The CEOs of YouTube, Slack and Whole Foods All Have Liberal Arts Degrees. Here's Why That Matters

Experience in liberal and fine arts can give you a creative edge.

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By Nick Wolny

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Whole Foods, whose 500 stores employ over 91,000 people, made waves in 2017 when Amazon acquired the company for $13.7 billion. Workplace messaging powerhouse Slack was acquired by Salesforce recently for a whopping $27.7 billion. And YouTube, the third most-popular website on the internet, has over 5 billion videos on its platform watched every single day.

What do these business success stories all have in common? Their CEOs — leaders at the forefront of their industries — have degrees in the liberal arts.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki's original plan after studying history and literature at Harvard was to pursue a PhD and go into academia. A piqued interest in technology one summer led her to add a computer science elective in her senior year.

In 1998, she rented out her garage to two dudes named Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who during that time built the search engine that would become Google. Wojcicki later became Google employee no. 16, eventually persuaded the founders to acquire YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion — an acquisition lauded as one of the best buys of the 21st century — and eight years later was tapped for the CEO role.

Related: This One Video Convinced Google to Buy YouTube in 2006

It's an unusual twist for a literature major. But is it really? Liberal arts thinkers have used their smarts to get to the top of the business food chain more often than you might think:

  • Former Avon CEO Andrea Jung has a degree in English from Princeton;

  • Chipotle founder and former CEO Steve Ells studied art history at the University of Colorado;

  • Former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault was a history major before becoming the third African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

This topic of career reinvention is a personal one for me. What I do now as a content marketing consultant couldn't be further from what I studied in school; with not one but two degrees in classical French Horn, I was an aspiring orchestra musician with big dreams — and very little business acumen at first.

For years, I looked down at my music school experience as a waste of money and opportunity. But over time, I've come to realize that the skills I honed — creative thinking, tenacity and performing under pressure — have become some of my greatest entrepreneurial weapons.

If you're a thinker or a performer, entrepreneurship might be a perfect fit for you. Here are three ways to leverage your liberal or fine arts background and get a running start.

Fully work through your value proposition

Product development requires rigorous testing and a willingness to work through your logic all the way down to the bone. If you ever studied classics, you know that the trivium — grammar, logic and rhetoric — was taught first to pupils of the past because its fluency ensured the comprehension of all other studies.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield credits his passion for working through argument to his college degree in philosophy. According to the serial entrepreneur, studying the great thinkers taught him to write well and showed him how to effectively run and lead meetings.

Related: The Co-Founder Behind Slack Shares What He Did 140 Times Last Year Alone -- and How It Helped Prevent Burnout

Additionally, research from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation debunked the notion that studying the arts or humanities is a career death wish. Although a liberal arts degree might not have you earning the same amount as engineers in your twenties, graduates achieve economic mobility more often than mainstream advice would have you believe.

What you will have in your twenties is a propensity for good ideas. Your value proposition is like a term paper or thesis, except that it's more fun because it will potentially make you money. A lot of money. Be relentless with revisions and frequently test your value proposition in the market.

Scan for emerging opportunities

Markets and technology are constantly shifting, and as these tectonic plates move, new opportunities open up that have sudden and massive unmet demand. Before Whole Foods CEO John Mackey co-founded the health food giant in 1980, he and his girlfriend had a standalone grocery store, SaferWay, that was a market on the first floor and a restaurant on the second to capture multiple emerging markets.

Related: How Whole Foods CEO John Mackey Is Leading a Revolution in Health and Business

When you act fast and are first to market, you'll get a head start on capturing market share. Liberal arts graduates are fantastic at these kinds of positioning puzzles; if you have a complex problem or need to blend together multiple industries, consider getting a liberal arts brain on it to generate winning ideas. You'll thank yourself later.

Channel creativity for a competitive advantage

Sally Hogshead, author of the New York Times bestseller Fascinate: How To Make Your Brand Impossible To Resist, points out that "different is better than better." Being the best usually requires extensive research, many product iterations over many years and huge expenses.

Instead of trying to become the best, be different instead. You'll need some creative thinking to find your way, so here are a few tips to jumpstart your left brain:

  • Capture ideas in the moment. Set up a way to quickly jot down the strikes of lightning that pop into your head throughout the day. Voice memos or a separate page in a note taking app on your phone are great options.

  • Practice finding an uninterrupted flow state. I'm still haunted by that 2016 study on worker behavior that found employees are distracted an average of once every 40 seconds. To develop your focusing muscles, make your environment more conducive to concentration.

  • Read news outside your industry. Knowing your beat is important, but observing other industries can give you insights you won't find within your own echo chamber.

It's never too late to tweak your career trajectory or experiment with something new. Keep yourself in the know, lean in to past experiences and you might find that critical thinking gives you a winning edge in business.

Nick Wolny

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Writer, Speaker, and Consultant

Named a "40 Under 40" by Houston Business Journal, Nick Wolny is the founder of Camp Wordsmith, a business and writing membership for entrepreneurs. His weekly longform newsletter on online business, "The Slide Grease," goes out on Sundays. Wolny currently resides in Los Angeles.

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