The Secret Entrepreneurial Lessons of a Liberal Arts Education

It turns out, the basic college degree is worth more than it seems.

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By Steve VanderVeen

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Despite reports that liberal arts colleges and universities are failing to prepare students for careers, entrepreneurial students can leverage a liberal arts education to learn the skills to create high paying jobs and transform industries.

Beyond the obvious skills colleges provide -- critical thinking, communication and scientific validation -- here are the less obvious abilities students can learn, practice and develop while attaining a liberal arts degree:

Make connections. The liberal arts core ensures entrepreneurial students will interact with students and faculty members from various disciplines, which means they will interact with people who have different interests, passions and skills. Collaborating with people from a different point of view can open up new possibilities. In the language of neuropsychology, it creates new connections. These new connections spark innovation.

Related: Guess What: Going to College Still Pays

Find what interests you. A liberal arts education exposes students to many types of knowledge. Many students come to college thinking they are passionate about one thing, only to discover they are passionate about something else. A liberal arts education can help entrepreneurial students determine how to select the type of people that fuel their intellectual curiosity. That intellectual curiosity makes innovation, marketing and leadership possible.

Assess strengths. Intellectual curiosity should be a factor in choosing a major area of study. A liberal arts education forces entrepreneurial students to specialize in one discipline. The need to choose can force students to assess their skills and come to the realization that they can't learn everything. This teaches a great leadership lesson: we need to find people who complement us.

Determine motives. Working with a variety of faculty members and students teaches entrepreneurial students underlying skills for innovation, marketing and leadership. Students realize they have to learn not only the language, logic and methods of a particular discipline, but they also must learn what motivates instructors to grade well and students to work with them. To build a company, entrepreneurs need to motivate consumers, customers (channel members), employees, investors and other possible stakeholders.

Related: How the Changing Education Landscape is Helping Entrepreneurs

Those are some of the ways entrepreneurs can leverage a liberal arts education. I have seen it happen. Three students come to mind:

  • A pre-medicine and music major created a successful international longboard wheel company.
  • A computer science major is creating, with partners majoring in engineering, chemistry, business and Spanish, a company that provides ring boxes with a camera inside that helps people capture their future spouses' expressions at the moment they make a marriage proposal.
  • A women's studies and psychology double major created a non-profit organization that sponsors concerts to raise money for organizations that fight against sex trafficking.

These three students, none of whom are business majors, excel in innovation, marketing and leadership. Why? They have mastered the underlying invisible skills that are accessible in a liberal arts education: collaborating, complementing and motivating. Imagine how much more successful entrepreneurs would be at creating high-paying jobs if they intentionally focused on developing those invisible skills.

Related: Is Our Education System Hurting Entrepreneurship?

Steve VanderVeen

Professor of Management and Director of Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope College

Steve VanderVeen is a professor of management and director of the Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He teaches various project-based leadership courses and serves students in the the center's entrepreneurial development and student consulting programs.

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