The Internet is filled with articles featuring college dropouts who’ve achieved impressive successes in the startup world. There’s this piece from Mashable, this one from Upstart, and this article from Forbes, just to pick a few. There have undeniably been those who do well outside of the confines of college as they prepare or launch their startup. However, while it’s certainly not the right choice for everyone, I’ve recently noticed how my liberal arts education profoundly prepared me for daily life working with startups. I had some startup-relevant experiences through work and internship opportunities during college, but I’ve also found immense value return down the line even through just what I gained in the classroom.
Here are a few of the ways that I’ve found liberal arts colleges prepare you to work for startups:
1. You learn to go to the source.
My alma mater, Vassar College, has a saying, “go to the source.” This means getting to the source of an issue in order to find answers. It applied just as well in history classes as it did when solving issues as part of student groups or through community service projects. When you go to the primary source to solve a problem, you can often find new insights that you’d miss if you only checked out secondary or tertiary sources. My friend Cordelia, also a Vassar grad, wrote a fantastic piece on how she sees her role as a developer at Salesforce as that of an archaeologist. Cordelia writes that she often excavates old code, and must learn to understand it before she can build upon it in new code. This “go to the source” attitude applies to startups that are attempting to make an impact or disrupt existing industries by offering new value in the marketplace. Going to the source also involves questioning previously held beliefs about what will work best through doing multi-variate testing of landing pages, social campaigns, ads, and more. By being trained to get to the source to find solutions–including through understanding the experiences of your customer and his/her pain points–you’ll be many steps ahead of your competition.
2. You learn how to create compelling, data-based arguments–and, if needed, adapt them.
In liberal arts college, every thesis you argue needs to be backed up by supporting references and sources. Learning how to stake a position based on data is what I do all day long working with startups. Why should a startup post in LinkedIn groups at a certain of day? What is the optimal number of blogs to publish per week to fuel the inbound lead generation funnel? What budget should a b2b startup allocate for display advertising, and on and on. All of these questions can and should be answered by data. Additionally, data changes over time, and it’s crucial to be willing to go back to the data and continue to test your hypotheses to see if they still hold true. In liberal arts environments, we learn to question as new theories, studies and data emerge. This is crucial to being effective and agile in the startup world, as well as keeping up with the ever-changing digital marketing landscape.
3. Learning ethnography prepares you to study the experiences of your startup customers.
Many liberal arts colleges have an anthropology or sociology requirement that teaches you how to do ethnography, which Wikipedia defines as “a research method designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.” Ethnography training has helped me immensely in learning how to collect data and survey responses in order to understand and address my startup clients’ needs, fears, and goals, as well as those of their target customers. By studying ethnography, you can also gain valuable insights into bias and how we often project our own experiences onto others. When startups don’t assume what their customers want and instead actually take the time to truly understand their customer’s experiences, they are usually rewarded with customer loyalty and increased success in the market.
4. You gain an understanding of how to approach and deliver constructive feedback.
In my college nonfiction writing seminars, we had a concept called the “feedback sandwich.” Structuring criticism with what worked, what didn’t, and what was good but could be slightly improved (sharing some negative feedback betwixt positive feedback–hence, the sandwich) is incredibly effective. Sometimes feedback has to be 100% constructive, but often, there’s great stuff mixed in with not-so-great stuff. When editing writers’ blogs, I try to always highlight what’s good as well as what needs improvement. It usually helps us all focus on the constructive criticism without taking things too personally.
5. You learn how to lead small groups that can effect big changes.
In college, student groups I was involved in rallied together small groups of students, faculty, and staff to organize service projects, bring speakers, plan events, and more. Learning how to mobilize small groups to effect change is an invaluable startup skill. Seth Godin calls this phenomenon of small, strong groups making an impact “tribes,” which you can learn about in his book and Ted Talk on the subject.
6. You learn to recognize and understand societal inequality.
The liberal arts classroom offers many opportunities both through coursework and class discussion to unpack and recognize societal privilege and inequality among diverse populations. In the startup world, there’s still an undeniable lack of diversity at the leadership levels. Being aware of inequality and why it’s existed throughout history through the lens of a liberal arts education can help us move towards embracing a more equal startup world. Brad Feld, MIT grad and local Boulder VC, wrote a powerful article about increasing the numbers of women in leadership roles in tech.
7. Liberal arts colleges teach you how to write well.
This is the single-most important thing I learned in college: how to write a damn sentence. It behooves each of us in the startup world to learn how to express our ideas through cogent, clear writing. I took it for granted that I could write during school, but after, I’ve found it is pretty much crucial to my everyday life: writing social media strategy plans and social media posts, website copy, client proposals, startup client blogs, creative briefs, content marketing maps and, of course, emails.
8. You learn how to think broadly in order to solve problems.
Liberal arts degrees are all about interdisciplinary thinking, and you have to think across silos in order to be effective in startups. I really like this Customer Success Summit talk by Jeanne Bliss on how startups can solve problems across departments. In order to address your customers’ needs, you’ll need to think broadly and across your startups’ departments.
Nothing can replace real-world startup experience. That’s why groups like Tradecraft, which train smart people to work in high traction roles at startups, are so great for those starting out, as they immediately immerse participants in real-world startup work. And, of course, in technical roles, it’s crucial to find people with technical skills above all else. But, for anyone worried their liberal arts college education isn’t helping to prepare them to achieve their goal of making a difference at a startup, I’d encourage them to reconsider. I’d also suggest strongly hiring liberal arts grads for your startup!
Does your startup hire liberal arts grads? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.