‘I am always going to remake myself.’ Minted founder urges Northeastern undergraduates to be lifelong learners, ready for change during commencement

Mariam Naficy speaking at commencement
Mariam Naficy, founder of innovate e-commerce businesses Minted and Eve.com, urged the Class of 2023 to define their own stories and push past the status quo. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern’s 2023 commencement exercises. For more information, including a livestream, photos and live coverage throughout the day, visit our dedicated commencement page.

Under a cloudless, sunny sky, smiles, applause and celebratory shouts spread throughout the 25,000 people gathered in Fenway Park on Sunday, as 4,600 new Northeastern University undergraduate alumni jumped out of their seats and took their first steps into the future.

Northeastern’s 121st commencement exercises were held on May 7 in the iconic home of the Boston Red Sox and kicked off in the morning with the commencement ceremony for graduate students, including a keynote speech from Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister of Canada.

For the Class of 2023, Sunday was the culmination of an epic journey. It was a journey full of unexpected challenges, globetrotting, industry-spanning adventures and future-defining accomplishments, and one that will continue to define the graduates’ lives for years to come.

“Your time at Northeastern was not confined to a campus,” said President Joseph E. Aoun after being introduced by Richard D’Amore, chair of Northeastern’s Board of Trustees. “You had co-ops and dialogues and global experiences that allowed you to roam. These empowered you to live and learn in different contexts.”

“Your path took countless twists and turns,” Aoun told the graduates, as they waved countless flags representing dozens of countries. “It was not linear. It was not predictable. And yet you are here. Your life will not be linear, nor will it be predictable. … Remember, opportunity is always in motion.”

Few people understand that lesson better than Mariam Naficy, the founder of Minted who delivered Sunday’s commencement address.

Before she became an e-commerce pioneer, maker economy innovator and serial entrepreneur, Naficy grew up moving around the Middle East and Africa due to her father’s job as a development economist. But, at age 9, Naficy and her family were forced to flee Iran, her father’s native country, for the U.S. to escape the chaos of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Mariam Naficy receiving doctoral hood
Mariam Naficy, a serial entrepreneur, e-commerce pioneer and innovator in the creator economy, spoke at Northeastern’s commencement ceremony at Fenway Park on Sunday. She also received an honorary doctorate of entrepreneurship. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

In the U.S. she encountered “daily hatred and discrimination” from her classmates and often overheard her parents talking about their increasingly dire financial straits. Naficy learned early that “while you can’t control the shocks that happen, you can control how you react to them.”

“I told myself this story: ‘I am going to remake myself,’” Naficy said. “And eventually, as I grew up, this vision turned into a purpose –– ‘I am always going to remake myself’–– meaning I would be a lifelong learner ready for personal change.”

In 1998, Naficy remade herself into a tech entrepreneur. Straight out of business school, she saw the promise of e-commerce and launched Eve.com, one of the first online cosmetics stores of the internet era. Within a year, the site had hit $10 million in sales. Two years later, in 2000, Naficy sold the company for $110 million.

Naficy innovated the e-commerce space again in 2007 with Minted. She had identified that people were starting to buy from small makers instead of large brands and saw a need to foster connections between independent artists and consumers. So, Minted was born.

Instead of providing stationary and art created by in-house designers, Minted ran monthly competitions where consumers could decide which cards, invitations or art prints from independent artists would be sold on the site. 

In the beginning, success wasn’t guaranteed, Naficy said: The business almost failed on launch. Now, the company’s wedding invitations, holiday cards and art have reached 40 million homes in the U.S., and its community of artists and designers is now 20,000 strong, with creators in 100 countries. 

Naficy said Minted never would have become the success that it is if she hadn’t embraced the “soft skills” she had, like empathy and compassion, in addition to her business savvy.

“As I hand-built our community of artists, I would meet with them across the country, “ Naficy said. “I developed the empathy to encourage them when they were worried their work was inadequate and congratulate them when they married, had children and experienced great professional success.”

“All of this success grew from a much softer skill set than I had imagined would make my career: passion for the product I was making, love for the artists I knew and empathy for the life that others lead,” Naficy continued.

Now, with Heretic Ventures, the San Francisco-based venture studio Naficy founded to identify and support businesses that increase opportunities for people in all communities to take part in the creator economy, the serial entrepreneur is continuing to push the envelope.

Naficy was drawn to entrepreneurship in the first place because she refused to accept the status quo. Having endured toxic workplace cultures and outright misogyny, she wanted to create a better working environment for women in business. She faced people who were resistant to change and endured “discouragement masquerading as good dogma.” She urged the Class of 2023 to push past the doubters as they pursue their own innovative ideas.

“Success is not defined by what other people think,” she said.

Looking out at the crowd of Northeastern’s newest alumni, Naficy said she was impressed by how the graduates had already taken this lesson to heart in so much of their work.

“Whatever your issue is, whatever your cause is, whether it is challenging world leaders to take immediate action on climate change to pressing for equality for the LGBTQ+ community to demanding stricter gun control laws, you are not accepting the status quo,” Naficy told the graduates on Sunday. 

“You’re right to keep pressing, courageous to keep insisting on how you want to live your one wild and precious life,” she continued. “Every step you take is making the world a better place, and honestly, you’re making the world a better place for all generations, including mine. I feel so optimistic about the future––because the future is in your hands.”

Clara Wu, who graduated on Sunday with a degree in behavioral neuroscience, echoed Naficy’s message in her commencement speech, which detailed the numerous adaptations she and her classmates had to make during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she ended by sharing her grandfather’s advice about decision making: know yourself and your values and never waver.

“When you’re making a decision, do something you can still be proud of tomorrow,” Wu said. 

During the commencement exercises, Aoun presented honorary doctorate degrees to Naficy and Freelund as well as Alondra Nelson, a sociologist who served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president of advancement, along with Reanna Mankaryous, chair of the Senior Year Experience Board, and Lisa Kernan, chair of the Young Alumni Advisory Board, were also on hand to become the first to welcome the Class of 2023 to Northeastern’s alumni community.

As NU Choral sang the alma mater, Aoun returned to the commencement stage to deliver his charge to the graduates.

“As you reinvent yourselves, embrace your opportunities to explore the world,” Aoun said. “Your avenues for impacting this world are as diverse as you are. The unexpected detour makes all the difference.”

“Now it’s time to celebrate,” he continued. “And this celebration will not end when you leave this ceremony today. Throughout your lives when you hear music, turn up the volume. … And when it’s time to dance, don’t dance like no one is watching. Dance like everyone is watching.”

With Aoun’s words still fresh in the air, Fenway erupted with energy, as the Nor’easters, a Northeastern a capella group, finished the alma mater and kicked off the finale. Commencement concluded with a series of spirited performances from Northeastern dance groups Revolve and Kinematix, NU Choral, the Nor’easters performing an original song and student poet Chinma Nnadozie-Okananwa.

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.