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How Carolina helped prepare one alumna to launch her own fashion brand

After struggling to find clothes for a traditional wedding in India, Carolina alumna Niki Shamdasani '15 and her sister launched their own South Asian-inspired fashion brand, Sani. The Tar Heels says Carolina helped her hone the crucial problem-solving abilities she now uses as a business owner.

Niki Shamdasani

Niki Shamdasani ’15 is a bona fide problem-solver. Give her a challenge, and she will find the best solution. She may even turn it into an international business.

It all started on a shopping trip in New York City in 2017. Shamdasani and her younger sister, Ritika, were trekking across the Big Apple in search of outfits to wear to a traditional wedding in India the following summer.

Even in the biggest city in the country, they had no luck.

“We were video-calling our grandmother in India to get her help with shopping, and we were traveling two hours away to see Indian boutiques,” Shamdasani said. “We tried ordering things off e-Bay, but nothing fit right.”

The sisters pulled together what they could for that wedding. Afterward, they decided to make their own outfits for future events. One thing led to another, and now they are the proud owners of Sani, a South Asian-inspired fashion brand.

“It was never really about fashion for me – although I have a much greater appreciation for it now,” Shamdasani said. “It was really about solving this problem – why can’t South Asian Americans access this fashion from the United States?”

Shamdasani developed that knack for proactively tackling challenges as a political science and business administration undergraduate student at Carolina from 2011 to 2015.

When it came time to register for classes each semester, she would ask older friends, “what was your favorite class at Carolina?” and then sign up for whatever they recommended. Taking classes in a wide range of subjects helped expand her perspectives and refine her critical thinking skills.

One English course taught by Jessica Wolfe stands out in her mind.

“We were reading old English literature, and I loved the way the professor walked us through the complex text,” recalled Shamdasani, who was a Morehead-Cain Scholar. “She broke it down piece by piece. It helped me learn to read in a way I never had before.”

From analyzing complex text to being involved in student government, Shamdasani says Carolina gave her many opportunities to hone her problem-solving abilities.

During her first year, she joined student government, working as the executive assistant to the student body president. The first significant project she joined revolved around the issue of tuition hikes. While she was the only first-year student in a group of seniors, she never felt intimidated.

“I was constantly soaking up information from them and learning so much,” she said. “When I saw them resolve a problem effectively, I would take note and apply those lessons to other projects later on.”

Maintaining a deep well of problem-solving tactics has been crucial for starting her own company — and especially for carrying it through a pandemic.

At the beginning of 2020, Sani launched a collaboration with Rent the Runway, becoming the first South Asian fashion brand on the global site.

“We were ready to go full time and make it huge,” Shamdasani said. “Then, two weeks later, the pandemic hit. We were a company focused on formal wear for special occasions — and then every occasion was canceled.”

Undeterred, Shamdasani expanded the business’s product line to include loungewear and more casual clothing.

She also took on additional side jobs and projects outside Sani, including working as a project lead for PRX, as an adjunct professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and as a Launch Ambassador at Launch Chapel Hill. In the fall of 2020, she taught Hussman School’s news lab, a class focused on thinking creatively about how to develop media products and services of the future.

As Sani grows, Shamdasani continues to develop her mentality and approach in how she does business. From contractors to brand partners to influencers to customers, she works with a wide variety of people across the globe.

“We are constantly meeting new people and adjusting to many different styles of working,” she said. “When we’re working with our counterparts in India, it’s a really different culture. Even though I’m Indian, I didn’t grow up there, so we’ve had to adapt.”

Until now, she and her sister have self-funded the business. Now they are fundraising in hopes of taking it to the next level.

“We have all the right things in place,” Shamdasani said. “We want to show South Asian craftsmanship to the world and make it accessible.”

Looking back at her experiences as an undergraduate student at Carolina, it seems only fitting that Shamdasani would start an international business after majoring in political science, minoring in business and taking an entrepreneurship class.

“I had no idea I would start a business,” she said with a laugh.

Now that she has started a business, Shamdasani feels grateful for her continued connection to Carolina. During her time at Carolina, she took a consulting skills course with Steve Jones. While she enjoyed the class at the time, it wasn’t until a few years later that she realized just how relevant those lessons were.

“When you’re taking a class, you might not always know how the content can be applied in the real world,” she says. “When I started Sani, I went back to Steve Jones and asked him a bunch of questions. It’s good to know you can always go back and ask for help.”