Thank you to President Okker, the New College community, and the graduation committee for nominating me. I am delighted and terrified to speak at my alma mater. It’s been almost 20 years since I graduated from New College and, even though I’m wearing shoes and don’t have on fairy wings, I swear I went here. I was even NCSA president, which is also a shocker. My campaign slogan was that I don’t sleep and I don’t celebrate Christmas so I could work 24/7 for my fellow students. I won by two votes so I was lovingly called Landslide Maxeme.
It’s incredible to see so many of my professors in the audience. Now that I don’t have any papers due for them, I feel way more relaxed in their presence. Friends and families, how special it is to have you here. And yes, this is the weirdest graduation you will ever go to, and yes, you will somehow find a way to bring it up in almost every conversation you have in the future, just like my parents have.
To be asked to come back here to the place that has had a true impact on my career, and life, and to be your speaker…is an astonishing honor. New College was the obvious choice for me. As a first-generation Jewban (Jewish Cuban) who would be the first to graduate from college and who had almost dropped out of high school, a place where I could design my own education, could only pass or fail, and the teaching ratio was 10-to-1 sounded like a dream to me. I still remember my answer to the application question “Why New College?” It was “Why Not?” And they still let me in, so I guess New College was not intimidated by feisty Latinas.
Graduating class, thank you for letting me be a part of your day. I’m in awe of you all. Having to go through the last two years of your college career while the world was falling apart around you is nothing short of inspirational. Honestly, if you can get through that, you’ll be able to get through anything.
In that same vein, if I had been the commencement speaker for the Class of 2019, my advice would be wildly different. I would have given you advice on getting a job. Now it’s very clear that the best way to shape your future is to build your future yourself. So, my goal today is to help you navigate a brave new world, and be bold enough to give you advice for a life and future career that unfortunately no one in this tent has gone through before you! That sounds terrifying and daunting but, hopefully, you’ll remember one of my 10 pieces of advice when the time is right for you.
#1. Know that nothing lasts forever, so be open to and embrace change.
As a society, we have turned forever into the only acceptable definition of success. If you go on to a grad program and never do anything with it, let it bring joy to you that you studied something you loved more in depth.
If you start a business and decide to close it after a while, relish in the fact that you made the customers you served at that time really happy. If you marry someone, and the marriage is good for a while and then stops working and you get divorced, take comfort in the fact that you wonderfully shared your life with someone for a period and probably learned something new about yourself. You will find success in many things in your life, so treat those moments—no matter how long they last—as precious.
#2. Make being underestimated your fuel.
People will make assumptions about you and, unfortunately, you cannot control that, but what you can control is how you let it affect you. I had a professor once tell me I wouldn’t amount to anything because I was only accepted to that school because I checked the Latina box on my application. For years, I doubted my qualifications for everything. I felt undeserving of success and assumed, like this professor, that I was just a charity case or part of a diversity quota.
I wasted years doubting myself until I met a man by the name of Gary Trujillo. I was at Harvard Business School’s welcome weekend and he told a story about a similar comment made by a fellow student once they learned he was Mexican. During office hours, he brought up his new self-doubt to a professor who quickly righted the ship. He said, “Gary, so what?… maybe you did get in because you’re Mexican. But you won’t graduate just because you’re Mexican, so go show them how truly overqualified you are to be here. Those words finally freed me from the self-doubt I had been carrying around for 10 years! And, to my professor that doubted me, all I have to say is…look at me now.
#3. Playbooks are being rewritten, so get involved in rewriting them.
This is across all industries, so this is the best time to get involved in something you are passionate about. Everyone is having to reinvent the way they do business, government, research, etc. It’s an amazing time to be starting to build something.
#4. Related to #3, if you’re not going to go out and build your own thing yet, attach your cart to the right horse.
Since we’re all reinventing the way we work, get hired by people who will sponsor and support you. Don’t look for mentors; seek out sponsors. A mentor is forced to check in and have coffee with you. A sponsor will put their name behind you, open doors for you, and will help you get into the room and get a seat at the table. That is way more important than working on interesting projects and incredibly more valuable, long-term, to your career.
#5. Be aware of your privilege and use it to help others.
As Lizzo says, “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine.” When you have power, use it. Seek power so you can redistribute it. When you get invited to speak somewhere or participate in something, look at who is around the table. Use your power and privilege to make sure diverse voices are always represented. Sometimes you have to give up your seat to do that, and you should.
#6. Pursue your dreams at any cost.
My favorite book is The Alchemist. I read it almost every year, and each time it means something different to me depending on where I am in my life. But the central theme stays the same. Put your mind to something and the world will conspire to help you. No matter how difficult building a startup has been, I have always trusted that the obstacles were lessons to learn from. Life comes with its twist and turns. It is never a straight line. If it is, you actually aren’t living or fulfilling your true potential.
And, most importantly, follow the omens—or, in plain terms—follow your gut or intuition. Identifying as a woman, a Latina, and basing our company in Miami means I had a very small chance of building a successfully-funded startup. But I trusted my gut, followed the signs, and put all of my energy into creating Caribu. The universe conspired to help me and we beat all the odds.
Less than two percent of venture capital dollars go to women and people of color. Somehow, with those odds, I became the 59th Latina to raise over $1 million, and we’ve now raised over $6 million.
We received a predatory term sheet from an investor for half a million dollars but trusted our gut that we should turn him down (risky choice when the stats are what they are). But it was the right path because we turned to equity crowdfunding and raised three times more than we would have gotten from that shady investor. We then went from zero to $1 million in sales a year in just six months, proving that what Beyoncé says is true: “The best revenge is your paper.”
People said no one could build a successful startup outside of Silicon Valley but, in 2020, we were named one of the 15 best apps in the world by Apple.
And naysayers said there were no diverse people in tech, and yet our team is 67 percent people of color, 50 percent women, and we have high LGBTQIA+ representation. I’ve done things my way even when it wasn’t expected or traditional. Honestly, when you truly put your mind to something, nothing can stop you.
#7. Take risks and see failure as an opportunity.
Stay in the uncomfortable. You know how they say sitting is the new smoking? Well, being in your comfort zone has the same effect on your life and career, so start moving and get uncomfortable.
#8. I know I’m at an academic institution but, honestly, knowledge is not power. Problem solving and analysis are.
Information is easy to access now. The critical thinking of figuring out how to pattern-match will be the key skill you need in the future. Knowing what to look for, and knowing what the truth is, is more important than memorizing the facts.
#9. As the saying goes, YOLO.
The past two years have taught us that you only live once, so Marie Kondo your life. Live in the moment and only do things that bring you joy. You only have 86,400 seconds a day. Does what you’re doing bring you joy? If not, don’t finish the movie, the book, or even the degree. Leave the relationship. I found a website once that had a sobering look at what you can truly do in a lifetime.
If you assume a 100-year life:
- I personally have 60 summers left
- I swim in the ocean twice a year, so I have 120 more swims
- If I read five books a year, I get 300 more
The same often goes for old friends. In Dortstein, I lived in our self-created Esquina Latina, and I sat around playing Mafia with the same group of women about five days a week (two of whom are here!). In four years, we probably racked up 700 group hangouts. Now, scattered around the country with totally different lives and schedules, the group of us are in the same room at the same time probably 10 days each decade. That means I have 40 days left with them. I know. Depressing. But why the Debbie Downer info.?
It’s because proximity matters. Living close to the people you love becomes incredibly more important as you go through life. After these past two years, I think we can all probably agree that how you spend your time and with whom matters. Prioritize accordingly and make each moment count. Set your boundaries and live the life you want, not the one people want for you. And lastly, be present. Knowing how fleeting time can be when you’re with people who matter to you, make it quality time. Every moment is precious.
#10. Make gratitude your daily antidepressant.
A recent study even showed that gratitude improved the lives of women with breast cancer, so the health benefits are really real. Gratitude is a “life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world.” Gratitude is fundamentally different from optimism or hope because it focuses on the present moment. A person with a high level of dispositional gratitude can appreciate others and generally seize the day because of their understanding that life is short.
Never before has the whole modern world gone through such a traumatic event at the same time. Your mental health is extremely important and we won’t know the long-term ramifications of what we just went through for years. So, something you can do every day to help is to express your gratitude. You can start tonight.
Whoever came here to celebrate your graduation, this is the time to tell them how grateful you are that they helped you become who you are today. And even if there’s a complicated relationship, you can have gratitude for the fact that they showed up for you tonight. Tomorrow, write a letter, send an email or text…or just tell the barista how grateful you are for the caffeine, or the flight attendant for showing up so you can get where you need to go. Patience and gratitude are what the world needs more of right now and, selfishly, it will probably improve your health.
So that’s it. Follow those 10 guiding principles and the world will be your oyster. For those of you who have figured out what’s next…and for those of you who haven’t built it yet…you are moments away from changing the world, so go conquer it—or your little piece of it—and I honestly cannot wait to read about all of your accomplishments over the next 60 years! Thank you to this class and this institution. The pleasure and honor to be with you today were truly mine.
About Maxeme Tuchman
Today, she is the co-founder and CEO of the Miami-based tech company, Caribu—a digital calling platform, often described as “FaceTime meets Kindle,” which enables children to have virtual playdates with family members when they cannot be physically together.
A graduate of Design and Architecture Senior High School in Miami, Tuchman set out to be the first in her family to attend college. She always knew she would find a way to incorporate her passion for educating young people into her post-graduate work. And youth education has been a key component of Caribu, which has grown exponentially during the pandemic and was even named a “Best of 2020” app by Apple.
Tuchman’s undergraduate thesis research at New College laid some of the groundwork for her current venture, as it was focused on education as a tool for social justice. But it wasn’t just research and writing at New College that gave Tuchman insight into how to lead and inspire.
She served as president of the New College Student Alliance (student government); and was a co-founder of La Esquina Latina (“The Latin Corner”), a student-designed living arrangement in the Dort and Goldstein Residence Halls. La Esquina Latina allowed female Spanish-speaking students to room together and immerse themselves in their culture while attending college. Through many extracurricular methods, Tuchman found a way to make sure her classmates always had a voice.
Tuchman also learned autonomy and independence at New College through the contract system (evaluations rather than traditional grades) and Independent Study Projects (ISPs).
“The thing that New College teaches you is to really advocate for yourself, to think about your college career with a holistic approach, and to take risks,” Tuchman said. “I wouldn’t have had that agency elsewhere. I wouldn’t have taken as much ownership of my education elsewhere.”
Since graduating from New College, Tuchman has worked in nearly every level of education—as a public school teacher, a consultant at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an executive director of Teach For America, and a manager of education projects under former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee.
Tuchman holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and a second master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School. She is a graduate of the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs and the Miami Fellows program.
Before co-founding Caribu, Tuchman was appointed by former President Barack Obama to serve as a White House Fellow at the United States Department of the Treasury. During the 2015-2016 year, she worked as a strategic policy adviser, providing guidance and planning on financial inclusion initiatives (only about 16 aspiring leaders are appointed as White House Fellows annually).
As a businessperson, Tuchman has been a winner or finalist in more than 30 pitch competitions, is the 59th Latina in the United States to raise more than $1 million in venture funding, and is the first Latinx founder (male or female) to raise $1 million in equity crowdfunding. She was even named one of Inc. Magazine’s “Top 100 Female Founders” in 2019.
Caribu made Fast Company’s list of “World-Changing Ideas” in 2019, was one of TIME Magazine’s “Best Inventions 2019,” was singled out as one of the “Top 10 EdTech Companies” in Forbes in 2018, and became one of the most innovative startups in the world by winning the 1776 Global Challenge Cup in 2018.
A granddaughter of immigrants and a daughter of parents who fled Cuba for America, Tuchman is also dedicated to employing individuals from underserved populations. She has helped bring economic growth to Miami by headquartering her company in her hometown.
Change is being made daily under Tuchman’s watch. When she reads testimonials from users of Caribu—grandparents who spent the pandemic years away from their grandchildren, who have found joy in something Tuchman helped create—she knows she is in the right place doing the exact right thing.
In Tuchman’s words: “I’m so proud of what we’ve built from nothing. And I’m so grateful that what we’ve built is changing lives.”
Tuchman’s citation, presented by President Okker, at New College Commencement 2022
Maxeme Tuchman: entrepreneur, executive, visionary, New College alumna, humanitarian and role model.
Since your graduation from New College in 2004, you have helped transform the technological and educational landscape on a global scale. You have embodied the relentless drive and resourceful mindset that we hope to nurture in all of our students at New College.
As an award-winning entrepreneur and CEO, you have proudly represented your hometown of Miami, Florida—bringing great economic growth to your beloved city. You have spearheaded your company, Caribu, which—especially during the pandemic—brought families together to learn and connect on a revolutionary digital platform.
You have been a shining example for Latina businesswomen, and you have shown just how much representation matters. You have been an equitable employer, making sure diversity and inclusion are a critical part of your business model. You have imbued everything you do with integrity, and you have inspired us all to do the same.
It was no surprise to those who shared time with you as an undergraduate that you would become such a fierce leader in life. You served our campus well as New College Student Alliance president and as co-founder of a residential living space that encouraged Spanish-language immersion. You went on to earn graduate degrees from Harvard before returning to Florida to build your company from the ground up.
Today, we are so incredibly proud to welcome you back to your alma mater. We admire your tenacity, your work ethic, your humility and your commitment to the greater good.
And so, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of New College of Florida, it is my privilege to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, with all its customary rights and privileges.
Learn more about Tuchman here: ncf.edu/news/tech-trailblazer-alumna-creates-florida-jobs.
Watch Class of 2022 New College graduate Aleah Colón-Alfonso interview Tuchman here.
Watch Tuchman’s full graduation speech, and the entirety of New College Commencement 2022, here.