To be in a position to help others is a privilege, says Ali von Paris ’12, and it’s something she doesn’t take for granted.
Founder and CEO of the Maryland-based Route One Apparel, von Paris has stepped up to support her community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through sales of masks and fanny packs, the Maryland Smith alum has donated over 200,000 facemasks to first responders and frontline workers.
“We realized that we had the opportunity to make something that people needed, but we took it a step further and decided to donate a mask for every retail order that we sold,” says von Paris. “That is the true core of our identity as a company to give back to the state and the fact that we’ve been able to help as much as we have gives me goosebumps.”
After launching Route One Apparel roughly a decade ago while a student at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, von Paris has dedicated her career to turning her startup into a well-known Maryland brand, specializing in state pride apparel and accessories.
It has been a process learning to embrace the ups and downs of creating a business from the ground up, says von Paris. To her, Route One Apparel has always been a labor of love and something that she’s proud to say doesn’t feel like any other job.
“Starting Route One back in college, I feel like I’ve never really had a real job because I’m doing something I’ve always enjoyed,” she says. “I have so many great people who have worked alongside me who feel the same way because we make the process fun. When you can do that, it never feels like work.”
Going into 2020, von Paris looked forward to celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary and reflecting on the journey so far. Things quickly changed.
That January, the von Paris family farm, which the family owned for over six decades, was tragically lost in a fire. Some two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and dramatically altered day-to-day operations for her business.
That series of events, while difficult, offered von Paris a new outlook.
“I realized in that moment that nothing should be taken for granted, and materialism really doesn't matter. I was surrounded by an amazing support system,” says von Paris. “That experience helped me become a better person and helped me identify who I want to become and what I want my legacy to be.”
As the pandemic continued, von Paris contemplated ways her apparel company could help Maryland residents. Inspired by Under Armour and other Maryland businesses who donated their available inventory, von Paris donated over 3,000 fanny packs to healthcare workers.
That opened the door to mask production, von Paris says. A trusted friend suggested a buy-one-give-one mask policy, where Route One would donate a mask to frontline and essential workers for every mask sold.
The policy launched a major domino effect that has led to the company’s most prosperous year to date, she says, with the company going viral and people taking to its website to buy masks to support the cause. Even Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh helped bring attention to the initiative by donning Route One gear.
“I remain humbled by the support we’ve received from people all over the state,” says von Paris. “To me, businesses are measured by how they are able to overcome challenges and pivot.”
This year in addition to donating more than 200,000 masks, von Paris is ramping up her philanthropic efforts by highlighting local Baltimore restaurants and offering a $10,000 commitment to help keep their doors open. The company also donated $10,000 to Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter (BARCS), $12,000 each to four Black-led non-profits in Baltimore, and raised more than $5,000 for the American Heart Association during Heart Month this past February.
She also is seeking to get even more active in her role as a Maryland Smith alum. An honoree of Maryland Smith’s 2021 Women Inspire event, von Paris looked to impart some wisdom and encouragement, helping the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders get involved in their communities. Anyone, no matter who they are, can make a difference, she says.
“It's important for people to recognize that you don't need to be one shape, size or gender to be where you are. It's been a blessing and a curse starting a business at such a young age, but I'm grateful for my position as a woman and as a young business owner,” says von Paris. “I’m more resilient because of it and now I never take no for an answer if I know it’s the right decision.”
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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.