Ampersand Women: Entrepreneurs Samira Panah & Hitha Palepu
Filed in: Woman of the Week
“Ampersand Women” doesn’t even begin to describe this dynamic duo. Hitha Palepu is a longtime MM.LaFleur customer who recently teamed up with her bestie Samira Panah to launch Bridge2Act, a charitable giving platform that allows consumers of content to give as soon as they read about a worthy cause in the news.
In addition to launching this endeavor, these ladies juggle a host of other projects. Hitha is a new mom and travel blogger who just finished writing her first book, Pack Perfect, a guide to stylish carry-on packing. Meanwhile, Samira holds a full-time job at Cisco Systems where she leads a team that provides tech solutions for the world’s largest media conglomerates.
We recently tracked them down to find out more about their latest project—and to dress them up in a few new looks from MM.
What’s Bridge2Act all about?
Samira: It’s a platform that enables digital media outlets to initiate targeted calls-to-action in their published content. We connect readers, audited nonprofits, and the media with the goal of driving goodwill to the people and places that need it.
Hitha: We built Bridge2Act because we believe it should be easy to give the moment you feel compelled, like when you read a news article or see a moving photograph.
How did you get the business off the ground, given that you both already had a full-time workload?
Samira: The idea came to me last year in the height of the refugee crisis. I was reading a New York Times article about the plight of Syrian refugees and was completely overwhelmed by what I read. The Times listed the facts and underscored the problem, but there was no call to action or concrete way that I could help. In that moment, I realized that the solution was to create a bridge to great nonprofits, and to highlight their work in the articles.
Hitha: Samira told me about her idea over too many glasses of rosé, which led to a long brainstorming session that went into the wee hours of the morning. When I woke up the next day, I was still thinking about it. Samira and I started our careers together at Cisco, and I always had an inkling that we would work together again someday.
How did you balance launching this business with the other personal and professional projects you have going on?
Hitha: Balance doesn’t exist—ruthless prioritization does. There are days when I’m an engaged mother but barely put a dent in my work list; and days when I’m a boss lady but don’t spend any time with my child. That’s my reality, and while it’s far from perfect, it works for me, my family, and my businesses.
Samira: Balance is not a reality for me. It’s all about integration. I attempt to integrate aspects of my personal and professional life the best I can—and no two days look the same. For instance, if I need to be at work events late in the evening, I may take a couple hours in the morning to get personal things done. Outside of Bridge2Act and my job at Cisco, I also evangelize for anti-human trafficking organizations including the New Somaly Mam Fund, practice hot yoga and muay thai, and am currently planning my wedding. I travel a ton (four times a month on average), so I focus on keeping my routine intact, no matter what city (or airport) I’m in.
What are you most proud of that wouldn’t necessarily be considered “an achievement” by outsiders looking in?
Hitha: Overcoming postpartum depression while raising my son and having one of the biggest years in my career. It was (and continues to be) a struggle, but being kind to myself and having a supportive family and co-founders have helped me get through it.
Samira: This has been a huge year for me. With so many balls in the air, I am proud that I am still able to be fully present with those I work with and love.
When you were little, what did you want to be?
Hitha: A fashion designer and a pediatric oncologist.
Samira: An attorney and horse ranch owner (don’t ask).
When you “grow up,” what do you want to be?
Hitha: Happy and an eternal student. I never want to stop learning.
Samira: Mark Cuban-esque. I want to have my hands in a little bit of everything, unmatched clout, and the ability to get shit done.
What would you advise young professionals to “practice” doing every day?
Hitha: Practice self-care. It sounds so selfish, but you can’t take care of anything or anyone without taking care of yourself first. Find a few rituals that ground you and make you happy—and do them every single day. I have a strict morning routine, and I end every day with a little bit of dark chocolate and a chapter or two of a novel.
Samira: Work out and eat right—not just for the physical benefits, but the mental. You can’t run hard 24/7, so take the time to decompress every day in some capacity. (And yes, red wine counts if you can’t make it to yoga.)
How do you like to dress for work?
Hitha: In a dress! It takes the guesswork out of the ‘what do I wear?’ agony. I love MM.LaFleur dresses because they support all aspects of my life—from playing on the floor with my son, to a marathon work session at Neuehouse, to grabbing dinner with friends or my husband.
Samira: Working in tech for the past decade has shifted my style to chic yet masculine separates. I work with 99% men, so I want their attention to be on my intellect, work ethic, and results—and not on anything else. I focus on comfort, style, and durability. I run hard and fast in the work environment; I need my clothes to keep pace.
Hitha, finish the following sentences.
Success is… being able to live in Manhattan for the rest of my life.
Happiness is… watching my son and husband together.
Balance… is overrated.
Sleep… is underrated.
Samira, what about you?
Success is… being well-traveled, well-heeled, and well-fed.
Happiness is… found in the present and in aiding others.
Snapchat… is overrated. (I still don’t get it…)
Netflix + couch + takeout… is underrated.
Photos by Frances F. Denny