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An Entrepreneur's Legacy

Diane Hessan, J76, A11P, establishes a scholarship fund to open doors for other Tufts students

When Diane Hessan, J76, A11P, first walked onto the roof of Tisch Library and saw the Boston skyline, she knew she wanted to come to Tufts. "I had this vision of how incredible it would be to come up on the roof anytime I wanted and see that view," she said.

That vista was a transformative one. "Tufts really opened my eyes to the fact that there was a big, big world out there with all kinds of opportunities and challenges," said Hessan, a Tufts trustee and chair of the university's Marketing Advisory Council; she is CEO of Salient Ventures, which helps tech startups succeed. "By the time I got out of here, I wanted to make a dent in the universe," said Hessan, who has founded several companies since she graduated from Tufts and from Harvard Business School.

She wants to open those same horizons for other students to come to Tufts, so she's established the Diane S. Hessan, J76, Endowed Scholarship Fund, which will be doubled through the university's Financial Aid Initiative. The first recipient is Henry Allison, A19, who had been unsure whether he would be able to afford to go to a college like Tufts. "This was really huge, especially because I have a little brother, and I'm considering grad school," said Allison, who is pursuing a double major in political science and economics. "Now I can focus more on school rather than on making money."

Hessan sees a lot of herself in Allison. "There's no way I could have ever come to Tufts without financial aid," said Hessan, the first in her family to go to college. She said she felt out of her league as soon as she arrived on campus and was surrounded by students who had gone to top-tier public and private schools.

She feared she had made a mistake, that this wasn't where she belonged. But soon enough, she was excelling in her classes and flourishing under the mentorship of her professors. She made friends who remain close today, including Cindy Lewiton Jackson, J76, whose father, Jacob, commuted to Tufts and eventually became chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court.

When he passed away, his family established a scholarship for commuter students in his honor. "From Judge Lewiton, I saw it was possible to be a small-town person not coming from a particularly wealthy or educated family and to create a life like this—and the way to get that started is through an education," Hessan said. "And I thought if I'm ever at the point where I have the resources, I want to make a difference in someone's life the way people made a difference in mine."

Every class Hessan took at Tufts was as compelling as the last. She kept changing majors until her advisor, the economist Daniel Ounjian, told her, "Just major in what you love." But what was that? After graduating with a double major in English and economics and working for a series of companies, Hessan found the answer. "I got obsessed with the idea that I could build the company I always wanted to work in," she said, "to work with people I loved, having a great time building something that mattered in the world."

She co-founded her first company, an education technology startup, in the late '90s. "It was really exciting to be a woman and be able to talk the language of technology," she said. "And being a CEO was really well suited for me. If there was something I didn't like, I just changed it."

She went on to establish Communispace, now known as C Space, a market research company that was a pioneer in creating online communities to provide feedback to companies. After a decade and a half as CEO, she stepped down to become CEO of the Startup Institute, and to subsequently work on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Asked to share the secret of her success, she quoted the business magnate Warren Buffet, who said if your IQ is 150, you should sell 30 points to a friend. "It's not just about being smart. It's about working hard and playing well on a team," Hessan said. "And of course, it's about being passionate." She still comes to campus frequently, speaking on panels and to students in classes on marketing and entrepreneurial leadership.

As a trustee, she attends every commencement, which occurs in the same place she stood during freshman orientation. "When I think about standing out there in 1972, being so afraid and knowing nothing, and going, 'Oh my God, I don't even know how I'm going to pay for my meals…'" She paused, tearing up. "Now I sit there on the platform during graduation. It's the most unlikely story."

But it shouldn't be, she said in explaining her decision to fund a scholarship. "The way to be grateful is to give to others. I want the university to be filled with people who have different life experiences, who don't all have the same ambitions, the same questions, the same way of viewing the world."