Is college career training? We might assume that famous leaders majored in areas directly related to their careers: a tech entrepreneur with a computer science degree, a theater major actor, or a CEO who studied business.
But what about the CEOs who studied art history or the tech leaders who earned a humanities degree? Earning a degree in an unexpected major can provide a fresh perspective or valuable skills.
Here are some of the most surprising degrees earned by well-known figures — and how their degrees helped them become leaders.
Tech leader and co-founder of Reddit Alexis Ohanian didn't study computer science in college. Instead, he majored in history and commerce.
As he explained in a 2018 interview, that liberal arts background helped Ohanian succeed in the tech world. "I think getting training in how to synthesize a broad range of ideas into a cohesive story and then communicate that story is something that my degree really helped me with," Ohanian said. "The humanities education really prepares you for that in a way other disciplines don't. The value of critical thinking and communicating is something you use day in and day out."
As the daughter of actress Peggy Lipton and music producer Quincy Jones, Rashida Jones grew up in Hollywood — but in college, she studied comparative religion. That degree gave Jones a different perspective. In fact, during her time at Harvard, Jones planned to become a lawyer. It was only after graduation that she took up acting.
When she returned to Harvard for a commencement speech in 2016, Jones told the undergrads, “Don’t count on the system; protect your instinct to care; and choose love.” In 2017, the Screen Actors Guild honored Jones for her philanthropic work with global poverty, peacemaking, and children's literacy organizations.
She's a supermodel — but did you know that Christy Turlington also has a master's degree in public health from Columbia University? After walking away from her modeling career to study philosophy, Turlington ultimately decided to study public health.
In a 2009 interview, Turlington explained, "Now I'm 40 and getting this degree, I might be on the cusp of the career that I always wanted." Today, she's an activist and runs a nonprofit to improve women's health.
She was the 16th employee hired by Google in the 1990s, and today Susan Wojcicki is the CEO of YouTube. Wojcicki also holds a bachelor's degree in history and literature.
For Wojcicki, college was about fostering her interests. The tech CEO's parents, both teachers, encouraged her. "Their goal wasn't to become famous or make money," she explained in an interview. "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."
After college, Wojcicki moved to Silicon Valley and used the critical thinking and analytical skills from her undergraduate degree to move into computer science.
She's been called a "Hollywood leader" thanks to her activism, but for Natalie Portman, earning a college degree was worth risking her career.
Although she was already a major star when she left Hollywood to attend Harvard, Portman said, "I don't care if [college] ruins my career. I'd rather be smart than a movie star." Portman earned a bachelor's in psychology.
She's known for her work on the tennis court, but Serena Williams admits, "I had two loves — tennis and fashion." Williams found a way to balance her athletic career with college, attending the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale where she studied fashion.
When she launched her own fashion line in 2018, Williams said, "They say life is about timing. I learned this lesson at age 18, when I chose to play a light tennis schedule because I wanted to go to fashion school." Although she'd already won the U.S. Open and was on her way to racking up over 20 Grand Slam titles, Williams considered her education an investment in herself.
He's not exactly a household name, but Stewart Butterfield co-founded two massive tech companies: Flickr and Slack. And Butterfield did it in part thanks to his philosophy degree.
In an interview with Forbes, Butterfield explained, "Studying philosophy taught me two things. I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings."
In 1981, Michael Jordan enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Three years later, he left without a degree to join the NBA. But college was important enough to Jordan that he finished his bachelor's degree in geography while playing for the Chicago Bulls. "My father used to say that it's never too late to do anything you wanted to do," Jordan said in a 1994 interview.
After retiring, Jordan has made a commitment to charity, making multi-million dollar donations to American Red Cross, the National Museum of African American History, and healthcare organizations.
Emma Watson is more than an actress — she's also a UN Women Goodwill ambassador and an important leader on gender equality. At the height of her career, Watson took time off from acting to earn a bachelor's degree in English literature.
"I love having something completely unrelated to the film industry," Watson said in a 2014 interview. "I want to find something that will let me use my brain in another way. I like connecting people who aren't part of that world, too."
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlitt Packer CEO and presidential candidate, earned her degree in a surprising field: medieval history and philosophy. Tech CEO might not be on the list of common history degree jobs, but her academic training helped Fiorina understand the transformative information revolution of the 1990s and 2000s.
Fiorina explained in a 2016 interview that her degree was vital for her career. "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."
Brian Chesky is the co-founder and CEO of AirBnB. He also holds a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Chesky studied industrial design, and he still remembers what one teacher said on his first day of college: "You're a designer. You live in other people's worlds because they designed that world for you, but those people were no smarter than you. It is your time to design the world you live in."
In 2001, Kenneth Chenault became the third Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company when he took charge of American Express. As an undergraduate, Chenault didn't study finance or business. Instead, he majored in history.
When it comes to leadership, Chenault looks to history for examples. "I don't want to end up like Napoleon," Chenault said in an interview, while quoting Napoleon, who said, "The role of a leader is to define reality and give hope."
Today, Emily Weiss is the thirty-something CEO and founder of Glossier, a billion-dollar company. But when she turned 18, Weiss only knew one thing: She was moving to New York. Weiss attended New York University as a studio art major, balancing school with an internship at Teen Vogue.
That studio art training prepared Weiss for a career in the fast-paced beauty industry. After graduation, Weiss's dream of becoming a fashion stylist evolved into launching the beauty websites Into the Gloss and Glossier.
If you've ever played Scrabble® GO, WWE Champions, or Yahtzee® With Buddies on your phone, you know Walter Driver. He's the co-founder of the gaming company Scopeley.
What set Driver up for success in the gaming world? His creative writing degree. "How to create a narrative was the most valuable thing I learned in school," Driver told Inc.com. "It's how humans make sense of the world."
The Kardashians, Alicia Keys, and Mariah Carey all turned to Vera Wang for their wedding days. Even first daughters Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump walked down the aisle in Vera Wang dresses. Today, Wang is the CEO of a billion-dollar company, but she studied art history in college.
During a year abroad in Paris, Wang felt the pull of couture fashion. Wang's liberal arts background and critical eye helped her snag a job at Vogue after graduation and eventually open a bridal boutique.
What's the takeaway message from these surprising majors? Successful leaders come from all sorts of educational backgrounds. Tech entrepreneurs don't necessarily need a computer science degree, and CEOs don't always study business.
So the next time someone asks "What can you do with an English degree?" or "What can you do with a humanities degree?" mention people like Susan Wojcicki and Alexis Ohanian. After all, learning how to think is more important than learning what to think.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
Header Image Credits: Mark Kolbe, David Crotty, Dimitrios Kambouris, Paul Bruinooge, Aurelien Meunier | Getty Images
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