Graduates encouraged to be tenacious

University of Tennessee College of Law alumus Ali Safavi told students Friday to think of themselves as underdogs if they want to succeed.

Safavi, a 2001 College of Law alumnus and now a full-time real estate investor, spoke during commencement ceremonies at Thompson Boling Arena to the 110 graduates, as well as their friends, families, and professors. 

Throughout his career, Safavi has held positions with Hewlett-Packard, Sara Lee, Levi’s, Haagen-Dazs, Proctor and Gamble, and Walt Disney Studios. His last corporate role was as Walt Disney Company’s executive director of international in-home sales, leading online strategies for a number of Disney’s partners. 

Safavi said his Iranian mother, who fled her home country in 1979 to live in the United States, took an unusual approach in teaching him lessons about gratitude and hard work.

His family was wealthy, he said, but his mother led him to believe they were living just above the poverty line. 

“Each day I took the city bus three hours round trip from and to our luxury residence, to one of the most competitive private high schools in all of California,” he said. “My mother told me I received an academic hardship scholarship and that was the only way I could get into that elite private high school.” 

Safavi said he struggled to make good grades as he studied for his law and MBA degrees, but he was willing to work 40 hours a week networking, practicing interviewing skills, and distributing his resume to decision makers.

“I emailed thousands of recruiters. I even stayed up late every single night until 2 a.m. documenting my learnings,” he said. “These documents … later became the nation’s first federally copyrighted student-to-student career services book. I sold it to 37 different MBA programs across the country.”

Even after he graduated, Safavi maintained that underdog mentality – believing hard work and dedication would help him gain the advantage. It was a winning formula for him, he said.

“As an executive I managed hundreds of people from decorated and impressive backgrounds, and I finally retired from corporate in 2012 at age 36 and became job optional,” he said. He then opened his own real estate investment company and has since “touched billions of dollars in commercial real estate, and all of this is as the underdog from Tennessee.”

College of Law Dean Melanie D. Wilson, who began her tenure just as the class of 2019 was entering UT, told the graduates she feels a special connection to them.

“Over the course of your law school careers, the members of this graduating class have provided more than 10,200 hours of pro bono service,” she said. “Thirty-one percent of our graduates have been honored with the University of Tennessee service medallion which recognizes students who have provided 100 hours or more of public service.

“And this year, you, the class of 2019 conducted the most successful class gift campaign in the history of the College of Law” pledging$110,000 in support, she said.

Graduate Ariane Sowa, who was selected by her class as the student commencement speaker, praised those who have supported the law students throughout the last three years.

“Thanks to our families, our friends, the incredible faculty and staff of this school, we had the support we needed to realize a great dream,” she said. “May this moment today be the beginning of blessings you have never seen coming … I hope that in your relationships, in your professional lives, and in your families, you feel favored.”

The ceremony is available for viewing here.