Laith Khalaf surrounded by suits, pants and coats

In a tack-sharp suit and attentively knotted tie and offering a perfectly firm handshake, Laith Khalaf (BSBA ’98) is the embodiment of a good first impression.

Though he’s carefully cultivated an appearance that broadcasts self-confidence and respect, it’s much deeper than fabric and good etiquette. Khalaf grew up in Kuwait and Jordan, evacuating the latter during the first Gulf War with his American mother and brother and resettling in Ashland, Ohio, with his grandparents.

“A big part of my life, we did not have very much money at all. I grew up going to school with, for lack of a better expression, tattered clothing,” he says. “We were made fun of pretty substantially.”

Khalaf finished his marketing degree, with a concentration in transportation and logistics, at Ohio State in three years. He worked multiple jobs during the school year and took retail work during breaks.

“I was on a mission because I was sick of being poor,” he says.

Khalaf is now senior vice president, wealth management, for UBS Financial Services Inc. While mentoring students in the Fisher College of Business honors program, he learned about Career Closet, a twice-yearly pop-up boutique of gently used professional clothing.

As he says, he jumped all over it.

“I know how it feels to want to give a good first impression but not have the means to do it,” he says.

Khalaf donates his own clothing, and he leverages his professional network to recruit other donors.

“Something as simple as having a suit in a closet that you haven’t touched in years could make the difference for a student,” he says. “When you dress well, you feel like you’re going to conquer the world. Every student should have the opportunity to make that happen.”

For an extra boost, Khalaf sometimes tucks inspirational notes into the pockets of suits he donates. At February’s Career Closet event, he told students the names of the high-powered executives who’d worn the suits before them.

He knows what a bit of aspiration can do for the soul. As a teenager, Khalaf kept a “dream folder” of images torn from magazines depicting the life he hoped to have one day — one in which he’d be able to confidently present himself to the world.

“I call it the adversity advantage,” Khalaf says. “You channel that emotion to propel you, or you can allow it to cripple you. It’s up to students whether they want to take it, but presenting them the opportunity is my job. It’s the community’s job. We owe that to our future leaders.”

(Story and photo courtesy of The Ohio State University Alumni Magazine.)