While you might think an MBA would be the most appropriate way to succeed in business, in reality people who've spent years studying accounting, finance, marketing, human resources and operations may be disadvantaged in some ways. They can be risk-averse, for one thing. Sales often isn't their forte. And many times they're overly burdened with debt after graduation.

In reality, sometimes an unconventional degree can provide the kind of perspective most conducive for getting ahead in life. Take it from a handful of executives who took a path less traveled to arrive at where they are today. Here's what they studied, and how their unusual degrees helped them rise to the top.

Physics

"As a physicist you learn to a) quantify and solve problems, b) build predictive models, c) understand determinate and probabilistic systems, and d) turn theory into practice. All of these are skills which are extremely usable in any business. I went from making solar cells early in my career, to investment banking, to the mobile music space before moving into mobile gaming 10 years ago. You gain tremendous intellectual confidence when you master difficult bodies of knowledge such as vector calculus and quantum mechanics to a graduate degree level. This intellectual confidence has meant that I have never sat in a single meeting in my career where I thought something was too complex to understand and ultimately master. Turning theory into practice is also a core skill for any physicist and it is in fact at the core of every business: have a hypothesis on how best to proceed, test it, and if it looks positive, ramp up."

--Niccolo de Masi, executive chairman (former chairman and CEO) of Glu Mobile, a 3D freemium mobile gaming company.

Anthropology

"My career has in part been defined by change. I've been a journalist, a corporate lawyer, a hedge fund analyst, and the CEO of nonprofits and a for-profit. The only constant has been the need to get up-to-speed quickly in a new and uncomfortable situation. A great college education has been an essential part in preparing me for that. Learning used to be something you did for a discrete period of your life. Now, learning is in many ways the central act of a successful career, so in that context college isn't just the preceding act to your career, it's the first part of a learning-based career. Anthropology might seem like a goofy focus for a businessperson, but to me, it's been invaluable. What really drives success in a customer-facing business is understanding your customer in a deep, comprehensive way: what makes them tick? What are their fears? What heuristics are they applying when they make a decision? The tenets of user-centric design are at their heart an anthropology project."

--Jamie Hodari, cofounder and CEO of Industrious, a company reinventing how people work by creating private, hospitality-focused co-working spaces for businesses and professionals.

Music

"Through music I became more interested in technology and programming, eventually majoring in music, but with an emphasis on music technology. At first this focus was very much on analog recording, and understanding related aspects, like electrical engineering, and then much more on digital technologies. Music emphasizes patterns and logic in a way that made it easier to pick up software development. Studying music also forces you to think creatively and analytically. You're thinking about music theory--rules and a framework for composing--but ultimately you're trying to create something that will please an audience. For example, what will make your composition different and be a good 'user experience?' These learnings are directly applicable to growth, where thinking creatively is as important as understanding the framework and how all the pieces fit together."

--Georgina Hill, head of growth at Weebly, a website builder and digital storefront service.

Philosophy

"I wasn't a particularly academic or committed student, but I did love philosophy and its core purpose: arguing with people. After my studies ended my degree's absolute lack of vocational direction propelled me towards more entrepreneurial pursuits and gave me the confidence to create strong, structured arguments for radical ideas, strategy and vision."

--Richard Moross, founder and CEO of MOO, a print on-demand company specializing in business cards.

Published on: Nov 14, 2016
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