood is reinvesting in Utopia to see where his braid of financial, creative, and communal interests takes him.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says, noting that his recent trips through Europe have provided extra inspiration for future designs. The ambitious, Type A demeanor he identifies with is balanced beautifully with a trait rarely found: a graceful and unflagging sense of humor. “If I get no money out of it, at least I get a couple of really cool t-shirts,” Underwood cracks.
A Winning Attitude
Underwood’s resilience, resourcefulness, grace, and flexibility are all attributes that should take him far in his pursuits. But it’s his attitude toward others, and toward the larger world, that most shows his promise.
Asked about his advice to prospective Commerce students, Underwood returns to the very spirit of exploration that brought him to London in the first place: “You have to say ‘yes’ to pretty much any opportunity that comes across your door, especially if you’re from a small place. You’ll never know unless you try.”
“You are what you make of life,” he says. If that’s the case, and if character is any indication, then Underwood is absolutely ready to make the most of it. And he just might put Martinsville more prominently on the map while he does.