UMD Startup Shell Supported by ECE Alumna

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Sonal and Ashish Deshpande with Dean Samuel Graham

Inspiring others to give back to their community is the desire of Sonal and Ashish Deshpande, retired engineers who are committed to a successful future for University of Maryland students. The couple recently established the Deshpande Shell Innovative Rising Entrepreneurs (DESIRE) Endowed Student Award for the University of Maryland. The endowment will support the UMD Startup Shell, a student-run startup incubator and co-working space for young entrepreneurs. 

Operating through the generous support of sponsors, the Shell has produced over 300 student ventures with over $1 billion in venture value. Founded in 2012, the student-governed enterprise relocated to a state-of-the-art facility with the opening of the E.A. Fernandez IDEA Factory in 2022. Open 24/7, the co-working space provides digital and physical resources for student entrepreneurs. 

The collaborative efforts of the UMD Startup Shell have sparked a particular interest for the Deshpandes. They strongly believe that students benefit from cross-academic disciplines and real-world experience, bringing a more holistic approach to an engineering degree and going beyond traditional classroom learning. 

In envisioning their long-term support for the Startup Shell, the Deshpandes have two primary goals. First, they would like to see students focused on their ideas and not worrying about funding their projects. The dependence of research on capital funding is well known, and fundraising can often take precedence over the research. Without the need to focus on funding, students can gain the ability to fully concentrate on developing ideas into marketable products. 

“The reason that we set up this fund as an endowment is that we want this to be a common pot of seed or startup money, so others can contribute any amount and it will continue to grow over the long term”, says Sonal. “Students will know that they have some source of funding, so they don’t have to worry about that while they research different ideas.  Any amount makes a difference, and it will continue to grow”. 

The second goal of the Deshpande’s is to encourage others to give back either through monetary donations or time. They would like all alumni to understand that every donation, no matter the amount, or time donated, can make a difference in a student’s college experience. They strongly believe that the relationship between alumni and the university is most important. 

As Ashish explains: “You have to be empathetic and passionate. You have to develop and cultivate a relationship with students, the university and the administration over time. We enjoy giving because of the people we have met at networking events, at functions and through outreach. The outreach and development that the university invests in for their alumni is why we are so passionate.”

Sonal and Ashish Deshpande met as students at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Interested in studying electrical engineering, Sonal transferred to the University of Maryland College Park to join the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, graduating with an electrical engineering degree in 1986.

Though a graduate of UMBC, Ashish is proud to be an honorary Terp, and his support of the University System of Maryland is evident. The couple’s son, Nik, furthered the family tradition by graduating from the UMD Robert H. Smith School of Business in 2013.  Their daughter-in-law, Stephanie, is also a proud 2013 alumnus of the UMD College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

Sonal recently capped off a lifelong career with Northrop Grumman, where she retired from her position as  Vice President of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Systems Sector. Ashish also retired as a Senior Network Engineer from Bechtel Corporation. 

The Deshpandes believe that developing a collective objective through projects like the Startup Shell is vital to molding students into well-rounded individuals who will be making their mark in industry and academia. Opportunities for students outside of the classroom should include both technical skills and skills such as communication, leadership, teamwork and collaboration across multiple disciplines. The mission of the Startup Shell perfectly defines these attributes, allowing students to make the most of their undergraduate years. 

“Students are more well-rounded now”, says Sonal, “I’m amazed at all of the things they are doing beyond their classwork. There’s so many more opportunities available”. “Students are doing internships, presentations, projects in entrepreneurship, taking a full load of 15 to 18 credits, and engaging in the on-campus community,” adds Ashish. “The university is a nurturing community which allows students to enjoy every aspect of university life, which is not just strictly academic.” 

“We encourage others to give. The Startup Shell is a wonderful opportunity for new ideas and entrepreneurship. It’s student-run, and they learn so much.”

To support opportunities for students at the Startup Shell through the DESIRE fund, click here.

Published February 21, 2024