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Strong, humble and inspiring

Diane MacGillivray has been advocating for women in big and small ways. Northeastern’s senior VP for university advancement was recently named an EXTRAordinary Woman by the city of Boston. She has a presence that is impossible to miss or forget, one graduate says. 

Headshot of Diane MacGillivray.

Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement at Northeastern, poses for a photo at Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex. Photo by Mattew Modonoo/Northeastern University

Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray always admired girls and women who did interesting, unique things.

They might be called disruptors today, but when she was growing up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s, such students weren’t exactly rewarded at her school.

“The idea of getting attention by being the most assertive person in the classroom or by coming up with a disruptive idea or approach was just not something that was smiled upon,” says MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement at Northeastern. “You were expected to be very deferential, polite, quiet and nice.”

Being brought up with traditional gender expectations, MacGillivray didn’t particularly feel the need to be disruptive. Yet, she’s found her own path to impacting thousands of lives both through her primary role at Northeastern and by envisioning Women Who Empower—a university-wide community of women who inspire, encourage and elevate each other. 

MacGillivray has a presence that is impossible to miss or forget, says one graduate. 

“When she speaks, people want to listen to her. They want to come along with her in whatever she’s doing,” says Rose Leopold Sussman, director for business resilience at Moderna and a Northeastern graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2016 and master’s in 2017.

Sussman did her third co-op in the university advancement office because she wanted to learn from an engaged leader. Applying leadership skills she picked up from MacGillivary, Sussman says, she was able to grow in her career and become successful in a male-dominated industry as a senior manager.

“She’s just showing how to be a strong, inspiring woman in a leadership position, and how to bring people together from diverse backgrounds and a variety of different experiences to make something different and to build something great,” Sussman says. “The value she’s given to Northeastern and to young women is really unparalleled.”

Henry Nasella, a 1977 Northeastern graduate and chair emeritus of the Board of Trustees, agrees.

Nasella credits MacGillivray and her team with reinvigorating the university’s relationship with its large alumni base (more than 300,000 world-wide). 

“I had worked with other heads of development over my Northeastern trusteeship career, and I just found Diane to be refreshing, vibrant and talented in many different ways,” says Nasella, former first president of Staples, former chief executive officer of Star Markets and co-founder of LNK Partner, a private equity firm.

“Diane is one of the strongest leaders in Northeastern and somebody who I’ve always enjoyed and admired, and love to call a dear friend,” Nasella says.

In March, the city of Boston acknowledged MacGillivray’s contribution to women’s advocacy, naming MacGillivray one of the 2023 EXTRAordinary Women.

“I was so excited, humbled and grateful because I really felt that was a reflection of Northeastern,” MacGillivray says. 

As the chair of the development committee of the Board of Trustees, Nasella was one of the first people to interview MacGillivray for the position of senior vice president for university advancement. He noted her professionalism, experience, interpersonal skills and excitement about the job.

Nasella credits MacGillivray with motivating graduates to invest in their alma mater. Northeastern’s fundraising campaigns have been tremendously successful and broke records since MacGillivray took over the university’s development office, Nasella says.

These philanthropic resources support the university in improving the equality of education and creating mentoring and entrepreneurial opportunities both for undergraduate and graduate students, MacGillivray says.

She assisted Nasella in making the Board of Trustees more global and diverse, including recruiting more women.

MacGillivray came up with the idea of Women Who Empower after visiting a General Electric women’s leadership conference. She enjoyed that the conversations there were not about hardships of being a woman in various industries, but rather about being a person who happens to be a woman.

“What they did was share super openly and generously their stories,” MacGillivray says. “I thought this was one of the most amazing, impactful things I’ve been to.”

Back at Northeastern she got her team on board for creating something similar at the university and enlisted the support of Nasella. He appreciated the idea of building a platform that would allow Northeastern female students and graduates to see in an intimate setting the successes and mistakes of other successful women ahead of them and the risks they had taken. 

Nasella funded the project with personal investments, participated in the Women Who Empower events that followed and became one of the inaugural judges on the first Innovator Awards. The competition honors Northeastern women entrepreneurs, who are passionate about innovation and community, and provides winners with one-time grants. 

Nasella believes that today venture capitalists like him and Northeastern’s corporate partners can benefit from supporting and investing in successful members of Women Who Empower, some of whom are serial entrepreneurs, with proven track records.

The platform currently offers masterclasses, a mentorship program, various events and an online community marketplace.

Women Who Empower provides collegiality, collaboration and support for each other’s ideas, MacGillivray says. Members can be open and vulnerable and encourage each other to start something new, continue to push forward or to not drop that second major. 

Besides, understanding what each of them wants to achieve, women can introduce each other to people who might be helpful, which is exactly what MacGillivray does for female entrepreneurs.

“She cares to support us, she connects us with the right people, she elevates us,”says Hannah Ung, who recently launched Boxy, a storage solution business for college students. “She brings us into a room that we might not feel like we belong to, but when Diane is there, we all belong there as well.”

By giving a speech at Boxy’s launch party and speaking highly of Ung as a young entrepreneur, MacGillivray gave more credibility to the business, Ung says, and made her feel like the whole Northeastern University was supporting the idea. 

For Elina Agrawal, Women Who Empower shaped her entire time at Northeastern, she says. Agrawal, a 2022 graduate of the D’Amore-Mckim School of Business, enrolled in the Women Who Empower mentorship program in the fall of 2019 at MacGillivray’s suggestion.

“It really helped me build more confidence in myself,” Agrawal says. 

She met some of her closest friends through the program and continues to engage with the university through a group Young Global Leader. She is also designing entrepreneurship programming for students at Northeastern-London campus.

MacGillivray advocates for women even in small ways in spaces full of men. When Binja Basimike, a member of Young Global Leaders, was a chair of the Alumni Advisory Board and attended the Board of Trustees meetings, MacGillivray always made sure to call on her to share her thoughts on the issues at hand.

“She will stick her neck out for you and I think few people inconvenience themselves to get things done for women like Diane,” Basimike says.

Although she works tirelessly, traveling incessantly all over the world in her role, MacGillivray believes she has the best job.  

“The minute I walk into the office, there is adrenaline and excitement,” she says.

MacGillivray loves the rhythm of academia and being in the university setting. She enjoys watching new students and their families move onto campuses every year. She tears up at every commencement.

“It’s such a moment of celebration, and reflection and achievement, and it never gets old,” MacGillivray says.

But she doesn’t have to say goodbye to the graduates because her job gives her an opportunity to stay in touch with everyone.

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.