Hearing a son or daughter say they’re majoring in the liberal arts has never made more parents’ hearts sink into their stomachs. STEM degrees appear atop nearly every ‘best majors’ list, President Barack Obama has made jabs at the usefulness of a humanities degree, and college dropouts have colonized the Fortune 500. So when unemployed English majors joke that no degree would be better than one in liberal arts—they might actually not be kidding.
But there is life after liberal arts — just ask these 10 CEOs. From a self-proclaimed “completely unemployable” history major, to a B-average communications student at a No. 91-ranked state school, to a hippie philosophy dropout who wanted to fix capitalism, here’s how these formerly disgruntled liberal arts majors beat everyone else to the helms of some top companies.
Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO
Degree: B.S. in Communications, Northern Michigan University, 1975
On worrying about his post-college job prospects: A first-generation college student, Schultz grew up in a working-class family in the Projects of Canarsie in Brooklyn, and later attended NMU on a football scholarship. “During senior year, I also picked up a few business classes, because I was starting to worry about what I would do after graduation. I maintained a B average, applying myself only when I had to take a test or make a presentation,” Schultz wrote in his 1999 business memoir, Pour Your Heart Into It. “To my parents, I had attained the big prize: a diploma. But I had no direction. No one ever helped me see the value in the knowledge I was gaining.”
On getting his start in business: “After graduating from college in 1975, like a lot of kids, I didn’t know what to do next… I took some time to think, but still no inspiration came,” Schultz wrote in his memoir. “After a year, I went back to New York and got a job with Xerox, in the sales training program. I learned more there than in college about the worlds of work and business.” After three years, Schultz joined a Swedish drip coffee maker manufacturer before moving to Starbucks as director of marketing in 1982. He has served as CEO since 2008.
On success: “It took years before I found my passion in life,” the coffee exec wrote. “But getting out of Brooklyn and earning a college degree gave me the courage to keep on dreaming.” Schultz added: “I can’t give you any secret recipe for success. But my own experience suggests that it is possible to start from nothing and achieve even beyond your dreams.”
Andrea Jung, Former Avon CEO
Degree: B.A. in English Literature, Princeton University, 1979
On whether she had ever imagined being a Fortune 500 CEO: A trailblazer for female CEOs, Jung finds it hard to believe how a Princeton bookworm came to lead the world’s largest direct cosmetics seller, where she was chief from 1999 to 2012. “What I find myself doing [now] was pretty unimaginable for me in 1979, after I finished my much-loved thesis on Katherine Mansfeld and my junior papers on Virginia Woolf,” Jung told students in a 2012 speech at her alma mater. “To be standing here, and saying, ‘I now run a $10 billion global company’—I would’ve said, ‘Couldn’t be possible, that is not an imagined career path, not an imagined journey.’ Things have certainly taken a wonderful, but different, path.”
On being an English major: “Because I was an English major, I loved journalism, I thought perhaps I’d go back to journalism school or law school,” Jung said during her speech. But her friends told her about a training program at Bloomingdale’s to gain experience in marketing and merchandising before hitting the books once more. “I fell in love with the business and the consumer,” Jung recalled. So she ditched her grad school plans, and dove into the women’s apparel, accessories and cosmetics industry. “The rest is history.”
Michael Eisner, Former Walt Disney Company CEO
Degree: B.A. in English Literature and Theater, Denison University, 1964
On the importance of liberal arts: “Literature is unbelievably helpful, because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships. It gives you an appreciation of what makes people tick,” argued Eisner, who served as Disney CEO from 1984 to 2005, in a 2001 interview with USA Today.
On failed dreams and unemployment after college: “After graduating from Denison, I set off on the ocean liner Mauritania for Paris, figuring that I’d find some café to write in, live the bohemian life for several years, and turn out plays that would eventually find their way to Broadway,” Eisner recalled in his 1999 autobiography, Work in Progress. Realizing quickly that he didn’t have the talent to become the “next great American playwright,” Eisner moved to New York to find a steady job. “The only problem,” he recalled, “was that I couldn’t get a job… My inability to land a job left me feeling lonely, dislocated and slightly frantic.”
On starting off at a $65/week job: A few months later, in late 1964, Eisner received his first job offer, an NBC clerk where he logged the times each commercial appeared on air, and whether they were black-and-white—for just $65 per week. “It was far better than being unemployed,” he wrote in his autobiography. Later, he quickly scaled the corporate ladder at ABC and Paramount Pictures, before serving as Disney’s chief from 1984 to 2005. As the New York Times said of Eisner’s skill set in a 1998 article: “Eisner is unusual among entertainment moguls because he has had both creative and corporate experience. He knows how you put a show together and avoid going broke doing it.”
Richard Plepler, HBO CEO
Degree: B.A. in Government, Franklin & Marshall College, 1981
On drawing inspiration from his liberal arts studies: HBO’s chief since 2013, Plepler recalled in a commencement speech this year at his alma mater that, when trying to land his first job, he turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. “I believed, with Emerson, that if a man planted himself on his convictions and hopes that, ‘the huge world will come ’round to him.’ I always felt that, and all these years later, still do,” he said. “I decided to do everything in my power to secure a job, however lowly, in the nation’s capital. I got in my little Honda, and I drove to Washington, used all my energy and power of persuasion to try to talk my way onto the staff of a young U.S. Senator from my home state of Connecticut, Christopher Dodd.”
On the chance encounter that led to his HBO career: After four years in D.C., Plepler moved to New York City in 1987 and started a one-man consultancy. One night, at a Chinese restaurant, he looked up and saw Benjamin Netanyahu, then the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. That year had marked the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, a topic familiar to Plepler, who then decided—on the spot—to pitch to him a documentary film about the conflict. “He barely looked up from his dumpling,” Plepler admitted. “He finally asked me to sit down, he listened, nodded and after a variety of happy accidents in the coming weeks and months, I produced a film… The film captured the imagination of the then Chairman of HBO, who invited me to join the company.”
On what young grads can learn from reading Game of Thrones: As Plepler said during his speech: “While the road ahead, to quote from Game of Thrones, is ‘dark and full of terrors,’ it is hardly insurmountable.”
Carly Fiorina, Former Hewlett-Packard CEO
Degree: B.A. in Medieval History and Philosophy, Stanford University, 1976
On becoming CEO of a leading computer company: Armed with a Stanford history degree yet still “completely unemployable,” Fiorina worked short stints as a receptionist, English teacher and secretary. At 25, she landed a sales rep job at AT&T, and quickly rose up in the IT and tech industry, eventually becoming HP’s chief from 1999 to 2005. When asked in a 2001 USA Today interview whether her degree was of any use, Fiorina said how studying the transformation from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance helped her approach the ongoing technological revolution: “We have, in fact, seen nothing yet.”
On being proud of her liberal arts background: “While I joke that my medieval history and philosophy degree prepared me not for the job market, I must tell you it did prepare me for life,” the 2016 Republican presidential candidate said in March, speaking of education policy. “I learned how to condense a whole lot of information down to the essence. That thought process has served me my whole life… I’m one of these people who believes we should be teaching people music, philosophy, history, art.”
(Fiorina also earned an MBA from the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1980; and an MS from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1989.)
John Mackey, Whole Foods Co-CEO
Degree (dropped out): B.A. in Philosophy and Religion, The University of Texas at Austin, 1977
On the benefits of being a literary hippie and college dropout: “I accumulated about 120 hours of electives, primarily in philosophy, religion, history, world literature, and other humanities. I only took classes I was interested in, and if a class bored me, I quickly dropped it,” Mackey wrote in his 2013 book, Conscious Capitalism. Mackey, a shaggy-haired yogi, meditator and vegetarian living in a commune, ended up not taking a single business class: “I actually think that has worked to my advantage in business over the years. As an entrepreneur, I had nothing to unlearn and new possibilities for innovation.”
On philosophy and founding Whole Foods: During his college years, Mackey drifted into a progressive political philosophy that taught him “both business and capitalism were fundamentally based on greed, selfishness, and exploitation,” the self-described “classical liberal” wrote in his book. That, he said, was the motivation for his girlfriend and him to open a natural foods store, Safer Way, in 1978. In two years, they renamed it Whole Foods Market.
Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO
Degree: B.A. in History and Literature, Harvard University, 1990
On majoring in the humanities: Wojcicki, an early Google employee who became YouTube’s CEO in 2014, credits her parents — both of whom were teachers — with encouraging her broad interests: “Their goal wasn’t to become famous or make money… They found something interesting, and they cared about it. I mean, it could be ants, or it could be math, or it could be earthquakes or classical Latin literature,” the California native told Fast Company in 2014. “No one in my family had ever worked in business beforehand. So there was the expectation that I would just go into academics.”
On becoming one of the most powerful women in tech: Wojcicki had originally planned on getting a PhD after graduation, but her career path changed when she discovered the power of technology her senior year at Harvard, when she took the school’s popular intro computer science class. “CS50 changed my life,” she recalled in a video encouraging students to take the class. “When I graduated from Harvard in 1990, I went to Silicon Valley, and I got a job, and I’ve been working in tech ever since.”
(Wojcicki also earned an MS in Economics from University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1993; and an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management in 1998.)
Steve Ells, Chipotle Co-CEO
Degree: B.A. in Art History, University of Colorado Boulder, 1988
On his liberal arts education: “In college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I studied art history and had a great time, but I didn’t have any sort of career aspirations,” recalled Ells in a 2004 interview with Westword. “I never took business classes in school. I never really thought about the economics of a restaurant — only the food and the experience,” Ells added in a 2011 video interview about Chipotle’s beginnings.
On founding the now-$20 billion burrito chain: After college, Ells, who had always been passionate about cooking, attended the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 1990. When he launched Chipotle three years later, he had to play catch-up with his business smarts. “Raising money for Chipotle was really my MBA,” Ells said in a 2009 Wall Street Journal interview. “People asked a lot of questions about the business that forced me to take a critical look at how it ran.”
Alexa Hirschfeld, Paperless Post Co-Founder
Degree: B.A. in Classics, Harvard University, 2006
On quitting her first job to co-found Paperless Post with her brother: The e-vite service was conceived in 2007 by her younger brother, James, while the Harvard undergrad was planning his 21st birthday party. He then called his sister, who had planned to leave her first job as an editorial assistant at CBS, where she was often stuck opening mail. “I wanted to be in something that was not figured out yet,” Alexa said in a 2011 interview with Cosmopolitan. “I imagined that if I were, there would be more room for creativity.”
On developing Paperless Post: “[James and I were] really focused on not having lives that were really awful and conventional,” Alexa told the Harvard Crimson in a 2011 interview. But starting out wasn’t exactly easy, she said: “The gestation period was really painful. It felt like, ‘Is this ever going to be real?’ We sat in my parents’ living room and we didn’t celebrate any holidays for two years — we both lost a lot of weight.”
On how her non-technical skills helped her in the tech field: “We’re very contrary to the Internet,” Hirschfeld said in a 2013 interview with The Huffington Post. “So these people who were the scions of the Internet did not get it. They were like, ‘Why would you care what it looks like? Wouldn’t you just want a calendar invite? Why would you want to have an image?’ Like, you know, the Internet’s not about that — we left those formalities back in the real world.”
Jack Ma, Alibaba Chairman
Degree: B.A. in English, Hangzhou Normal University (Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute), 1988
On struggling to put his English degree to use: After graduating from college — it took Ma three tries to even pass China’s college entrance exam — Ma faced a string of over 30 job rejections, including a rejection from Kentucky Fried Chicken. He was eventually was hired to teach English at a local college for $20 a month, while also running a small translation company and peddling flowers, books and clothes to support himself on the side. Ma’s English skills later caught the attention of some entrepreneurs, through whom he learned about the Internet. In 1999, he and 17 friends founded Alibaba.com, the global wholesale online marketplace. Its $25 billion IPO in 2014 was the largest ever.
On why liberal arts education matters, especially for China: With entrepreneurship and innovation critical for China’s future, Ma has emphasized repeatedly why Chinese education needs to be less pre-professional. As Ma shared in an internal speech to his Alibaba employees: “I told my son, ‘You don’t need to be in the top three in your class. Being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren’t too bad.’ Only this kind of person has enough free time to learn other skills.”