Undergraduate Blog

Cause-Minded Commerce: Hannah Alfieri (McIntire ’22) and Zara Ali (McIntire ’22) on Social Entrepreneurship

These McIntire students are working to achieve a better world through commerce.

Hannah Alfieri and Zara Ali

Hannah Alfieri and Zara Ali

Using commerce to create positive change is more than a tagline—it’s an ethos that many McIntire students live by each day and take with them into their professional lives after they graduate.

Perhaps equally as impressive is the fact that some students arrive at UVA having already made sizable differences in people’s lives through their business efforts.

Hannah Alfieri and Zara Ali are two such third-years.

Though each brought a passion for social entrepreneurism with them to the Commerce School, they’re following different paths on their respective journeys toward walking the Lawn.

Alfieri, from Boca Raton, FL, is tackling two majors, balancing her Commerce coursework (and planned concentrations in Finance and Management) with a Psychology major in the College of Arts & Sciences. Ali, a Boston native, is double-majoring in Commerce (with intended concentrations in Finance and Accounting) and Global Studies: Security Justice, supplemented with minors in Entrepreneurship and Religious Studies.

Both were moved to improve people’s lives at a young age. Through their individual startups, they sell accessories geared toward addressing two specific goals that have allowed them to make a difference with for years: Alfieri’s Embracelets, which she launched in high school, benefits the Maya Macey Foundation, a South Florida not-for-profit organization that raises scholarship money for students who have overcome hardships, while Ali’s social impact venture, ZuMantra, which she started with her sister Marvi as a middle school student nearly a decade ago, helps impoverished women sell their artisanal goods and become financially independent.

They’ve made impressive contributions and are now lending their insight and talent to the Commerce School’s undergraduate program as it helps them develop their acumen further before they take on challenges to come.

Two Roads Taken
Alfieri says that her startup ignited her interest in business and led her to apply to UVA with hopes of studying at McIntire.

“As soon as I saw the Rotunda, I knew that this was the place I wanted to be,” she says. “I also knew I wanted to enter the consulting field, and McIntire’s Commerce Career Services did such an incredible job with helping me prepare to secure a consulting internship for this summer.”

Ali’s route to Grounds—and then to Rouss & Robertson Halls—wasn’t nearly as direct.

Originally, she hadn’t planned on leaving New England and its scores of higher education institutions, but an August college visit to UVA stayed with her, and it became one of the only schools she decided to apply to outside of her hometown region. But even after enrolling, she didn’t have her sights set on a Commerce degree.

“McIntire was the furthest thing from my mind in first semester. I have many relatives in the business world, so I assumed that if I didn’t find it interesting growing up, it wasn’t a career for me,” Ali explains. “I had also spent an exciting summer in the Homicide Section at the Department of Justice, so I was very keen on a pre-law track. I was blind to it then, but in retrospect, I had been flirting with the idea of business for a long time.”

Though she had been co-running ZuMantra, the endeavor didn’t feel like a business, so she hadn’t made the connection. “I ended up taking several McIntire classes out of pure personal interest. For instance, Financial and Managerial Accounting firmed up my knowledge of the bookkeeping and inventory methods I had informally used with ZuMantra for years.”

She says that initially, on a conscious level, her interests in religion, history, and politics overshadowed her enthusiasm for business and entrepreneurship. After those first Commerce classes, she realized the versatility of business studies and how it applied to McIntire with the goal of combining her passions.

Inspired to Ideate Early
Alfieri says she and her best friend in high school were moved to launch Embracelets as a way to give back to the Maya Macey Foundation, as it held special significance to them. The bracelets promote a message of acceptance, encouraging people to “embrace all aspects of life.”

Proceeds from the sale of each bracelet are directed to a specific corresponding charity based on the message engraved on the jewelry. For example, “Embrace Life” provides funding to the aforementioned Maya Macey Foundation, “Embrace Love” benefits the Make-A-Wish Foundation, “Embrace Change” supports Habitat for Humanity, “Embrace Oceans” helps fund The Ocean Cleanup, and earnings from the “Embrace Today” piece goes to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“Today, we have raised a total of over $10,000 for these corresponding charities,” she says.

Ali, whose family is from South Asia, spent a great deal of time in Bombay visiting her grandparents. While there, she took the opportunity to volunteer to help teach math and English to underprivileged children.

“The Bombay I’ve come to love is not always as kind to its own people. The extreme wealth disparity was impossible for me to ignore because it showed through everyday life,” says Ali.

While teaching, she took notice of the fact that many students dropped out of school by sixth or seventh grade so that they could contribute to their family’s income.

“I learned from my students that many of their mothers were skilled artisans, making beautiful jewelry, clothes, and bags. But their products did not command much value in local markets. I initially bought some goods as gifts for family and friends, but when I received an overwhelmingly positive response from people back home, I realized this could be a sustainable source of income for the mothers. They could be financially independent, and they wouldn’t have to ask their children to sacrifice their education.”

Ali and her sister pushed forward with impressive tenacity. They applied for grants, signed up for entrepreneurship boot camps, and pitched their idea in competitions for seed funding.

“In the last seven years, we raised enough capital to build an online presence, multisource to diversify our supply chains, significantly expand operations, and establish a microlending program for our women artisans. To maximize outreach, we sell our products at farmers markets, artisan fairs, and community fundraisers, and have partnered with local nonprofits and organizations.”

Going Forward
Alfieri, who serves as Tutoring Program Director at Madison House, Director of Corporate Sponsorships for HooThon at UVA, and as an analyst with the Virginia Consulting Group, is thankful that her participation in those organizations has allowed her greater involvement with the Charlottesville community. The positions function as an extension of her philanthropic drive, bridging the gap between helping others and improving upon skills she’s been developing in her McIntire coursework: leadership, communication, teamwork, marketing, strategy, and financial consulting—experience she expects to put into practice during her internship.

She’s excited to begin coursework in her concentrations and hopeful that the pandemic recedes, allowing for travel restrictions to be lifted. “I hope to study abroad again, as I took a Global Commerce Immersion course, Investing in Europe, with Professor [Michael] Gallmeyer, and it was one of the best experiences I had ever had,” she says. “I hope to continue to connect with and learn from other incredible people at UVA and continue to make a difference in any way possible.”

Regarding Embracelets, Alfieri says that she and her partner remain hopeful that they can continue to sell at a larger volume to “make a greater impact on these organizations.” They are eyeing the possibility of adding more bracelets to the line and growing the brand name—all to meet their “ultimate objective” of bringing in more funds to donate.

For Ali’s part, she and her sister have taken the difficulties of the pandemic to collaborate with their artisans to design masks that sport “a modern sensibility while retaining traditional, indigenous art forms. We worked for months to specify the correct colors and prints, which were then block-printed by the women onto handcrafted fabrics.” Their next steps include the launch of a quarterly subscription box of items while they grow their network in support of immigrant and refugee artisans seeking economic security and assistance with integration skills. “In the next year, we anticipate an expansion of our artisan network to Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, and we will also introduce a fair-trade, wholesale collection to retailers, along with custom and private-label design options,” she says.

Quite a feat when you consider that Ali is still fully involved in her Commerce coursework. She says that as her classes become increasingly specialized, she’s looking forward to finding more connections between business and entrepreneurship and her interests in politics, history, and religion.

Perhaps her explanation of her first impression of business school and how her studies have informed her view is telling about the potential application of Commerce studies as well as where those studies can lead:

“My mind conjured a narrow image when I thought of the business world, but my McIntire classes have exposed me to the various moving parts a business takes into consideration daily. I saw the real-world applicability of commercial law in business’ daily transactions, as they mitigate litigation risk. During a January-term course on Asian Financial Capitals, I learned about Islamic finance and the critical role that religion and culture play in developing innovative financial products. I’ve had conversations about the implications of data security policy and consumer privacy regulations on companies’ marketing strategies. And in my Entrepreneurship classes, I learned how corporate giants are institutionalizing design thinking and innovation strategies. It’s rewarding to see how one can bring an entrepreneurial mindset into the formal business world. Collectively, these conversations and classes have shown me that every skill set and personality type is needed in business. There’s no such thing as the quintessential Commerce student.”

That last point rings particularly true. However, it could be argued that there exists an ideal aim of what the diverse body of McIntire students wishes to achieve: a better world through commerce.

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