When we think of successful CEOs, we often assume they studied business, economics, or finance. However, many incredibly successful business leaders actually have degrees that may not seem immediately relevant to their line of work. Some of the most innovative and creative leaders have anthropology, philosophy, and even art history backgrounds!
Here are some surprising subjects famous CEOs studied and the ways their diverse backgrounds contributed to their success.
1) Steve Jobs – Calligraphy
Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc., dropped out of Reed College after just one semester. However, he continued taking classes that interested him, including calligraphy. Although calligraphy seems odd for someone who would go on to revolutionize the tech industry, the class was where Jobs learnt about sans serif and serif typefaces and other takeaways that inspired many of the typography and design elements characteristic of Apple products.
2) Howard Schultz – Communications
Howard Schultz, current interim CEO and former CEO of Starbucks, earned a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Northern Michigan University. While this degree may not seem particularly unusual, Schultz’s background in marketing and advertising helped him transform Starbucks into the global brand it is today.
He has launched several innovative marketing strategies, such as creating a “third place” between home and work, that helped to make the coffee chain a cultural phenomenon. Schultz is especially known for being a transformational leader who delivers compelling messages: in 2008, he served as communicator-in-chief during a Starbucks North American four-day leadership conference. 10,000 managers were in attendance and left galvanised with “a tidal wave of energy” that turned the then-troubled chain around[i].
3) Susan Wojcicki – History and Literature
Susan Wojcicki, the former CEO of YouTube, earned a degree in History and Literature from Harvard University. History and Literature may not seem particularly relevant to the tech industry, but Wojcicki’s background in storytelling and analysis has helped her to shape the way that YouTube presents and distributes content. Wojcicki has emphasized the importance of engaging with users and understanding their interests to create a popular and profitable platform.
Wojcicki also ventured beyond her degree to take an introductory computer science course — CS50 — that changed her life and led her to Silicon Valley. Take the chance, like her, to explore different subjects through unrestricted electives: you may find a newfound passion or future career path!
4) Stewart Butterfield – Philosophy
Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder of the popular workplace communication tool Slack, earned a degree in Philosophy from the University of Victoria. Butterfield has credited his philosophical background with helping him think creatively and critically about problems. Butterfield’s philosophy degree enabled him to approach design and business holistically and ethically.
In a cover story with Forbes, Butterfield shared: “I learned how to write really clearly [through philosophy]. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true — like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces — until they realized that it wasn’t true”[ii].
5) Mark Parker – Political Science
Did you know that Mark Parker, former CEO of Nike, studied Political Science in Penn State University?
Parker’s background in politics and policy-making probably helped him better navigate the complex global market Nike operates. In fact, he has emphasized the importance of understanding global cultures and politics in order to create a brand that resonates with consumers worldwide.
He also had “an appetite for learning” and a desire to “be exposed to everything” from biology to the liberal arts[iii]. We say this is a great attitude to emulate: just like Steve Jobs, you never know when that random piece of knowledge comes in handy!
6) Indra Nooyi – Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics
Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, earned Bachelor’s degrees in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics from Madras Christian College in India.
Nooyi’s science and math background helped her think critically and analytically about business problems. She has credited her scientific training with helping her to understand complex data and develop innovative solutions to business challenges. In a podcast with Freaknomics Radio[iv], she shares the benefits of a STEM background:
“One of the things that my experience has taught me is that if you are trained as a scientist in your youth — through your high school and college — if you stay with the STEM disciplines, you can learn pretty much all of the subjects as you move along in life. And your scientific disciplines play a very important role, and ground you very well as you move into positions of higher and higher authority, whatever the job is.”
Science students, are you encouraged yet?
We hope this shows you how your degree does not define your career path! By pursuing your passions and taking courses that interest you, you might just stand out in your field and achieve success in unexpected ways — just like these CEOs did.