Liberal Arts Means Business

February 6, 2015
Amanda Nagy
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A common thread among the 11 students selected for Oberlin’s Business Scholars program—a winter term intensive in the fields of finance, consulting, and investment banking—is that they usually come from backgrounds that have little to no exposure to traditional business.

Second-year student Claire Coleman comes from a family rooted in government and public service. She developed an interest in Central and Eastern European studies during a gap year studying in Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia. It was during that year taking classes in Slovak that she became nearly fluent in the language.

Fourth-year student Simba Runyowa, a native of Harare, Zimbabwe, is studying global governance, human rights, and economic development with a focus on developing countries. A politics major, he is also passionate about French language and culture.

This year’s class of Business Scholars represents a full spectrum of the liberal arts dynamic, with five international students, proficiency in 12 different languages, and a range of majors and concentrations that includes East Asian studies, environmental studies, gender, sexuality and feminist studies, and studio art. Coleman and Runyowa came to the program with different ambitions and personality types—when participants were asked to take the Briggs Myers personality test, Coleman identified as an extrovert, while Runyowa was the lone introvert of the group—yet they both share qualities essential to succeed in any business: motivation, curiosity, and the willingness to stretch their abilities.

Now in its 13th year, Business Scholars is a monthlong exposure to the inner workings of mergers and acquisitions, hedge funds, and venture capital, as well as more general topics of accounting, consulting, and public relations. The program takes students to three cities and site visits with Oberlin alumni in the private sector, where they hear presentations and participate in intensive workshops. This year’s program placed the scholars in Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley.

The theme of ethics and values resonated with Coleman and Runyowa, as both found inspiration in a session led by Victor Hymes ’79, CEO and chief investment officer of Legato Capital Management LLC in San Francisco.

“One of the most interesting things he talked about was defining our ethics and principles now, before we become career professionals, so that when we have to make tough decisions, we will be more able to choose correctly,” says Coleman, who is pursuing Russian and Eastern European studies and economics. “Throughout many of the later sessions, presenters continued to talk about values, principles, and ethics in business. I know many people expect business to be at odds with Oberlin's values, but this program showed me many of the ways that people combine successful careers with strong principles.”

Another part of Hymes’ message made a distinct impression on Runyowa. “He said you have to match your native abilities, aptitudes, and sensibilities to your job function. His idea was that if you don’t match up who you are—that is, the unique qualities that shape you as a person—with the mechanics of your job, then you can’t optimize your happiness, personally and professionally. I thought that was a powerful and transcendent concept.”

In addition to meeting with firms in more traditional fields such as finance and advertising, the Business Scholars group also met with leaders in nonprofits, social enterprises, startups, and major tech firms such as Google and Facebook.

“Even within the ‘traditional’ fields, we got to see how many firms are engaging in socially and environmentally focused investing, community support and outreach, and other ways of impacting the world in a positive way,” says Coleman, who is from Davis, California. She’s now working on securing a summer internship to explore one of the industries she is considering.

“I didn't find the one path to follow; instead, I discovered some of the different industries and careers in which I could be both happy and successful,” she says. “I have a better understanding of the many options available to me, and I now know what I can do to begin reaching those goals. On a more personal level, I learned how I work under pressure (and little sleep), and that I use not only intuition but also numerical and analytical analysis to solve problems.”

Throughout the program, Runyowa discovered that he has much more to offer the business world than he previously thought. “Even though I’m not majoring in economics, my liberal arts background gives me an edge in terms of thinking outside the box when it comes to problem solving.” He says he plans to pursue a master’s degree in public policy, focusing on economic development. His ultimate goal is to return to his home country of Zimbabwe to start a social enterprise in broadcast media. “I learned it’s not really about what you studied, but about how you leverage your innate strengths and aptitudes to help you advance to the next level.”

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