Molly O’Neill had no business knowledge; now she runs her own design company

Written by Madison Neuner

Molly O’Neill, AMD’18, came to Northeastern as a shy first year with no particular career path in mind, and left on the career path she least expected: business.

“When I had come into Northeastern, I never really thought that I would become part of the entrepreneurial world,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ but was more focused on the global experience aspect of school.”

It wasn’t until she joined Scout, Northeastern’s student led design studio, that she noticed the connection between business and design. “I really loved working directly with clients, and the really big thing that sold me on it was the team aspect and learning how to manage a team to get an output for clients.”

O’Neill was Scout’s executive director in her final year at Northeastern, managing about 40 design students. As graduation approached, she applied for positions at “the classic small graphic design studios in New York City.” In the interviews, though, she quickly learned that these positions weren’t the right fit for her.

“I really wanted that team piece,” she said.

So, instead of working her way up the ladder in a design company and “in 10 years becoming a design director,” O’Neill started her own company.

Fred&Co., named after O’Neill’s dog Fred, is a “one-woman design studio” based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. O’Neill collaborates with other businesses in her creative network on a number of projects, from brand development to mural installations.

Starting the company was an intimidating move for O’Neill. “Even though I did do two co-ops and I was freelancing for a few people in undergrad, I was like, ‘Will people take me seriously as a designer?’”

For the first year of Fred&Co., O’Neill worked at Blackbird Donuts from 5am to noon every day, saving the afternoon for client projects. “I was burning the candle at both ends, so I’d have to get up early, but then work super late on client stuff. And then clients were filling up the days with meetings and I couldn’t take anything before noon. That was when I was like, ‘Okay, I really gotta make a change.’”

With support from her parents, O’Neill transitioned to working at the studio full time. It wasn’t too difficult getting her parents’ support, O’Neill said. Her father runs his own construction business, and her mother is a potter and artist, which “helped my family really understand what I was doing.”

O’Neill is grateful for her parents’ positive reinforcement. “They definitely believed in me, and were like, ‘We’ll do whatever we can to support you.’”

O’Neill is one of many “solo-preneurs” who happen to be CAMD alumni. Jen Guillemin, Senior Co-op Coordinator for Art and Design at CAMD, has worked with several students who founded design companies during or after their time at Northeastern.

“I think that CAMD is really invested in the design program,” said Guillemin, who also runs her own design studio called Creative Re/Frame. “And I will say, too, I think the co-op is an exceptional way for students to take those skills, test them in an organization, and gain confidence.”

Northeastern, Guillemin said, fosters an entrepreneurial spirit in design students. “Northeastern does have an innovative climate. I think that things happen, things change quickly. There are opportunities to innovate and I think experiential learning is very much about innovation.”

The innovative climate and urban setting of Northeastern encourage creativity and curiosity in its students. “The fact that it’s an innovative institution, the fact that there’s a lot of opportunity for cross-pollination—I think those are all seeds that help an entrepreneurial mindset to grow.”

Both O’Neill and Guillemin acknowledge the positive influence of Scout on young designers.

“When I went into Northeastern, I was the most shy person that could ever have existed,” O’Neill said. “And after going through the Scout program, I definitely blossomed and became really obnoxious and outgoing.”

Guillemin agrees that Scout had a positive influence on O’Neill. “A lot of the students coming out of Scout end up being the most entrepreneurial.” Guillemin believes O’Neill was able to gain skills and confidence that allowed her to start her own studio.

Through Scout, O’Neill enjoyed being a mentor to other designers. In the future, she aims to continue this trend within her own company. In addition to her goal of having a team of designers working with her, she’s looking to implement a summer internship program, hopefully next summer. “I would love to offer it to students or people looking to get into the design world, and mentor them with the business as well as design,” she says.

If there’s one thing O’Neill has learned in her career so far, it’s that there are many ways to be successful as a business owner. “You don’t need a business degree to start your own business. You know how to design and you can trust in that, and then you can learn all the business stuff on the fly.”

As O’Neill grows her business, she hopes to mentor, teach, and inspire other designers in her community as she continues searching for her passion. “I’m going to keep doing the business so it feels exciting and new and something that I want to be doing.”

At Creative Re/Frame, Guillemin discusses the concept of CCIIP: care, concern, idea, issue, or passion. “There is something very powerful when people can get in touch, and if you can tune into where you’re going to get your fuel in life, what is something that you really want to invest in?”

O’Neill’s CCIIP is community. “That sense of community and belonging is really important with not only my growth as a designer, but as a person, too.”

The power of discovering one’s passion is another driving force of great entrepreneurs, including O’Neill. “To know what your CCIIP is,” Guillemin said, “and know what it is that is going to fuel you and inspire you to do great things, is very powerful.”

CAMD certainly sets the foundation for students to find their CCIIP. Many of them will follow O’Neill’s footsteps to start companies and make their own unique footprint on the world of design.

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