Why CEOs have Liberal Arts Degrees

Some of today's top CEOs were history, political science, sociology, chinese and music majors in college. They are leading global airline, chemical, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and financial companies, among others. There are very practical reasons for a Liberal Arts degree, and Samanee Mahbub (Brown '18) thinks the reasons are crystal clear.  Let's hear it from her. 

A “Practical” Liberal Arts Degree

“Samanee, what on earth are you going to do with a history degree? I’m not sending you to college to become a historian.”

Those were the words my mother told me when I mentioned the idea of switching from the ever so pragmatic economics major to my newfound passion in studying the past. Not exactly resounding support.

As a college student in this technological era, I’ve felt the constant burden of having to pursue a “practical” degree. My uncle pushes engineering. My brother insists I take computer science. My dad says if I don’t like STEM, then economics is the best option for a woman who wants to pursue business. Yet my mind doesn’t light up the same way in microeconomics as it does learning about the overlapping women’s movement, anti-war movement and civil rights movements of the 1960s.  

Educating myself about the fall of the Roman Empire may not provide direct, transferable skills to the corporate office, the quirky startup, or any particular field of work. But I argue it gives me something even better: critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking skills. Quite the buzzword these days. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines it as an “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” I have a much simpler and arguably, more relevant definition: the ability to rationally use a mental toolkit to analyze a situation with which one might not have had previous experience.

History provides me with this mental toolkit. Through my classes, I’ve been forced to question the intentions of authors of primary sources, understand biases present within my readings and even my professor, observe the tone of speakers in context to their audience, and seek out further information to support the claims I make when I write my history papers. Now let me change some of the words in this paragraph and show you how my history major will prepare me for the business world.

Through my classes, I’ve been forced to question the intentions of [investors who want to pursue a particular M&A deal], understand biases present within [reports that do not recognize key factors that affect a company’s growth], observe the tone of my [interviewer] in context [of my interview], and seek out further information to support the claims I make when [I recommend a company to diversify their revenue streams in order to save their bottom line].

The situations I study in history are different, but as seen above, the skills used are the same. History, philosophy, sociology, or any liberal arts degree will not prevent me from pursuing a career in business. These disciplines provide me with a tool kit to navigate any situation I am presented, and in my opinion, make me a better employee.

So I’m going to take that Shakespeare class (or maybe not), I will learn about Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, and I’m going to delve further into Middle Eastern history. These are my passions. Even though they don’t directly align with my career aspirations, they will not take me out of the game. A career advisor once told me that those who pursue liberal arts majors and enter finance, consulting or technology are not the exceptions. They are the norm.

Therefore, I urge everyone who loves the liberal arts to pursue their passion. These pursuits are not lost in a world where STEM is rising. You will succeed because of the thinking skills you’ve acquired. And if you’re still not convinced, just remember, the CEO of Goldman Sachs is a government major.

Samanee Mahbub is originally from Bangladesh but has explored over 19 countries.  She's dreams of leading her country out of poverty.  While in high school, she started a 50-student organization supporting Acid Survivors Foundation to help rehabilitate burn survivors of acid attacks.  She is now the core programming director for the Brown Entrepreneurship Program and Head of Design for The Intercollegiate Finance Journal.  She's spending the summer in Dhaka doing microfinance. 

What If...?

For those of you that know me, you know I ask Why a lot (annoyingly so at times!).  So that's why (ha!) atBIF9, I loved what Matt Murrie is doing with getting "What If...?" out there - boldly!  We all need to ask this more.  So the next time you find yourself starting to say "no", try saying "What If..?" instead and thank Matt (and What If you followed him on twitter?)


The idea for What If…? was born on the campus of Westminster College, a small, liberal arts college in a small town in the middle of Missouri. The proud parents of What If…? are me, a Westminster professor, and Andrew R McHugh, a Westminster student. Even though Andrew was never a student in any of my classes, this did not stop us from having a wonderfully random collision. Curious minds stuck in small spaces tend to connect in the most serendipitous ways.


In entrepreneurial terms, the need for which we were creating a solution with What If…? was the need to have a more curious world. The problem with this, we soon discovered, was how few realized that an incurious populous was a problem at all; administrators, “leaders,” parents, and most everyone else tasked with shaping our collective futures seemed not to care that a lack of curiosity in people also leads to students and a citizenry that is uninterested, apathetic, and unconcerned. It was getting to the point where I began wondering if this was the point.

So, how do you tell an audience they have a need? You hold an event and prove it to them. The first What If…? Conference in February, 2012 was a half day event in which questions such as “What If There Were Carfree Cities?,” “What If Prisoners Could Be Rehabilitated?,” and “What If Video Games Could Change the World?” were asked, discussed in small groups, digested over a large meal together, and then given life well beyond the close of the Conference.

Our second conference this past March was a two day event. The first day was a three hour action workshop in which a group used a “What If…? Shift Approach” to address a current concern in higher education: “What If Technology Has Rendered the Physical Classroom Obsolete?” (Whether or not those in higher education want to listen to what the group came up with…that’s another question entirely.) The second day was a full-day conference exploring questions such as, “What If We Had Superpowers?,” “What If Women Were In Charge?,” “What If Everything Were Hyperlinked?,” and “What If I’m Wrong?

We’ve now had time to prototype and validate our product. We believe What If…? presents a unique value to people in every corner of the planet, so it is now our mission to grow a community to connect and spread it. This has been tremendously educational for us as we balance between a movement and a business. It has also been incredibly frustrating as we’ve learned that, since our startup isn’t an app that helps you pick people up at bars, we’re not exactly what investors are looking for. We’ve also learned that Venture Capitalists (in the truest sense) no longer exist. The idea that someone would actually “venture” out into the unknown and support a startup because it’s spunky, scrappy, got its shit together, and providing a needed service? Well, apparently, those people are gone (and perhaps, never existed). All of the investors we meet keep asking how we fit our conference onto the screen of a smartphone. Yet, surviving on ramen noodles and working multiple jobs on the side, we’ve managed to outlast several local startups who received awards, funding, and investment.    


Why are we willing to torture our intestines with crappy food, destroy our sleep cycles with multiple jobs, and put our lenders and renters on edge with every payment? Why are we willing to continue living in a community that consistently doesn’t get us or what we’re doing? Because What If…? is needed. For every person that scratches his or her head at What If…? instead of embracing it, for every potential investor asking us about our business plan instead of our business model canvas, for every Midwesterner wanting to know why ask “what if…?” when we should just be satisfied with “what is,” we are reminded why we’re doing this.

But, just as we’ve been made to feel we don’t quite belong in the startup world, we’ve encountered several other misfit toys along the way. Most of them come from the realm of education. Both students and educators alike have flocked to the “What If…?” mindset of curiosity, creativity, and question asking as a means of engaging and changing our world. There is a real need and an increasing outcry for education reform, at all levels.

But the needed reform doesn’t stop at schools. Our entire approach to the exchange of information is broken. Perhaps, the chief competitor for What If…?, and certainly an entity we’d like to disrupt, is TED. Not only has TED created its own class of 1%ers; but, as Andrew points out in his blog “On Ted,” its structure is fundamentally flawed and representative of an archaic, industrial model. The effective transfer of ideas and information can be done better. We deserve better. Our ideas deserve better.

What If…? Social Enterprises isn’t setting out to destroy TED; we view ourselves as a different channel on a television of ideas. We’re similar in that we’re a physical, experiential conference that disseminates its content via a variety of media (webpage, YouTube channel, blog, Huffington Post, podcasts, Facebook, and Twitter), but we take a very different approach. It is our purpose to democratize the question asking process by providing multiple platfor(u)ms to do so. And we are perfectly comfortable with being wrong along the way to getting it right.

What if the World craves your curiosity? We’d love for you to experience What If…? for yourself at our 2014 Conference

Why Is It So Hard to Execute?

Why is it so hard to Execute?

Ok, we all know that, compared to execution, creating the strategic plan is cake.  So why is executing so darn hard?  This a huge issue and given our economic situation, it's even more critical (remember the adage, I'd rather have a B plan with A execution than an A plan with B execution?)

So why is this so hard - well, not sure how wired our brains are for execution in the first place.  As humans, we tend to focus on the here and now - the present - the crisis du jour, what's in front of us, the day to day.  It's harder to focus on the longer-term that is a bit less ‘tangible' and more ‘abstract'.  Let's face it, how many of us keep New Year's resolutions?  Perhaps it's just how we are.  But, that's no excuse, is it!

In my experience at AT&T, a few startups I was involved in, and of course my terrific clients, lack of execution boils down to, yup, CULTURE! In looking back, there usually wasn't an Execution-Oriented Culture.  Why? There are lots of reasons but one I see a lot, as strange as this may sound, is a underlying lack of confidence that they can really execute - the rationale includes the lack of certain skills, lack of more information, lack of confidence the plan is right in the first place - second-guessing - mostly themselves vs. the outside world.  The "We don't have what it takes to make this happen" is usually based on no history or habit of execution.  Senior management doesn't have a good track record; there's no budget, money, resources (by the way, budget follows the strategy; now economic situations may change, and if so, then you need to revisit the strategies and tactics and change them for the changed world)

So how does this cultural ‘deficit' happen? The usual ways.  There isn't clear ownership for execution overall and pieces and parts - and I'd bet that there isn't a clear sense of accountability in lots of areas in the organization, so why should this be different? Also, let's face it, people's natural tendency is to resist change (lots of research in this area).  In order to overcome this, get people involved, get their buy in - by participating in the planning, by management communicating (over and over and over) the need for the strategic direction and showing employees how they can help and support the plan and what it means for them.

What happens if you don't execute? Well, you know the rest.  The point is, while execution is hard, it's not impossible, it's not insurmountable and in fact it can become a habit that creates collaboration, increases teamwork, and in fact, increases innovation (no, that's not an oxymoron).

What have you seen as the biggest obstacles to execution?