The Liberal Arts Entrepreneur

Last week was proclaimed as National Entrepreneur Week by our President and Friday, November 19th, was National Entrepreneurs’ Day. When I read this, I asked myself the question “So, where do you go to school to become an entrepreneur?”

As a venture capitalist working in the Internet and mobile industries, I am fortunate to be able to spend my time with many extraordinarily talented entrepreneurs with engineering and business degrees from some of the best programs in the world (ie: Brown, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Yale, Northwestern, Wharton, etc.) Given the amount of time I spend with students and entrepreneurs at some of the great institutions around New York, Boston and Chicago I sometimes forget the idea of entrepreneurial leadership emerging from liberal arts colleges that don’t have business or engineering programs.

As I contemplated National Entrepreneur Week, it occurred to me that maybe a liberal arts education might be the entrepreneurs’ education. For many of you reading this with a liberal arts education this idea might resonate with you. You might think that while your seemingly abstract or inapplicable degree in Philosophy, History, Archaeology, etc. might not obviously apply to a career, in fact, some of the important skills learned in a liberal arts environment translate well into the world of entrepreneurialism.

So I decided to dig in and see what my alma mater, Bowdoin College, had produced in terms of entrepreneurial talent.

What I discovered is there are hundreds of Bowdoin Alumni (out of about 17,000 total living alumni) who have either started or been the early and formative leaders of companies in financial services, technology, Internet, consumer and other industries throughout the world. Included in this list are such noteworthy industry leaders as Bain Capital, LL Bean, Netflix, Duquesne Capital (a preeminent hedge fund), Schwartz Communications (leading technology PR firm) and Subway Sandwiches. There are also many newer, high growth, entrepreneurial companies like Everyday Health, Everfi (co-founded by 2 Bowdoin alums), Hubspot, Vertica, and many more that have been founded or co-founded by Bowdoin alumni. What really amazed me, however, was these entrepreneurs have created companies that have asset values that exceed, in the aggregate, $140 billion (and this is probably low as my research was not comprehensive). If you were to simply divide this number by the 17,000 or so living Bowdoin alumni, you would find that the per capita asset value of companies created by Bowdoin Alumni is equal to $8.2 million. This is nearly 20x greater than the same figure you would find if you divided the value of US public equity markets by the number of US citizens with a college degree and 21x greater than the US college educated per capita GDP. I grant you this is not a perfect comparison for a variety of reasons, but the difference is sufficiently large to be notable. This would suggest that Bowdoin Alumni, and by extension other liberal arts college graduates, are uniquely oriented to substantially over index in terms of entrepreneurial value creation and innovation as compared to other college graduates.

It has long been thought that people who hold engineering, science and business degrees from major Universities are well prepared to become successful entrepreneurs and a very interesting study by some MIT professors provides strong evidence of this, but I think it is very intriguing to see the scale and degree of success liberal arts educated graduates have achieved as entrepreneurial innovators.

To some people, including myself, this data supports a long held intuition that successful entrepreneurs have the ability to think in dynamic and non-linear ways and then to aggressively challenge conventional wisdom in pursuit of an innovative endeavor. Furthermore, the best entrepreneurs I have worked with are incredibly artful communicators and motivators which I think is certainly a skill learned and honed from a liberal arts education. People will debate forever the question of whether or not entrepreneurship can be taught but what I have learned is that there appears to be a substantial correlation between a liberal arts education and becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Sean Marsh is a Co-Founder and General Partner with Point Judith Capital.  You can find this post, as well as additional content on Point Judith Capital's blog.