A few years ago, I was asked to give the keynote address to the incoming class of my MBA alma-mater, the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. They said “oh, you know, explain who you are, what you do, what Haas means to you and how it’s helped you in your career. You’ve got 10 minutes.” I laughed, and then wrote the speech below:

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Good evening.  As you just heard, my name is Mariah and I’m a member of the Class of 2009. I am thrilled to be here with you tonight, not just because this place is beautiful, but because I consider it a great honor to be involved at the start of your journey with this place that has changed my life’s trajectory in so many amazing ways.

Speaking of the journey in front of you- quick show of hands- how many of you know what you want to do after business school? Be honest- you’ve already been admitted so they’re not going to ding you for not having direction and purpose.

If you’d asked me that question 9 years ago when I was in your chair, I would have been one of the people with my hand raised. I was going to open a financial planning practice located in the Bay Area focused on women and young families that invested a portion of the profits into providing access to those who can’t get it today.  Instead, today, I run a company called The Fantasy Box, which, as you can tell from the name, doesn’t have a lot to do with financial advisory. However, lest you think that I abandoned my altruistic inclinations, I am still doing good for the world, just in a different way.  To show you what I mean, I’ll use the words of one of my subscribers:

“Four months ago, I was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Instead of letting my life quietly slide away, my wife and I decided we were going to go out on a high note.  We’ve chosen to use your service to live out my bucket list and create memories that will stay with her when I am no longer by her side.”

Tonight, I am going to share some of the key moments that transformed my life from good to remarkable.  

Moment 1: My first defining moment happened before I started at Haas.  I was at a recruiting event and a woman who later became a great mentor in my life, Meghna Majmudar, was sitting on a panel.  The moderator asked her what her favorite memory from business school was and she got this wry smile on her face and said two words: Burning Man.  I loved this for three reasons 1) she had been there 2) she was confident enough to share this with a roomful of strangers and 3) Haas believed enough in her to put her up as a representative of the brand.

Moment 2: I was a few months into my first at Haas and student government elections rolled around.  Two of my classmates approach me and said “We think you should run for President.”  I said “oh, I couldn’t possibly” and they asked me why.  I realized that the reason I was declining was not that I didn’t care or didn’t want to, but that I was afraid.  I was afraid of speaking in public and, more importantly, to put myself out there and fail in front of my friends.  And then I realized that I never wanted to look back on my business school experience and say I hadn’t done something out of fear.  B school is the last truly risk-free place any of us will ever have.  It is THE place to get out of your comfort zone and take chances. I ran, I won, and it became the defining experience of my MBA.  It also gave me that first step of courage to start asking “tough questions” of myself.

Moment 3: I had just finished my summer internship and, after taking a groundbreaking class in how to be happy, I was sitting on the beach meditating.  I asked the question “If I could do anything in the world, anywhere in the world, what would it be?”  And the answer that came back was Brazil. I had never been to Brazil and spoke no Portuguese.  But the feeling got stronger so I enrolled in Portuguese classes at Berkeley (and got credit for them) and asked my classmates to introduce me to the recruiting departments of their firms in Brazil. I booked a plane flight and spent a week doing informational interviewing there.  Even though the global financial crisis hit while I was down there, I was fortunate to secure 6 offers and decided to move to accept an offer with McKinsey in Sao Paulo.

So, now I am about to move to Brasil to do a really hard job in a country I have never lived in, in a language I do not speak.  And the little voice in my head kept telling me I was going to fail. So, I make a deal with myself.  If I can succeed in this environment, I will never again be allowed to doubt myself.  I can question if I WANT to do something, but nothing will be off limits because I’m not capable.  And that refusal to listen to my inner critic is what allowed me to make the most rewarding decision of my career- to found The Fantasy Box.

The Fantasy Box is a subscription service for romantic adventures for couples.  We send themed boxes, with instructions, and all the goodies needed to play it the scenario.  Our mission is simple- to make monogamy the sexiest thing on the planet.  To have people say, “Oh, you got married?  That’s awesome.  Now’s when things get reeeally good.”

Much like my move to Brasil, this was not something I navigated myself towards.  It’s not like I was a little kid saying “I want to be a sex entrepreneur!” However, getting from the concept to shipping the first box required tackling some pretty big challenges:

  • Building a brand from scratch. I had always worked on billion-dollar brands. Creating a name, getting people to recognize it, trust you enough to give you their money and then tell their friends is hard, especially when you are self-funded.
  • Fulfillment: I had never done anything with physical goods- I had always worked with intangibles like financial services and management consulting. Ordering products and packaging, logistics, fulfillment, these were all brand new to me
  • Market and Model: I had no experience with the industry and this was a completely unproven business model.
  • Personal Brand: However, the biggest challenge for me was whether I was going to launch it under my name or anonymously. I’d spent a lot of time building my personal brand and when you launch a company like this, whether it succeeds or fails, you are irrevocably moving your brand in that direction. Would my friends, family and network support me or would they be embarrassed of me?

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It goes on from there but it’s not relevant to this post so I will spare you the Haas love. 😊

The reason I’m telling you this story is that it hits on some of the major issues I’ve had throughout my life- fear of failure, the inner critic trying to keep me from taking a risk, and following my heart into the unknown being a really, really great decision.

Ultimately, we can’t know if something is going to work. But, if you can’t imagine yourself not giving it a try, if you’d always wonder “what if”…then there is a risk with inertia, just as there’s a risk with action. Personally, I’d rather regret the shots I took and missed than the times I sat out.

If you’re having similar conversations with yourself, or have a calling in your heart that you’re not sure is a good idea or even remotely possible, I’d love to chat with you about it.

Book a free consultation here

Xoxo,

Mariah

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