Business 'dreamer' hopes to use entrepreneurial spirit to help others

Diane Saali

First-year Wildcat Diane Saali stands on the steps of the Eller College of Management.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Support was the one thing incoming first-year Wildcat Diane Saali felt she was missing for the longest time. But late in high school, there was a shift: She found support and encouragement from a high school teacher and from mentors at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management.

Now, she hopes to earn a business degree from Eller that will allow her to one day start her own business to support others.

Saali, who is part of the largest incoming class in UArizona history, moved around a lot as a child as her mom worked hard to make ends meet. She attended 11 different schools before fifth grade, when she and her mom settled in Lafayette, California, east of San Francisco. Saali graduated from Acalanes High School in Lafayette.

She describes herself as quiet and reserved, which made high school difficult.

"I met with my counselor, and my grades weren't the best," Saali said. "I thought a community college would work for me. Nothing's wrong with community college, but I thought that I must be not ready for a university. On top of that, my mom and I couldn't really afford to pay for college. It didn't seem to be in my future."

Saali remembers struggling during high school, especially as the pandemic dragged on. She didn't turn in assignments on time or feel like trying. This was all exacerbated by the fact that she and her mom were on the verge of homelessness, and she felt like no one cared that she was struggling.

The turnaround

But then one day, Brian Smith, one of her teachers, reached out.

She remembers him saying, "I see your grades are not doing well. What's going on?"

She opened up about her situation, and he reassured her that he was there for her.

"That one teacher checking in really made a difference," Saali said. "I cleaned up my act. I started turning in my work, my grades were getting significantly better, and university started to interest me and seem attainable."

She was drawn to the University of Arizona first by an advertisement, which let her to do some more investigating.

As someone who had been dreaming of different business ideas her whole life, she found the Eller College of Management especially appealing.

She signed up for the Eller Business Careers Institute summer program and found it "transformative."

"I was impressed how the Eller mentors and professors cared for their students even though they don't even know us yet," Saali said. "They built such a connection. Even in emails, they wanted to know who you were a person. I also just love the school spirit, and campus is beautiful. Everyone on campus seems very nice, and it's a good place to network."

She applied in October 2021 and was constantly checking her emails, sweating with anticipation, she said.

"Then, one day I get an email that said, 'Congratulations you've been admitted!' It just meant so much to me to get it," said Saali, who was able to afford tuition after applying for federal student aid.

The dream

Saali has always been entrepreneurial and driven – frequently dreaming of future jobs, even as a kid. First, she wanted to be a Power Ranger. Her childhood dreams later included working as a Jamba Juice employee, "Cake Boss" cake artist, tattoo artist, actress and standup comedian.

Now, her passion is to someday create a work environment that provides the kind of support she says she and her mom never received.

One of her ideas is to build a nonprofit that supports unhoused people or single parents and teenagers on the verge of becoming homeless, as she and her mom once were.

"It would be nonprofit, because if my mom and I ever needed help with anything, it came with a price," Saali said.

She envisions an organization that would provide shelter, work experience, therapy and educational support at no cost.

Saali is also drawn to fashion and would like to create a clothing boutique in Berkley, near where she went to high school, that would source clothes from all around the world.

"It would also be a place where you get hair and nails done, and it would have a coffee shop and juice bar," she said. She envisions it as a place where people could come in to "truly relax and make friends and network and escape."

"This is why I was drawn to business," she said. "I like to connect with people."

The inspiration

Saali said she comes from a long line of single moms who worked hard to make ends meet. This helped her grow to appreciate the strength of the women in her life.

Of course, one of those women is her mom, who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 2019 and is now going to graduate school to become a clinical social worker.

"My mom is my role model and inspiration," Saali said. "I'm excited to also go to university in a different state and reinvent myself, and truly make a footprint and write a new legacy."