Neel Grover ’92 economics has been named the 2023 UCI Lauds & Laurels Outstanding Alumni Athlete. Awarded annually, the honor recognizes a former student athlete who has achieved great professional prominence in their industry or sport and is engaged in the community, furthering the goals of UCI. Below, learn more about Grover’s successes on and off the tennis court and how he’s remain engaged with his alma mater.
--originally ran February 8, 2023--
Creating a higher level of connection
Sharlene and Neel Grover ’92 help build the UCI School of Social Sciences Women of the Dean’s Leadership Society
On a sun-splashed afternoon in September 2022, Sharlene and Neel Grover ’92 hosted a picnic on the beach for the UCI School of Social Sciences Women of the Dean’s Leadership Society featuring author Deepak Chopra and actor Gabriella Wright.
The afternoon was “magical,” Sharlene says. “When you’re around people and energies that raise your vibration, it gives you a different perspective and awareness.”
Creating positive energy and opportunity is one of the aims of the nascent Women of the Dean’s Leadership Society, which fosters connections between students, alumni and the community to elevate current and future leaders from the social sciences. As founding members of WDLS, Sharlene and Neel are helping to pave the way.
Born an Anteater
Neel was practically born an Anteater. His dad was an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Surgery at UCI, and his older sister graduated pre-med from the university. But coming from a family of doctors, Neel aspired to a different path: playing college tennis and wanting to go into business.
While majoring in economics and minoring in political science at UCI, Neel took many life lessons from the tennis court. As a member of the UCI Men’s Tennis team that was consistently ranked in the top 10 in the country, he spent up to seven hours a day training under the leadership of coach Greg Patton, who was twice named NCAA National Coach of the Year, and who Neel admires for creating a strong team bond that led to team wins.
“We had players from all around the world, all with different personalities, but he took a bunch of individuals and brought them together as a team,” Neel recalls. “I try to do the same thing when running a business. It’s about meshing and melding different personalities and getting folks to work together at their optimal levels.”
“And he tried to get the best out of each member of the team, knowing what motivates one is not what motivates another,” he adds.
Neel says he was never the most talented player on the team, so he worked that much harder to succeed – and he brings that work ethic into the business world now. Today, he remains fiercely competitive both on and off the court. Neel plays doubles and has ranked at the top of his age group nearly every one of the last 15 years and has represented the United States in international play multiple times. He currently serves on the board of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and has previously been a volunteer assistant coach at UCI.
After graduating, Neel became a corporate lawyer focusing on business transactions for several years. That time in law provided a foundation for going into business, where he builds partnerships, makes compromises and closes deals.
Neel left the law firm to serve as president and then CEO of one of his firm’s clients, Buy.com – which was losing $100 million a year at the time. To turn around the company, he built what became the third largest marketplace in the U.S. and forged relationships with competitors including eBay and BestBuy to better compete against Amazon. Under his guidance, the company achieved thirteen consecutive profitable quarters prior to its sale to Rakuten, the Japanese-founded equivalent of Amazon. He then stayed on board to lead Rakuten North America. In total, Neel's leadership posts with Buy.com and Rakuten North America spanned more than a decade.
These were just the first of several businesses Neel founded, led or sold, including the video commerce platform Indi, luxury fashion retailer Bluefly and, most recently, the online marketplace platform Shop Premium Outlets.
“I love to create things that haven’t been done yet, I love pushing the envelope,” Neel says. Here again, his tennis skills come into play.
“I like to think of tennis like you’re creating your own mini business and you have to think on your feet to succeed,” says Neel. “You try your business plan, and if it doesn’t work or your opponent does something different, you have to pivot and try another plan.”
Over the years, Neel stayed active on the Board of the UCI Alumni Association, Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, OVPTL Leadership Advisory Board and the Chancellor’s CEO Roundtable, and now also the WDLS. In 2016, he gave the commencement address for the Samueli School of Engineering, and in 2019, he received the Orange County Business Journal’s Innovator of the Year award. He likes to encourage Anteaters to be bold and take risks, whether as software engineers or corporate executives.
Sharlene entered Neel’s life in 2006, when she moved to Southern California as an actor and model. Today, she focuses on energy healing and intuition coaching, helping people get in touch with their own inner guide.
“I help people hone their own intuition, which is their best way of figuring out their life purpose on their own,” she says. “It’s not about asking me what I think about their future, but figuring it out for themselves. You can call it ‘gut instinct’ or ‘intuition,’ though everyone has a higher self, an energy source to tap into at any given moment – that’s what I help with.”
Soon, Sharlene was joining Neel at UCI functions, embracing them as if UCI were her alma mater, too. Sharlene and Neel have hosted several “Dinners with Anteaters” to help current students get introduced to alumni, including a dinner at the beach with over 50 undergraduate students and several alumni.
“Every time you go to an event, you meet amazing people and learn about innovative new things,” Sharlene says. “Every event we’ve been to has raised the bar. It’s given us a desire to help, as well, because UCI does so much for the community at large.”
In 2020, the Grovers heard Chopra and UCI cognitive sciences professor Donald Hoffman give a talk on “Solving the Hard Problem of Consciousness” on campus. Leaving that evening, Sharlene told Neel she had a sense they would someday reconnect with Chopra. That opportunity came into being when the Grovers, as founding members of the WDLS, were asked by the School of Social Sciences to host an event for the group that would feature both Chopra and Wright.
The guests of honor spoke about the Never Alone Movement, an initiative of the Chopra Foundation, which is piloting a chatbot named Piwi, to help prevent suicides – an issue that’s deeply personal to Wright, who lost her sister to suicide in 2018.
“It really touched us when Gabriella spoke about her family, and not knowing what was going on with her sister; you can feel that pain and that hurt,” Sharlene says. “When you see somebody go through something so horrible, it gives you a different perspective of your own surroundings, and what’s happening in your family.”
As parents, the Grovers say their biggest insight from the evening was to never take for granted their communication with their children. But as cofounding members of WDLS, the Grovers were left thinking about helping social sciences students foster connections with diverse women in the community as they seek advice on career paths and their future.
“It can be helpful to get advice and talk to people who went into different careers,” Sharlene says. “Growing up, your culture, your parents, even your stressors, all impact your idea of who you are and where you can go. But when you talk to someone outside of that, it gives you a bigger perspective.”
Through their ongoing support of WDLS, the Grovers are creating connections that broaden UCI students’ perspective and opportunities on their journey to becoming the leaders of tomorrow.
-Christine Byrd for UCI Social Sciences