Minted CEO & Stanford GSB Grad Mariam Naficy On The MBA

Mariam Naficy

Minted CEO Mariam Naficy is an e-commerce pioneer whose startups shape trends and disrupt industries, from crowd-sourced design to cosmetics. After graduating from Stanford GSB, Naficy co-founded Eve.com in 1998, raising $28 million in financing and achieving the largest market share in online cosmetics until its purchase by Idealab in 2000. Naficy went on to found Minted in 2007, growing the company from an online stationery platform into a design marketplace that crowdsources independent design from artists around the world. Serving both consumers and retailers, Minted has 400 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Which is why it may be a shock to learn that Naficy was rejected by Stanford GSB the first time she applied.

“The second time around, I re-took the GMAT and my score went up a lot,” she says. “And also, I had been in banking and consulting, which are somewhat undifferentiated routes before business school. I took a break and I actually wrote a book on investment banking and management consulting and sold it to a major publishing firm. I took a job as a marketing director at a restaurant company because I wanted more consumer experience. This was a chain of restaurants being started by an entrepreneur who had graduated from Stanford business school. He ended up becoming a lifelong mentor of mine.

“So those are the things I did on my ‘year off.’ I tried to do things that were more interesting, more me, and something that would help Stanford understand that I could take bold steps and do something a little different.”

In terms of making good use of one’s year off, it’s a pretty impressive roster of distinctions. And having evidence of making a lasting professional or community impact is at the heart of the admissions decisions made every year in Palo Alto.

GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE GSB’S ESSAY QUESTION

Speaking at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco last year, Kirsten Moss, Stanford GSB’s assistant dean of admissions and financial aid, was candid about what the program is seeking in its applicants. “We are trying to select a class who aspire to change lives, change organizations, and change the world,” says Moss, echoing the school’s lofty motto. “Those who will live up to this motto do not come from a limited number of institutions, job roles, or GPAs. We look at what you value, what you aspire to do, how you think, the impact you have had, and the perspective you will bring.”

As prescient and powerful as they are, business school admissions can’t predict the future. But the admissions team at GSB certainly saw something in Naficy’s reapplication — and perhaps most importantly, Naficy was successful in communicating it to them.

Don’t worry if you haven’t written a best-seller, patented a life-saving technology, achieved an Olympic podium, transformed an industry through your work, or raised millions for your startup. The majority of successful Stanford MBA applicants haven’t either, which is why they want to spend two years at the GSB.

The admissions office is assessing your professional competence and personal character to discern your leadership potential, and as Kirsten Moss reminded the CentreCourt audience, “it can be one life that you change.” So when you sit down to tackle the school’s iconic MBA essay question, What matters most to you, and why? start off with your most personal and intuitive response.

As Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, a Stanford GSB alumna and former MBA admissions interviewer tells her clients, “Maybe you feel that you can answer the first part of that question in one word, with things like ‘family,’ ‘love’ or ‘chocolate.’ But the heart of the question, the part that reveals your true calling in life, requires deeper introspection. Why does that one thing matter more than any other?”

Driven by her desire to start her own company, Naficy persisted to win a place at the GSB, which she felt was “a standout in entrepreneurship.” In a conversation with Fortuna Admissions, Naficy opens up about the value of the MBA, “thinking around the corner” as an entrepreneur, defying the naysayers, and why she believes passion is the critical success factor.

Matt Symonds: I’ve heard you say that you never intended to become an entrepreneur. When did the impulse begin, and what — if anything — did business school have to do with it?

Mariam Naficy: I guess the impulse began before business school. I’d been at Goldman for two years, and in management consulting for two years, and the impulse to start something happened after those two experiences.

I was not that child selling lemonade, that classic entrepreneur. I didn’t know anything about business growing up; none of my family members were in business, and no one talked about business or entrepreneurship at all. No one really talked about computers or technology, and so I came to all this by myself much later. My dad’s a development economist, and my mom is an editor … I was 25-26 when I decided I had to start something on my own.

Symonds: Why did you feel it was so necessary to pursue an MBA?

Naficy: To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure business school would help me start a business. I’d applied to Stanford and already been rejected once. I applied a second time, and I was accepted. The second time I was much more skeptical, and I was thinking, “Well, maybe I should just go start the business right away.” But in the end, I thought that having the Stanford MBA on my resume would allow investors to “pattern recognize” something that was familiar to them, provide me (especially as a female and a minority) with credibility, and help open doors to raise funding. So that’s really why I ended up going.

The result of going to business school was that I ended up in a very rich environment, where although not everyone was thinking entrepreneurship, everyone was thinking about innovation. There was a tiny group of people who wanted to be entrepreneurs – there were maybe six of us who got together to have breakfast and discuss entrepreneurship every couple of weeks. It was really wonderful to be able to talk about this with other people.

And then, of course, the classes were deeply meaningful — like Irv Grousbeck’s and Chuck Holloway’s classes. I gained access to information that wasn’t available broadly and transparently online at that time. For example, I learned about collusion between venture capitalists, how to negotiate a term sheet, how to form a board — those things that are provided by lecturers like Irv who brought real world experience to the classroom. It didn’t make my decision to be an entrepreneur — I came in wanting to start something — but it solidified my interest and made me feel more confident about how to get started.

Symonds: Looking back, what’s been the most valuable thing you’ve gained from business school?

Naficy: The network of friends, and really, future colleagues, was by far the most important thing. A very close second was the realization that there were always experts who knew more about things in every business topic possible, and you could actually go hire them if you needed to. Meaning, as a generalist, a general manager, it gave me a sense of where to set the bar in solving problems — whether it was compensation design or financial strategy — because I got a taste for how complex many problems are, how much there was to learn, and how to solve these problems with excellence.

That bar-setting is really important in terms of understanding the expertise that is out there, amount of research that’s out there, the amount of depth people go into when they’re really covering those topics thoroughly. It also gave you a realization that there were higher level frameworks that would help solve almost any problem, in almost every business area, so that you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. You can go figure out what those frameworks and experts are, and have an easier time making difficult decisions.

Symonds: What’s your response to skeptics who say that business school is a waste of money for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Naficy: In general getting an MBA is increasingly unlikely to make a major difference in the nuts and bolts of raising money if you already have had years of business experience. However, for those without a business background, or for females and under-represented minorities I think it still helps a lot — because it’s this big pattern recognition help you get that you wouldn’t normally get. Meaning, people look for patterns, investors look for patterns, they’re just humans, and they want to find patterns that are familiar to them. And many of them went to business school; if they see someone come along who went to the same business school, they immediately know what that means. They know what that person studied, what it means to be there, and how difficult it is to get in, etc. — it is a filtering mechanism for investors and a way for them to find common ground with you.

I also really do think the network matters, not just necessarily to open the door for you, to get funding, but also because you’re in the best information flow for two years. You’re getting rapid fire state-of-the-art business information from a couple hundred people who are incredibly connected, and the school is also opening doors to give you access to information that other people don’t know. For two years you’re getting probably the best information flow you’ll ever get in business. You’re just living, eating and breathing – for much of the day — a lot of really great business conversation… You’re with all these smart people who are still in contact with their professional network because that is how a lot of information is coming in, and they’re all sharing it together. And then of course, on top of that, your school is bringing in people who are sharing information other people don’t have access to. I know that when I go to speak at Stanford in the classes, I’m sharing information that I’m not sharing with other people.

So I think it is information flow, a network of people who will open doors for you, to connect you with funding, the imprimatur — the seal of approval that you’re somebody that fits a pattern that investors recognize. Those things are all extremely valuable as an entrepreneur.

Finally, I would say the MBA is valuable if your aspiration is to run a much bigger company if you’re going to grow it and run it. Minted is now not a stationery company, it’s a design platform that serves both retailers and our own consumers. And we’ve expanded what we do to include licensing and wholesale to other retailers, it’s a much bigger company — 400 people and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. I think it would have been really hard for me to be able to adjust and grow into the increasing size of this business had I not had some exposure to how to run a much larger business through case studies and work at Stanford. A lot of the case studies we did were about much larger companies and enterprises and that has been incredibly helpful to thinking ahead, thinking around the corner. It just makes you much more sophisticated.

Symonds: I’ve been fascinated to hear how often you’ve received discouraging feedback on your ideas — whether during the incubation of Eve.com that “women don’t buy online” or for Minted that “selling paper goods online is a terrible idea.” What gave you the confidence to consistently disregard the naysayers?

Naficy: In the beginning, I wasn’t as sure. The first time it was really discouraging. But over time, I’ve realized that new endeavors are much more nuanced than they appear on the surface. For example, when people said that cosmetics wouldn’t sell online what they didn’t realize – what none of us realized — was that there were all these little makeup brands starting at that same time that consumers did not have access to — like Hard Candy, Urban Decay, NARs, Vincent Mongo — there were all these little brands and they couldn’t break into the department store distribution. And who would be familiar with nuance like that? That’s a nuance that contradicts the ‘people have to try it on’ philosophy.

It turns out we thought we were going to be selling skincare and hair products that people wanted to replenish. When we opened the doors to Eve.com, all the color makeup stuff that people said would never sell online, meaning because people had to try it on, just started flying off the shelves and always, always was our biggest seller. This flew completely in the face of what people were saying at the time. The nuance being: lots of exciting new brands that people wanted to have access to that they couldn’t have access to was actually a physical access problem.

The problem is, when you’re an armchair quarterback when you don’t know the business that well, it’s easy to be dismissive, and that’s where sometimes frameworks fail. Because the frameworks might say to you, the Estée Lauder Company owns 50% of this market, this seems like a bad idea because your supply is so consolidated, so concentrated. Well, it turns out a lot of little brands were popping up that people were getting excited about, media was covering it, and it was almost impossible to get them. [And Eve.com secured relationships with these small brands and made them available online to its customers.]

Once you start getting a few of these things under your belt, you start realizing there’s always a nuance that people don’t recognize, or consumer behavior is changing in some way. And that means you have an opportunity.

Symonds: In your Medium post, #shebrag, you’ve explored how reluctant you’ve been to crow about your abilities or success compared with male counterparts. Can you speak to this gender reality for you? What have you learned since you’ve dared to be vocal about your acumen and your success?

Naficy: Well, I’m still pretty reluctant, I still believe there are so many people in the world who are smarter than I am … But I really love what I do, and it makes me work really hard on it. And I think about it when I’m going for a walk, or out for a run, I just end up thinking about my work because I like it a lot. I think passion ends up being the critical success factor for people in whatever their profession is: they’ll end up thinking about it a lot more if they’re passionate about it, and a lot more than other people in their field who are not passionate about it. So I do think it drives success.

In terms of the gender reality, it is really difficult, but on the other hand, I kind of stick to my intellectualism when I’m in conversations, when I’m at board meetings, I stick with who I am. I was always a bit of an intellectual nerd growing up, and when I was a child I wanted to hide that a lot. And now I don’t mind being myself, I actually like it. I am who I am. I’m a little bit serious, I like my intellectual side, I’m being in to who I am now instead of trying to hide it … Where I think as a girl, a teenager, I probably did, because I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable and I wanted to fit in.

Symonds: How is Stanford GSB still a part of your life?

Naficy: First of all, I’ve recruited a lot of GSB alums to Minted, on the executive team and all throughout the company. I think the Stanford business school culture is fantastic. I think the people are balanced between being successful in business and having good hearts. And wanting to do good in the world, and being supportive and team players, but on the other hand leaders as well.

I really love my classmates, and I keep in touch with them. Some of them are my investors now at Minted, and one of them was on my board for 10 years.

I also go back to the school and try to recruit constantly from Stanford. Literally just a couple of months ago I was on campus recruiting, I’ll go speak in class and afterwards meet with students who are interested in the company. I love hearing the perspectives from people, and especially from young minds — maybe they filter less, so what you hear is much more truthful. I really enjoy becoming more of a teacher and sharing what I’ve learned, and also getting feedback.

Symonds: What’s your advice on how to choose a business school?

Naficy: There are so many great schools, I would look at what you want to do career-wise, and how that matches up with a school. I really wanted to start my own company and felt that Stanford was a standout in entrepreneurship. But there are many different career paths, and I think different schools are better for different career paths. The cultural fit is important, too.

Symonds: Your mom’s advice to you at the bus stop on the first day of first grade was, “You need to go to school, and you need to beat all the boys at school.” What kind of advice do you think your kids will remember from you?

Naficy: I just keep repeating to them over and over again to find and follow their passion. Life is extremely short, and I really think that, at the end of the day, it’s really about enjoying what you do and not just trying to achieve “success.” And then, of course, I think if you really enjoy your work you will be supremely successful. I really think if you are passionate you will think of great things and do great things.

Symonds: You once initiated a poetry-memorizing ritual on family vacations. What was the last poem you committed to memory?

Naficy: Right now, I’m working on “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. I love the last part of it, as it is how I’ve tried to live my life:

“Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

For more inspiring interviews with successful MBA alumni, view the latest in our Fortuna series: Advice On A Non-Traditional Path To An MBA: LBS Grad Paul Heslop MBA Advice For The Entrepreneur: INSEAD Grad Mike Davis.


Fortuna-AdmissionsMatt Symonds is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge,” and co-host of the CentreCourt MBA Festival. Fortuna Admissions is composed of former directors and associate directors of admissions at 12 of the top 15 business schools.