Planning for the Unexpected

July 3, 2007

Editor's Note:  Pictures are credited to the University of Michigan and Direct Relief International, which were taken of Maxwell in Cuddalore, India, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Annie Maxwell went from unpaid intern to Chief Operating Officer of Direct Relief International -- one of the nation's biggest charities -- in just a few years. She has worked for President Bill Clinton at the United Nations and as an intern for Bill Gates Sr., co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  But while she navigates a bumpy road at night in Nairobi, Kenya, the former Michigan volleyball captain admits her best life plan so far has been to not have one at all.

"When I was at Michigan, I was just trying to figure out a way to beat Purdue," Maxwell laughed. "That was most of my college career. I'm not someone who has really planned my life very much. I've been fortunate to have some great opportunities. Things have gone pretty well without a plan. I'm always hesitant to make one; each year is always different from the next.

"Making it through this traffic right now, I'm feeling pretty accomplished."

When the Santa Barbara High School star set her sights on playing collegiate volleyball, she was bound and determined to avoid following in her father's footsteps and adding a fifth generation to the family's Maize and Blue contingent.

"When you're a teenager, you kind of think your parents are idiots - like it's required," Maxwell said. "Since my dad went to Michigan, I just thought, `Oh man, it cannot be a good school.' When I went through the recruiting process, my parents were great about letting me make my own decision. I used to walk around the house saying, `I really want to go some place that's a good school but also has a great program,' and my dad was just biting his tongue."

During her recruiting process, Maxwell realized she really could have it all at Michigan. The commitment from the coaches and the academic support staff sealed her fate.

"By the time I announced I was going to Michigan as a presumptuous 17-year-old, my dad was like `Finally, I could have told you that years ago,'" she said.

As a freshman in 1997, Maxwell had just opted to redshirt when one of her academic advisors suggested that she could finish her undergraduate program in three years - giving Maxwell two more years of volleyball eligibility to complete a master's degree.

"That's the kind of environment I wanted to be in, where I would be in the gym and have this incredible tradition of excellence in terms of athletics, but also where people were going to push me in academics as well," Maxwell said.

As much as she was challenged academically, Maxwell's athletic experience was even more demanding.

After two seasons in Ann Arbor, Maxwell was settling in quickly. But when Michigan hired Mark Rosen in 1999 to replace Greg Giovanazzi - the coach whose philosophies helped persuade Maxwell's cross-country college choice - Maxwell had to decide whether or not she still wanted to play volleyball.

When she committed to the transition, the 5-11 middle blocker realized the decision would shape her life even after her volleyball career ended.

"Everything changes with the team's philosophy," Maxwell said. "I think that really toughened me for the real world because you have to question the things that you do every single day. When things get tough you have to ask yourself, `Do I really want to do this? How much am I willing to sacrifice for it?' I think going through that process in college was really very helpful because I realized that it's worth it to stick something out even if things aren't going exactly how you wanted or planned for them to go."

The risk and sacrifice paid off for Maxwell and her teammates as they quickly made Michigan volleyball history.

In his first week on the Wolverine bench, Rosen's squad cracked the USA Today/AVCA Coaches Top 25 poll for the first time in program history. Michigan remained in the top 25 for five consecutive weeks while knocking off three top-20 opponents, a string that included a season-opening victory over No. 7 BYU - the highest-ranked team the Wolverines had ever defeated - and wins over No. 16 Arkansas and No. 18 Ohio State.

Later that year, the squad closed the regular season by winning three of its final four matches, but Michigan had not even organized a team meeting to watch the NCAA Tournament selection. The Wolverines thought their season was over until Maxwell received a phone call from a friend who played for Virginia with news that Michigan would be making its second-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The Maize and Blue were narrowly defeated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in a thrilling five-game match, falling to host Pacific, 19-17, in the deciding frame. Despite the loss, Rosen's squad had made its first step toward national prominence.

And he knew a big part of that journey was sparked by Maxwell and her enthusiasm for the transition.

"We had a talented group here and they really accepted us," Rosen said. "A lot of it had to do with Annie. She bought in really quickly and everyone else followed because she was very much the leader.

"I'll be honest, the first time I met her I was somewhat intimidated by her because you could just tell how intelligent she was. I just thought, `Wow, this kid is way brighter than me.' Every time I was around her, the more I would be amazed by what a special person she is. We really felt lucky to be around her for three years."

Part of Maxwell's brilliance, Rosen said, was her understanding of the team, its philosophy and especially her role in all of that. Even though she wasn't a star on the court or in the stat sheet, she became a leader in a unique way.

When Rosen took over the team, Maxwell and Joanna Fielder returned to the lineup as the Wolverines' primary middle blockers. But there was also a redshirt freshman competing for that spot, putting Maxwell in a strange position.

"At the time Annie was just more experienced and better, but the redshirt freshman was much more athletic than her, so we kind of knew that down the road that kid was going to beat Annie out of the lineup," Rosen said. "It was interesting. She had to fight every day to hold on to that spot."

When Maxwell eventually did lose her starting spot, she never stopped competing.

"Annie was great," Rosen said. "She battled every day in practice and was never resentful of not being in maybe the role she wanted to be in. She just worked hard at the role she was in and made every one else better."

During her senior year, Maxwell's inclusion as team captain was an obvious decision for Rosen.

"It was really easy to see who drove the bus," he said. "She was just somebody who everybody migrated toward socially. They all respected her tremendously. They respected how hard she worked even though she wasn't in the role she necessarily wanted to be in."

While Maxwell's on-court career ended, her coach knew it was really just the beginning of something incredible.

Annie Maxwell graduated magna cum laude with a master's degree in public policy from Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

"If I could buy stock in a person, I'd buy stock in Annie Maxwell," Rosen said. "We always knew she'd go off to do bigger and better things. She's going to be worth a lot."

Maxwell first learned of Direct Relief International at Michigan, when her mother sent her an issue of Santa Barbara Magazine with the organization's CEO Thomas Tighe on the cover with a little Post-It note that read: "You should work here. Love, Mom."

After finishing her master's degree in public policy as a magna cum laude graduate of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, Maxwell returned home to Santa Barbara, looking forward to a break after five years of juggling school and volleyball. But then she started to think, maybe my mom was right.

"My mom - like any good mom - was trying to keep her kids within one square mile," Maxwell said. "I got an internship at Direct Relief. Then I never really left."

Shifting from her specialty of domestic issues and inequities in education to the international realm was not at all part of Maxwell's initial plan. But just like with volleyball, she knew taking a risk could reap dividends - she just didn't know quite how fast. 

After joining the company as an unpaid intern in 2002, Maxwell now serves as the Chief Operating Officer - a mere six years after receiving that issue of Santa Barbara Magazine.

"People always find that funny," she said. "That's not exactly your typical career path. I lead a really charmed life. I'm incredibly blessed. I've had a lot of great opportunities, and I've tried to take advantage of them."

Although Maxwell says there is no normal day for her, she said one would rarely find her cruising through Kenya, where she attended a conference hosted by the Earth Institute, any given day of the week. She estimates her annual travel is about 10 weeks out of the year, but that doesn't mean the daily challenges at Direct Relief are ever typical.

Maxwell is charged with piecing together the different parts of the organization together and helping things operate a bit more smoothly. She is primarily involved with strategic planning and communications efforts, supporting the everyday activities of the organization. Right now, she is leading the organization's major IT overhaul and Web site redesign, but her position also sends her overseas for meetings with strategic partners.

"I work with some incredible people, so it makes my job pretty easy," she said. "But in those times where we're not either totally coming together or we're experiencing some expansion like we have in the past couple years, my day-to-day opportunities help us work through those things."

In August 2005, however, Maxwell left the beachy Santa Barbara headquarters for bustling New York, where she worked on special assignment at the United Nations for more than a year, serving under former President Bill Clinton with the U.N.'s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery. Maxwell's worked focused on environmental issues as she served as a liaison to nonprofit and corporate organizations involved in the tsunami recovery efforts.

Annie Maxwell now serves as the Chief Operating Officer for Direct Relief International and travels the world to help those in need of aid. 

"That was something that I never imagined would happen.  I felt like everyday was an adventure there," she said. "We were in a really privileged place. It was just a learning experience every single day."

"[President Clinton] is absolutely brilliant. Whenever we had any high-level meetings, I was continually impressed that he knew more than any of his staffers, who were thinking about the tsunami and this region every single day. The U.N. is a unique place. It's pretty inspiring, some of the things that happen, and being able to work at a place where 191 countries are represented. It's quite humbling to work with people who have that life experience."

Later that year, Maxwell was bestowed another unique opportunity when she was selected to the 2007 Marshall Memorial Fellowship, a program designed to educate the next generation of American and European leaders. The group spent most of June traveling to several countries throughout Europe including Brussels, Germany, Slovakia and Portugal.

"I'm really excited about it," Maxwell said. "It still doesn't seem like a reality. Someone must have screwed up the applications. I feel like that happens a lot in my life."

While Maxwell is eager to credit luck and opportunity for much of her success, she also says her professional accomplishments are one of the most enduring effects of her time at Michigan.

"Being a Michigan athlete has really shaped the core of who I am," Maxwell said. "For all the reasons that people talk about what it takes to be a college athlete, I apply every single day, and I owe a lot to Michigan because of that."