Metrics for measuring success in the business world include market share, dividend yield, financial statements and more. In addition, there is industry-wide recognition from Fortune 1000, the largest US companies as determined by revenue, to Forbes 30 Under 30 list, which identifies people who made an impact in their respective fields early in their careers.
Liberal arts college graduates are integral contributors to the success of these firms.
And this holds true for a select group of CEOs on Fortune’s list of the 100 fastest growing US companies that are the top three-year performers in revenues, profits and stock returns.
What Drives Business Success Today?
One liberal arts degree success story is Willy Walker, a St. Lawrence University political science graduate and CEO of Walker & Dunlop, ranked number 17 on Fortune’s list of fastest growing companies.
St. Lawrence University’s government department identifies three key learning objectives—disciplinary knowledge, critical and analytical thinking skills, and technical and applied skills—for students to be “informed and inquisitive citizens and to be conscious of their rights and responsibilities within local, national and global communities.”
This global perspective helped Walker be successful in executive leadership positions in European and South American companies ranging from a private equity firm to a regional airline start-up in Argentina. Then, he turned his family’s company with one office and 45 employees into a publicly traded company with 25 offices and over 500 employees.
Walker’s company is now the United States’ eighth-largest commercial and multifamily mortgage servicer.
Michael Neidorff is another political science graduate, this time from Trinity University, who leads Centene Corporation, the largest Medicaid provider in the United States and number 27 on the Fortune list. Similar to St. Lawrence’s program, the goal of Trinity’s political science department is to produce students who have an understanding of (and who participate in) the contemporary global political environment, areas such as international affairs, non-governmental organizations and public administration.
In an interview when he was inducted into the St. Louis Business Hall of Fame, Neidorff says, “The value of an education is not just specific knowledge one gains, it’s the principles of learning. … It’s giving students a practical application for the things they hear about. It’s the door opener that helps you achieve.”
Neidorff goes on to explain the importance of empathy: “Being raised in the home of a physician,” he says, “I learned what good medicine is, and I continue to apply that every day. You have to want to provide the highest service and you have to personalize it. You have to say, ‘How would I feel if I was in that position myself?'” The impact of this mindset can be seen in Centene’s particular focus on community health through insurance solutions for the uninsured and underinsured via specialty services centered on whole health.
This empathy, this connection with the world beyond himself, has led Neidorff to serve as chair of Trinity University’s Board of Trustees, treasurer of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and a board member of both the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the St. Louis Science Center. In addition, he’s been the chair of civil rights and social services organization the National Urban League.
And, as well, Niedorff and his wife, in conjunction with Centene, donated five million dollars to Trinity’s Center for the Sciences & Innovation to provide hands-on, research-based education for students and faculty through “collaborative learning and productive collisions.” Why do all of this? He says, “There’s no substitute for integrity. There’s no substitute for honest, open communications. There’s no substitute for trying to find ways to do things a little bit better.”
Something Better Requires New Thinking
Making something new and better is what drives Doug Lebda, a Bucknell University graduate and founder and CEO of LendingTree, the online mortgage broker. And sure, it might be tempting to say Lebda’s success in leading a company, which is number three on Fortune’s list of fastest growing companies, might have occurred no matter where he went to school.
Yet, Lebda is the first to recognize that Bucknell was integral to his success.
One factor was the opportunities available to Lebda through Bucknell’s accounting and financial management program, which provides students with a student-managed investment fund, internships and study-abroad programs. When it came to starting LendingTree, Lebda credits not only the advice he received from faculty but also the investments made in it by Bucknell alumni.
He describes the impact of a liberal arts education with a business degree: “I think Bucknell is actually a pretty entrepreneurial school, and it was those two disciplines coming together that helped me to shape LendingTree out of essentially nothing and with really no experience in the industry at all.”
There’s another Bucknell experience Lebda identifies as key to his success and that is the men’s crew program. Going to practice at five in the morning and rowing on the Susquehanna River taught him discipline and the results that come from it. “Starting a business,” he says, “obviously requires a lot of hours and a lot of hard work, and I got to see that first hand with men’s crew.”
Lebda works to give back in the ways faculty and alumni helped him. He teaches entrepreneurship classes, mentors students and invests in Bucknell graduates’ business ventures. “I was actually a very reluctant entrepreneur,” he says, “and I almost didn’t start the company and I believe with a Bucknell education you can really do whatever you want, but you have to take the initiative and you have to do it.”
Developing Business Leaders for the 21st Century
Today’s businesses are looking for leaders with a broader perspective than in previous generations. New graduates need to be able to quick adapt to new challenges and identify opportunities.
Cornell College has taken this to heart in their business curriculum, which follows their unique One Course at a Time approach to teaching. Based in the liberal arts, their business majors gain experience that will help them directly in their first job and throughout their career.
The Cornell approach provides instruction that teaches students:
- Various methods of framing problems.
- Mathematical problem solving using real-world case studies.
- Strong writing and analytical skills.
- A global understanding of the their world to put big decisions into perspective.
Passion and Art Before Revenue
As noted above, there are many different metrics to measure success in the business world; however, beyond those facts and figures are the very human means by which they are achieved.
As Intercom co-CEO and co-founder Eoghan McCabe writes, “We’ve tried to put passion and art and love and creativity ahead of revenue and valuation and buzz and traction, discovering that the latter can often follow the former.”