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5 People Who Prove There Is Life After a Liberal Arts Degree

The world needs people who can write, speak, think laterally, and problem solve in all the ways a liberal arts degree teaches you to do. Whether you end up working with mortgage loans or tech services, there are a lot of good reasons to pursue a degree in the liberal arts. Perhaps the best testament to the usefulness of the humanities is the success of so many who have majored in it. Here are just a few examples.

Richard Plepler

Let’s start with the CEO of HBO. Richard Plepler took his degree at Franklin & Marshall College, and with that under his belt, he drove to Washington D.C. to make something of himself. He drew inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson (you’ll see his writings frequently in your online liberal arts associates degree) and used his own personal drive to get on staff with Senator Chris Dodd.

Work: Eventually, Plepler set up his own consulting agency and moved to New York to pursue his new dream. While eating out one night, he happened to see the Israeli UN ambassador to the United Nations eating in the same restaurant. Fearlessly, he pitched the ambassador a documentary on the Palestinian uprising.

The ambassador loved it, and so did the chairman of HBO at the time. Plepler’s documentary was made and started his career at HBO. He joined the network in 1992 and became co-president in 2007.

Success: As co-president, Plepler was responsible for giving the nod to some of the most successful series in HBO’s history, including Game of Thrones, Veep, and Boardwalk Empire. Upon becoming CEO in 2013, Plepler began to revamp HBO’s distribution strategy.

Under his leadership, the company saw the fastest growth in its history. Plepler has since been named Media Person of the Year by Cannes, earned a Directorate Emmy, and been inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame.

Howard Shultz

The CEO of Starbucks got an arts degree from Northern Michigan University. He speaks of his university days with fondness but recounts the stress he felt as he got closer to graduation, fearing that his degree had not prepared him for anything concrete.

In his senior year, Howard Shultz took a few business classes, but they didn’t do much in the way of giving him direction or help. He took a year off after college to think, but no inspiration came. Finally he went to New York and got a job in the sales department of Xerox.

Work: After leaving Xerox, Shultz worked for Hammarplast, a Swedish coffee maker trying to break into the US market. He eventually became the director of sales. Over time, he noticed that enormous amounts of their coffee were going to a company in Seattle, Washington.

He went to Seattle to look into the Starbucks Coffee Tea and Spice Company. At the time, Starbucks was just ten years old and only had stores in the Seattle region, but Shultz was hooked. He got hired as director of operations and marketing, and the rest is history.

Success: It was Shultz who moved Starbucks away from selling just coffee beans and grounds and into coffee drinks, though he had to purchase the company in order to do it. Shultz has been ranked on the Forbes 400 list of richest people in the United States.

His empire sells more coffee than any other company on earth and, as of 2014, brought in $60 billion a year from its 21,000 worldwide stores. Shultz has recently announced his candidacy for the 2020 United States Presidential election.

Susan Wojcicki

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki got her B.A. from Harvard University in 1990. Her major was history and literature. She is the first in her family to go into business rather than academics, but she credits her family with inspiring her success.

According to Wojcicki, a liberal arts degree and a family of academics didn’t hold her back. Instead, they inspired her to believe she could succeed at whatever she felt was interesting.

Work: While Wojcicki initially planned to pursue a PhD after graduation, one of her senior year classes in computer science pushed her in a new direction. Instead of continuing in academia, she moved to Silicon Valley to work in tech.

She became the 16th person to ever be employed by Google, and in 2006 she pushed Google to acquire YouTube. Her choice paid off: YouTube is now worth approximately $90 billion and is evolving into a television network.

Success: Wojcicki was responsible for a number of important Google initiatives, including AdSense and the Google Doodle. Under her leadership, YouTube has grown into the most popular social network among teens, outstripping even Facebook in that demographic.

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina got her arts degree from Stanford University and went on to become the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Her early career was rocky and at times she felt unemployable. She worked as a secretary, an English teacher, and as a receptionist until finally going to work in sales for AT&T.

Fiorina frequently jokes about her degree and how it did not prepare her for the job market. What it did prepare her for, she says, is life. She credits her degree with helping her become a successful thinker and frequently urges people to learn philosophy, history, music, and art.

Work: AT&T was so pleased with Fiorina that they sent her to the Sloan School of Management at MIT to get a business degree. She headed up AT&T’s Lucent Technologies division, and in 1998 she was Fortune’s most powerful woman in business. This attracted the attention of HP, who hired her as president and CEO in 1999.

Success: Fiorina was the first woman to head a major U.S. corporation, the first woman officer at Network Systems, and was directly responsible for enormous growth for AT&T. She also streamlined HP and made them a leading company in Silicon Valley when it comes to charitable giving. Fiorina has been responsible for paving the way for many powerful women in business who have followed her.

Jack Ma

Jack Ma is the chairman of China’s Alibaba corporation. He got his B.A. from Hangzhou Normal University in the late 80s, at a time when China’s government still told citizens what they were allowed to study (based on test scores) and what jobs they could take after graduation.

Ma got a job as an English teacher, but in 1999 he started Alibaba. Ma started his company with 17 friends and students working out of his apartment, and initially they provided a platform for businesses to sell to one another.

Work: With the invention of Taobao in 2003, which let anyone sell directly to the public, and the Alipay system for facilitating online transaction, Ma’s company became the most important in China and one of the biggest in the world.

Success: Ma’s empire grew to include cloud services, online banking, and digital entertainment. Through Weibo, Alipay, and the other branches of Alibaba, users can hire a commercial HVAC contractor, find a violin teacher for their child, comment on news of the day, or sell a car.

Under Ma, Alibaba also moved into India and throughout Southeast Asia, and Ma has used his influence to improve education among children in rural China. Recently Ma announced he was stepping down from Alibaba to focus on philanthropy.

These are just a few of the people who started out their careers with a degree in the arts and humanities. A liberal arts degree is all about creating thinkers, problem solvers, and people with the vision to connect the lessons of the past to the challenges of the future.

Whatever you hope to do, whether that is work at a car dealership, in media, or building your own innovative online platform, a degree in the humanities and liberal arts is a great way to prepare you for life.