The Righteous Apprentice
Despite the fact that Oberlin alumni have fared splendidly in the corporate world,
some liberal arts students and recent grads are convinced that the business
world is off limits; they assume recruiters will bypass a job applicant without
some type of business major.
But liberal arts colleges all over the country are trying to convince students that the world of business is not only open to them—it’s eager for them. For instance, the University of Illinois’ College of Liberal Arts highlights a recent survey of 113 corporations asked to rank the most important skills for a successful business career. Placing highest was the ability to communicate well, to identify and formulate problems, to assume responsibility, to reason, and to function independently—skills typically nurtured through liberal arts coursework. Another 20-year study by Stanford professor Thomas Harrell found that the greatest business skill was the ability to communicate—and that the best communicators were people with strong liberal arts backgrounds.
Oberlin grads in the business world are quick to confirm these findings. Eric Katzman graduated in 1986 with a double major in economics and government. His fascination with economics led him first to Israel, where he worked for the government as an economist. He followed a zigzagged path to Wall Street, where he worked for two years without a clear plan for the future. At one point, he says, he literally held an application for business school in one hand and a National Parks Service application in the other. He chose to stick with Wall Street, as he had come to enjoy its fast-paced swirl of smart people and varied demands. He’s now a chartered financial analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities.
“A liberal arts background is phenomenally important in a job like this,” Katzman says. “You almost can’t put a value on it. My particular job involves numbers, but it also calls for writing, interpersonal skills, and multitasking. When the firms decide whom to hire, they’re increasingly valuing a liberal arts education. And when I interview potential employees, that’s what I look for, too.”
Helpful may be any liberal arts education. Better yet, say Oberlin business alums, is an Oberlin education, which comes attached with its own unique legacy and set of values. “There is no question in my mind that Oberlin’s particular liberal arts education was the single most influential factor in my business success. Bar none,” says Jeff Hanson ’80. “I feel absolutely passionate about this.”
Hanson had no family roots in business—his parents were both musicians—but he enjoyed Oberlin so much that he stuck around as an administrative employee after graduation. He discovered a fascination for the organizational aspects of running a school and soon accepted a full scholarship to the Cornell School of Business. With little knowledge about what to expect, he walked into an interview with the global investment bank Goldman Sachs without even knowing what it was. He went on to work for the company after business school and later started his own consulting firm. Today, he is chief operating officer of Milestone Capital Management in Yonkers, New York, a company founded by his wife, Janet Tiebout Hanson.
Ben VanCouvering listening to a presentation.
Hanson ticks off four key ingredients for business success: the ability to think, to communicate your thoughts, to execute your thoughts, and to do it all ethically. “I learned all four of these things at Oberlin—it’s part of the school’s learning and labor motto,” he says. “I learned capital pricing theory and statistics at business school, but I didn’t learn those four things. Especially in an age when companies are looking to outsource even professional jobs, people who know how to think, communicate, and act ethically are still recruited and rewarded.”
Why does Oberlin do this so well? In part, says Hanson, because it’s located in the middle of a “400-acre swamp in Ohio” without distractions that diminish the focus on learning. He also believes that Oberlin encourages a solid work ethic while challenging students—over and over again—to question their value systems and beliefs. For this reason, he’s hired six Oberlin grads over the years, a large number for a small firm.
“Oberlin can be a tremendous pressure cooker, and I hated a lot of moments there,” Hanson says. “But 20 years later, I see the value of it. The best businesses and the best people in business are the ones who get organizations to learn and reinvent themselves. Oberlin is passionate about that kind of learning—not just the transfer of information or formulas, but the ability to think and absorb and do something different with the information.”
But however valuable a liberal arts background is to business, students from a school like Oberlin are not likely to waltz into a corporate job straight from the commencement stage. For one thing, says Kohl, competition for entry-level corporate jobs is fierce, and Oberlin students are often left out of the earliest heats: corporate recruiters don’t bother to visit small liberal arts colleges when they can maximize their efforts at universities where hundreds of students line up to interview. When Oberlin grads do land interviews, they can be hampered by their business ignorance—even an employer with an Oberlin bias will prefer a new hire with basic business skills—and also by their poor understanding of what exactly the job entails.
“We get the best and the brightest from every school in the country interviewing here,” says Chris Wofford ’87, a managing director at Bear Stearns & Company in Manhattan. “They’re really talented people who not only have intellect and general smarts, they’ve also had some on-the-job training and know what it’s like to be an analyst at an investment bank. On their intellectual merits alone, Oberlin students won’t measure up without first developing an in-depth understanding of what it is they are applying for. That involves researching the firm and talking to people who do the job.”
That’s no news to Oberlin. When the Business Initiatives Program evolved into a broader internship initiative in 2000, the Career Services staff began brainstorming ways to fill the gap. “There have always been Oberlin students interested in entering the business world,” Betz says. “But one of the problems has been getting them to explore this option early enough in college so they can get the highly competitive internships and jobs later on.”
The Business Scholars Program not only offers students a rich, useful set of business skills, it also connects them to the collective wisdom of alumni who have already made their mark. Indirectly, the program has strengthened ties among the alumni themselves, too: at the networking events set up for the scholars in New York, alums who hadn’t seen each other in years—and who don’t often attend Oberlin functions—were surprised and delighted to find other Obies in the private sector. “Those of us in the finance world realized there are more of us than we thought,” says Kohl.
Most important, the program is succeeding. Of this first crop of scholars, all 12 landed full-time jobs or summer internships in the business sector. Among them was graduating senior Evelyne White-D’Amico, who planned initially to major in environmental studies and harp performance, but then developed an interest in public policy that led her to David Cleeton’s class in financial management. (She’d heard it was a practical class that taught about calculating a mortgage and handling student loans.) After connecting with an alum at one of the New York networking events, she successfully pursued a job as an analyst at Bear Stearns. Although some of her friends don’t quite understand her attraction to investment banking—or know what it is—most applaud both her ambition and the fact that a program was developed to help her succeed.
“Bear Stearns said there was no doubt I could learn everything I needed to know—how to crunch numbers, enter data, etc.—during my training period. But they can’t teach me everything I’ve learned in the past four years,” she says. “Does the business world need people from Oberlin? Absolutely. And I think there’s a large contingent of the student body that’s excited about opening these doors wider.”