“If you are passionate you will think of great things and do great things.” Mariam Naficy, Founder and CEO Minted.com

Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World. For MBA applicants to Stanford GSB the school motto can inspire and intimidate in equal measure. While an average undergraduate GPA of 3.72 and an average GMAT score of 732 points to the intellectual vitality that characterize the incoming GSB Class of 2020, it is the evidence of making a lasting impact in a professional or community setting that is at the heart of the admissions decisions made every year in Palo Alto.

Speaking at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco last year, the assistant dean of admissions and financial aid for Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Kirsten Moss was unequivocal about what the school is looking for. “We are trying to select a class who aspire to change lives, change organizations, and change the world. 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.”

Don’t worry if you haven’t found a cure for a life-threatening disease, lifted thousands out of poverty, or achieved an Olympic podium, let alone raise millions for your innovative startup or transformed an industry through your work? Neither have the majority of successful Stanford MBA applicants – that’s why they want to spend two years at the GSB.

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

As Heidi Hillis, a Stanford GSB alumna and former MBA admissions interviewer explains to clients at Fortuna Admissions, “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?”


E-commerce Pioneer Mariam Naficy on Minted, Entrepreneurship and the MBA

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

In a conversation with Fortuna Admissions, Naficy opens up about defying the naysayers, overcoming b-school rejection from Stanford the first time, the value of the MBA, “thinking around the corner” as an entrepreneur, and why she believes passion is the critical success factor.

Matt Symonds: I’ve heard you say that you never intended becoming 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: What gave you the confidence to reapply to Stanford GSB? And what do you think made the difference in submitting a successful application?

Naficy: The second time around, I re-took the GMAT and my score went up a lot. 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.

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…