Oberlin Blogs

Liberal Arts Meets Big Business

May 10, 2009

Daniel Tam-Claiborne ’09

As the semester draws to a close, even as some things wind down, others seem all too eager to spring up in their place. This past week was our last week of classes (and indeed my last week of classes at Oberlin ever!), and it's bittersweet to think that what felt at the beginning of February like a limitless fount is now all but tapped out. But the receding tide of classes still leaves the gruff sediment known as reading period, and a frantic three days of researching, studying, and paper writing before the start of finals week. It would be easy to write off these days as little more than studying too--in typical Oberlin fashion, there are tons of events and opportunities to lay caution (and end-of-year responsibilities) to the wind. Theatrical productions, speakers, last-minute meetings, senior shows, recitals, and performances, community barbeques, and those indelible goodbyes seem to pervade time that was previously spent listening and taking notes. For seniors in particular, there seems to be no shortage of senioritis prescriptions in the once-daily invitations to final meals with academic departments, various student groups or programs, and not to mention employers.

For this last week of classes also meant my last week of working, or at least the sort of work that earns me a paycheck. Aside from blogging, I hold two other jobs on campus. The first is as a Bonner Scholar, which, though I commented on briefly in my post on Kentucky, I will actually be elaborating on soon. The second is as a Peer Career Advisor in the Office of Career Services. I mentioned it way back in my very first post, but, to recap, the job basically entails being a resource for students who need any kind of career-related support. That usually manifests itself in helping to draft and fine-tune resumes and cover letters, but it has also meant aiding in job searches using Oberlin's online career databases, registering students with our extensive alumni network ObieWeb, looking over grad school and fellowship application materials, and basically attempting to answer the question all too often posed by frenetic seniors, "What am I going to do with my life?" Rather than actually answer the question, I try to pose some hypotheticals based on a person's interests and ideal regional location after graduation, which in most cases avails me of the responsibility of actually administering any direct course of action.

The reason I'm so hesitant to make suggestions about other people's post-grad plans is because I'm right there with them--armed with entirely too many dreams, hopeless optimism, and, by the end of the day, still ultimately clueless. But, all these things aside, I took the job because dispensing advice is something that I really enjoy doing. It's so fulfilling to see someone weeks after coming in to see me during drop-in office hours let me know that they got the summer internship or funding grant that I helped them apply for. Needless to say, I've also come to have a distinct fondness for resumes themselves, thoroughly relishing the process of parsing apart the smallest details from font style to line spacing to margin width, all while being endlessly impressed by the varied and accomplished things that Oberlin students have done here and elsewhere. Working in the office has also introduced me to the wide array of programming that Career Services puts on, as well as given me the inside scoop on job openings and other opportunities. It didn't hurt my chances that in the Winter Term before applying for the job, I had worked with almost the entire Career Services staff in the context of the Entrepreneurship Scholars program.

A little-known gem of the Winter Term experience, Oberlin Connect (the umbrella title for experiential Winter Term projects) was one of the highlights of my junior year, though, admittedly, I stumbled upon it in a roundabout way. Finishing off my fall semester abroad in Osaka, Japan, I knew that I wanted to be at Oberlin during Winter Term, a choice many avoid because of horror stories about snow, blizzards, and temperatures below freezing. I too had consciously dismissed the possibility of staying on campus the previous two years, but four months and thousands of miles made Oberlin all the more desirable a place to be in spite of the January weather. I also knew that I wanted to travel, and after hearing the then-new Kanye West single "Homecoming," the notion of visiting Chicago, a city I had never previously been, became less a passing whim than a driving mission. And so it transpired that despite any of its actual substance, the Entrepreneurship Scholars program, combining a majority of time in Oberlin, coupled with trips to New York, Washington D.C., Cleveland, and indeed Chicago, became my top choice for Winter Term 2008.

Four of the six Entrepreneurship Scholars showing Ohio pride at the National WWII Memorial in Washington D.C.

As I read on and began the application process, I learned that the program itself was not only extremely interesting, but also incredibly relevant. According to the website, the program sets out to "provide students with a vital experiential opportunity to explore entrepreneurship and begin building a foundation of the practical skills essential to planning and launching a venture. In the spirit of the Creativity and Leadership Project it will provide students with a global, practical, and socially responsible perspective on entrepreneurship." Though you may not guess it from my choice of majors, entrepreneurship has actually factored greatly in my youth.

In elementary school, a friend and I, sharing a mutual infatuation with the paper craft, sold origami racecars to 5th-grade classmates. As business picked up, we began to hold races where participants paid an entrance fee to race their origami creations against those of friends, with the winner receiving a sliding scale of prizes from fancy erasers to Spice Girls lollipops that could be traded up in subsequent rounds. In the summer before 9th grade, I participated in the four-week Prep for Prep/Goldman Sachs Foundation Institute for Entrepreneurship (IFE), taught in collaboration with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). The program culminated in my creating a business plan and presenting it in a competition to win seed money for the start-up. My business plan, a runner-up, was for a childcare program that combined both academic and musical instruction for young children during the summer. In high school, due surely to a lack of adequate allowance, I sold cans of soda that I bought in bulk from Costco and kept stored in a portable cooler to students just coming out of gym class. It would follow that a lifetime's worth of amateur experience culminated in my participation in the Entrepreneurship Scholars program.

In its inaugural year, the program was amazingly successful. Structured similarly to the Business Scholars Program (the other component of Oberlin Connect), it had us engaging in discussions, lectures, shadowing, and on-site visits with Oberlin alumni and friends of the College. We spent a significant amount of time learning from alums in all realms of the business world, from investment banking to stock and bond trading to microfinance, as well as from alums who had started their own businesses. In addition to hearing stories about various career paths, we also had workshops and training days with members of Career Services where we learned some of the logistical components to launching a new venture. A lot of these workshops focused on acquiring specific skills, whether they were working through case studies, focusing on presentation and public speaking, or simply gaining more exposure to basic finance and business terminology (most of which I still can't define). Through it all, the so-called "triple bottom line" was strongly emphasized, combining economic profit, social responsibility, and ecological sustainability.

Over the course of the month, we spent a lot of time with the twelve Business Scholars, but some of the best moments were set aside specifically for the six of us. Most of this centered on the trip we took to Washington D.C. as part of the program. There we met with alumni entrepreneurs on opposite ends of the spectrum, among them, one who founded a health care consultancy and another who started a bakery and restaurant. In New York, we got a chance to explore individual interests with a day of shadowing alums in chosen career fields. Having just been to Japan and harboring an interest for global entrepreneurship, I was paired with Daniel Rosenblum, Vice President of the Japan Society, who, like me, majored in East Asian Studies. Using all of these various experiences, we returned to Oberlin and worked in small groups on a final project: developing our own entrepreneurial venture and business model. We were seated with the task of creating a not-for-profit, and settled on a company that auctioned off art made by imprisoned youth in Ohio. The money raised through the auctions, we decided, would go towards funding recovery programs and providing seed money for those youth after release to aid in reintroduction.

A Myspace-style rendering of the bathroom of the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. There is indeed a TV set just above the right-hand side of the tub, complete with remote.

Many of the people I met on the program are still some of my closest friends at Oberlin. In fact, we got to know each other so well that we joked about doing each other's introductions every time we met someone new. I have neglected to mention that aside from the more educational and networking benefits of the program, there were also a lot of shallower perks, including free lodging at some of the swankiest hotels I have ever stepped foot in. During our down time at the end of long days of meetings, we also got a chance to explore our new surroundings, especially some of the many historical sites in D.C. I had never before visited. In addition, almost all of the costs of food outside of Oberlin were taken care of, not to mention transportation to and from each city. So who was fronting the bill? The program was subsidized and funded by the generous support of Oberlin alums, some of whom we were able to schmooze with at networking receptions held in Cleveland and New York. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to be invited to attend a special event in Columbus honoring Stewart Kohl '77, one of the principal contributors to the Business and Entrepreneurship Scholars programs.

A group of five Business and Entrepreneurship Scholars packed into a minivan in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon and made the over 2-hour drive down to Columbus for a celebration sponsored by the Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges (OFIC). We were dressed to the nines, sporting suits and ties, and in the midday light must have looked awfully curious, the six of us weaving past friends wearing T-shirts and shorts on the grass of Wilder Bowl. The reception was very well attended, with distinguished guests from all four of the OFIC member colleges whose alumni were being honored. The Oberlin posse included President Krislov and Ben Jones, as well as a small jazz ensemble of Oberlin Conservatory students who performed as part of the program. The event also included a reception (i.e. free wine) and dinner (chicken and filet mignon!), in addition to the actual honoring ceremony of speeches and awards.

All those dining etiquette lessons have finally paid off!

Stewart Kohl gave a rousing account of his days at Oberlin, including a brief interlude about his reasons for choosing to attend Oberlin back in the '70s, as well as how much his Oberlin experience has contributed to his life today. Besides being a successful businessman, he is a huge philanthropist, and is actually funding construction of the new Phyllis Litoff Building, named in honor of one of Kohl's late mentors, which will soon be home to the jazz studies department at Oberlin. According to the website, the building will include "a state-of-the-art recording studio and the largest privately held jazz recording collection in the United States," and "intends to be the first music facility in the world to attain a gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating." After brief photo-ops with Mr. Kohl and the Oberlin gang, we made the harrowing drive back, clocking in at just under eight hours for the whole shebang, ready to start our homework for the night.

Oberlin was the only school to have jazz students perform as part of the program. Most were underclassmen who will directly benefit from the Litoff Building, opening this fall.

Friends and relatives have asked me over the years why Oberlin doesn't have a dedicated business program like other larger colleges. And even at the OFIC event, given that businessmen and women comprised a majority of the guest list, the question was on the tips of guests' tongues. Frankly, it's actually refreshing to me that Oberlin doesn't have a major in Business or Communications or Accounting. To me, students looking for a specialized undergrad business program will find it at other schools, and these majors don't necessarily prepare students with the learning tools necessary for a broad-based business curriculum outside of their specialization. Even without such classes, Oberlin teaches intangibles that are so often utilized in the business world, like critical thinking, strong reasoning, open-mindedness, and a broad worldview, in a liberal arts context that are present in nearly every class in every discipline. Though many of my fellow Scholars were Economics majors, I was glad that even coming from a background in Creative Writing, I was able to pursue an interest in business at Oberlin without in some way feeling cast out. Thanks to generous funding, Oberlin is now part of the Northeast Ohio Collegiate Entrepreneurship Program (NEOCEP) and has greatly expanded its Creativity and Leadership Project, making waves on campus.

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