Search "Business School Career Paths" in Google and you will find articles about how "an MBA can open doors" and "double your salary." But a business degree is not the only path to professional success.
To be more competitive in today's workplace, some graduates are hyper-specializing. The New York Times recently reported on this new trend, noting that colleges have added over 350 new academic majors to more standard curricula over the past 10 years, including such disciplines as homeland security, global studies, cyber-forensics and agro-ecology. However, research shows that only 27% of college graduates are working in a job that actually relates to their major -- and many leaders point to their unconventional educational path for helping them become more creative and effective.
The following 5 CEOs are non-traditional thinkers running creative firms. Each shares how he or she has benefited from a non-traditional educational path.
1. Courtney Buechert, CEO, "Eleven, Inc."
Company background: A SF-based creative agency that works with Apple and Virgin America.
College degree: Zoology
His take on his education: "Growing up in Marin County as a child, I was an outdoor nut. I loved camping, surfing, and birdwatching. My first job at the age of 10 was with the National Audubon Society, doing trail maintenance. So it was no accident that I chose to study vertebrate zoology at UC Berkeley, one of the leading schools in the field. My goal was to get a job after graduation at the Audubon Society HQ in NYC. However, once I had my degree in hand, and although the job I wanted was available, my long-time boss urged me not to take it. He pointed out that I'd worked for Audubon from age 10 through 21 and had no other life experience. So, instead, I got a temp job as a secretary at Young & Rubicam -- and that's where I caught the bug.
Over the years I've found that my degree is hugely valuable for my work in this industry. The rigor, logic and objectivity of science gives me a critical background with which to engender creativity, support hunches, inspire leaps and coordinate the frenetic relationships that go into making great work. In hindsight, I doubt I could have chosen a better college education for the job I have today. I know it's an unlikely journey from vertebrate zoology to agency CEO! My "cocktail party" version of this transformation from scientist to Mad Man is that both jobs have one important thing in common: an understanding of animal behavior!"
2. Katherine Ogburn, Director of Strategy at Ready State
Company background: A marketing agency based in San Francisco that works with clients like Google, Intel, HP and Airbnb.
College degree: Russian & Eastern European Studies
Her take on her education: Katherine loved the challenge of becoming immersed in a culture that was distinctly different from the small town she grew up in. It also involved learning a new language with an entirely different alphabet. Ogburn developed a deeper awareness of how words can change meaning depending on their context. This linguistic sense helps her identify what she doesn't know and break down meanings piece by piece. "This comes in handy every day at Ready State. It's a young company, so I have to think like an entrepreneur. It's my job to define what is best for my department and the company, regarding products, management style, type of client communication, etc," she notes. On one day, Katherine helps a software company increase product trials, on another, she's helping create a global positioning strategy and measurement plan. The following week, she may be helping a Fortune 500 company redefine and reposition learning within their organization. "Not freaking out when I faced the Cyrillic alphabet was a perfect warm-up exercise for these challenges," she jokes.
3. Marshall Grupp, COO/Partner/Sound Designer, Sound Lounge
Company background: A post-production facility that mixes sound for commercials, with clients like Bank of America, American Express, Snickers, Lowe's, Lincoln, Hennessy, etc.
College degree: African Studies
His take on his education: "I have always been interested in the human experience. Initially, I wanted to be a sociologist. To fulfill the college requirement for that major, I took a cultural anthropology course that was taught by a professor who did his doctoral research in Tanzania. I was immediately drawn to the Tanzanian people and their culture, including their rituals, traditions and their nomadic way of life. From there, it became clear to me that I wanted to be an ethnologist -- a person who studies people within their unique culture. My biggest problem was that I wasn't a good enough writer, so I needed to find another avenue of expression to chronicle my "African experience." That's how I ended up at USC's graduate film school.
All companies have certain cultures, traditions and rituals. My fascination with human societies and how people interact with their culture continues to play a role in how I manage Sound Lounge. Within the everyday business cycle, we are bombarded with new technologies, emerging media platforms, personnel movement and increased competition. Success comes when you can face the world head on and lead with confidence, passion and determination. As with Africa, Sound Lounge is dealing with a rapidly-changing world. My background gave me the stamina to adjust to both the turmoil and triumphs."
4. Kiran Koshy, Associate Creative Director, Innocean USA
Company background: Innocean is a Huntington-Beach based advertising agency that works with clients including Hyundai, Footjoy and See's Candies.
College degree: MS in Art Direction; BA in Economics; MA in Public Administration
His take on his education: "My educational background has helped me to understand the challenges my business clients deal with and approach them with the maturity and seriousness they deserve," he says. "It's also shaped my vernacular that has enabled me to nudge clients to seek a better creative product. Finally, it's helped me hone my ability to sift through and focus on the true business problems that need solving. For Hyundai Tucson, a compact SUV, our solution was to portray the vehicle as an escape from the trappings of everyday, overworked digital lives -- but not the expected escape to an idyllic countryside."
"Since we're in the business of creating perceptions and perceived value, my experience in Economics and ability to assess human behavior has been a great asset. I've helped create a campaign for the Thousand Dollar Shave Society as a response to the spread of warehouse shave clubs, realizing that not everyone was into disposable consumerism. Being naturally right-brained, my left-brained education brought balance to how I see things, and discipline to my process. It's been vital in sustaining my enthusiasm and love for advertising over the years."
5. Malinda Sanna, Founder & CEO of Spark Ideas
Company background: Spark Ideas is a consumer insights consultancy with clients including Hershey's, Marc Jacobs & MTV.
College degree: Opera; English; Vocal Performance
Her take on her education: "Studying vocal performance at a Mennonite College taught me how to read an audience and shape my performance. Spending years on stage gave me speaking and presenting skills that I wouldn't otherwise have. No boring presentations, ever! While I'm not up there to entertain I definitely know how to tailor my message and manner of delivery to my audience. Goshen College, a Mennonite liberal arts school in northern Indiana, was definitely off the beaten track for a business career catering to Fortune 500 clients - but I feel strongly that it prepared me well for the work I do today. How does that relate to qualitative market research? We really are in the "culture business," and we are squarely in the service industry. I draw on references to literature, to music, to philosophy as well as pop culture every day in my writing, research and analysis. If I only had an MBA, I would offer a very boring, linear product and a flattened sensibility to my clients."
The leaders above provide anecdotal evidence of alternative paths to success, without realizing that they are part of a national trend. A growing number of tech companies are actively seeking people from a liberal arts background because of the creative and people issues they face. Coming from a non-traditional background allows for creative problem solving that is markedly different from their business-major peers. In an increasingly specialized workplace, being able to see the forest for the trees as well as each tree in that forest, is essential for effective leadership. This duality of focus is what a liberal arts education teaches best.