30 People With 'Soft' College Majors Who Became Extremely Successful

Wednesday, April 18, 2018 - 15:55

Carolyn Cutrone and Max Nisen
Dec. 18, 2012, 2:55 PM

Recently, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said that he believed in the value of college, but mostly for math-based majors like engineering, rather than "softer stuff," like English.

"I'm sure it's fun, but the average college graduate with a degree in something like English is going to end up working in a shoe store," he said.

There are many exceptions to that idea. People who have majored in English, sociology, history, and everything in between have been hugely successful in business, government, and technology.

Some went on to earn higher degrees, while others started out at the bottom rungs of their companies, as copywriters and sales representatives, before rising all the way to the top.

Here are 30 people who prove that success is about the person, not the major. 

Mitt Romney, Bain Capital CEO and English major at Brigham Young University

Mitt Romney acquired a multimillion dollar fortune running private equity firm Bain Capital. His success in business was a popular selling point during his 2012 presidential campaign.

But he didn't get that background from an undergraduate degree. He actually graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.A. in English before going on to Harvard to get his MBA and J.D. 

Peter Thiel, 20th century philosophy major at Stanford University

Thiel was the co-founder and CEO of PayPal. He currently serves as president of Clarium Capital, and as a managing partner at venture capital firm, the Founder's Fund. He was the first outside investor in Facebook.

Despite his well-publicized criticism of higher education, Thiel got his undergraduate degree in 20th Century Philosophy at Stanford in 1989, and a law degree in 1992. His pronounced libertarian streak came out at the school, and he co-founded the conservative/libertarian Stanford Review newspaper in 1987.

Carly Fiorina, Ex-HP CEO and medieval history and philosophy major at Stanford University

Carly Fiorina was president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Company from 1999 to 2005 and served as chairman of the board from 2000 to 2005.

In addition to her undergraduate history and philosophy degree, which she earned in 1976, she holds an MBA from the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, and an M.S. in Business from MIT's Sloan School.

Ken Chenault, CEO at American Express and history major at Bowdoin College

Chenault has been the CEO and Chairman of American Express since 2001, and is a director at IBM.

His major informed his beliefs and career choices. In an interview with Bowdoin Magazine, he said: "I was a history major at Bowdoin and as I looked at different movements in different stages in history, it was clear to me that it was important to have some segments of any particular group work within the system. These people could bring an enlightened view or a different set of perspectives. I thought to work totally outside the system was destructive and counter-productive in the long term."

Carl Icahn, activist investor and philosophy major at Princeton University

Icahn is the chairman of Icahn Enterprises and is one of the most well-known and aggressive activist investors of our time, buying and eventually folding Trans World Airlines, and more recently trying to take over Netflix.

His philosophy thesis for his 1957 degree was titled ''The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning.'' He went to NYU's Medical School, but dropped out without graduating.

Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs with a Master's in English literature from Duke University

Eric Shinseki is a retired U.S. Army four star general and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

He attended West Point as an undergraduate but earned a Masters in English Literature from Duke University, and went on to teach English at his Alma Mater for two years.

Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO and double major In English and theatre at Denison University

Eisner was the CEO of the Walt Disney Company for over 20 years, from 1984 to 2005. He didn't take a single business course at school. He studied English literature and theatre as an undergrad and now urges his three sons to study English too.

He defended his liberal arts education in an article published by USA Today saying, "Literature is unbelievably helpful, because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships," Eisner wrote. "It gives you an appreciation of what makes people tick."

Hank Paulson, Former Treasury Secretary and English major at Dartmouth College

Hank Paulson was the CEO of Goldman Sachs before he left to become Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush in 2006.

He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1968 where he studied English, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and an All East football player. Later, he went on to earn an MBA from Harvard.

Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO and government major at Harvard University

Blankfein has been the CEO of Goldman Sachs since 2006. He grew up in public housing in Brooklyn, and eventually made it to Harvard. He was a government major there, but by all accounts not a particularly committed one as he didn't write a thesis like many of his peers. His roommate recounts time spent procrastinating by watching Star Trek.

Blankfein went on to attend Harvard's law school, and worked at a law firm, but had a "pre-life crisis," abandoned the partner track, and went on to rise at Goldman.

Sheila Bair, FDIC Chair and philosophy major at the University Of Kansas

Until last summer, Bair served as the Chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, having been appointed by George W. Bush in 2005. She helped prevent the financial system from collapsing in 2008. She's since written a book, "Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself." She's also tapped as a possible, if unlikely, replacement for Tim Geithner.

Bair received her B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Kansas and later got a J.D. from the same school.

Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice and English major at Holy Cross College

Clarence Thomas was nominated and confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice during George Bush Senior's presidency, succeeding Thurgood Marshall.

Thomas studied at Holy Cross College, majoring in English and took an role in many social causes on campus, including protesting the Vietnam War and campaigning for Civil Rights. He went to Holy Cross after dropping out of a seminary in Missouri following the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate in medicine and English major at Amherst College

Dr. Varmus is a Nobel Laureate in medicine and former Director of the National Institute of Health. He currently directs the National Cancer Institute.

Before going on to win the Nobel Prize, Varmus majored in English at Amherst College and went on to Harvard where he earned a masters in the same. After that he changed career paths and entered Columbia's medical school.

George Soros, hedge fund manager and philosophy major at the London School of Economics

Soros, the Chairman of Soros Fund Management, is one of the most successful hedge fund managers of all time. He's particularly well known for a 1992 bet against the pound which earned him the nickname, "the man who broke the Bank Of England."

While studying under renowned philosopher Karl Popper, Soros worked as a railway porter and a waiter to pay his tuition.

Ted Turner, CNN founder and classics major at Brown University

Turner is the founder of CNN and TBS, and a noted philanthropist. In 1976, Turner's company used satellites to dramatically increase its reach.

Although he went on to become a billionaire, Turner's father was furious with him for choosing to study Classics and wrote a famous letter in which he stated, "I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on the way home today."

Anne Mulcahy, former Xerox CEO and English and journalism major at Marymount College

Mulcahy served as CEO and Chairwoman of Xerox from 2001 through 2009. She started out in the company as a Field Sales Representative in 1976, two years after earning her B.A. in English and Journalism from Marymount College in Maryland.

She gave the final commencement speech at her alma matter, a women's liberal arts college, before it merged with the larger Fordham University.

Richard Anderson, CEO at Delta and political science major at the University of Houston

Richard Anderson has been the CEO of Delta Air Lines since 2008. He started at the bottom rung of the legal department at Continental Airlines, knowing nothing about the industry. His handling of a 1987 plane crash helped send him up the corporate ladder.

Anderson earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Houston and then went on to earn a law degree from South Texas College of Law.

Brian Moynihan, Bank of America's CEO and history major at Brown University

Brian Moynihan has been the Director, President and CEO of Bank of America since January 2010.

Moynihan majored in history at Brown University, then earned his J.D. from Notre Dame. At Brown, Moynihan played Rugby and won the Ivy League championship in his junior year. Jay Fluck '65, Moynihan's former coach, said he wasn't surprised by Moynihan's successes.

"He probably understood the game as well or better than most," Fluck said. "He was one of the leaders of the club; he had the respect of all his teammates."

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock and political science major at Duke University

Larry Fink is the Cofounder and CEO of BlackRock, an investment firm.

He studied political science at Duke University and then received his MBA at UCLA.

Fink's firm oversees one of the world's largest asset managers and the government used his firm as an advisor during the financial crisis to value billions of dollars of real estate assets.

Sam Palmisano, former IBM CEO and history major at John's Hopkins University

Sam Palmisano is the former CEO of IBM, having stepped down earlier this year. He played a critical role in revitalizing the company.

He went to John's Hopkins where he studied history and was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, where his fraternity brothers nicknamed him Baloo, after the bear in "The Jungle Book." He was also a co-captain of the football team.

Andrea Jung, former Avon CEO and English literature major at Princeton University

Jung is the former CEO of Avon, the world's biggest door-to-door cosmetics seller. She stepped down in late 2011.

She studied English literature at Princeton University and graduated magna cum laude in 1979. After graduation, she joined an executive training program for Bloomingdale's in New York through Cincinnati's Federated Department Store's Inc.

A.G. Lafley, former Proctor and Gamble CEO and French and history major at Hamilton College

Lafley was the CEO of consumer goods company Proctor and Gamble from 2000-2009. He is widely credited with turning the company around.

He earned his B.A. in French and history from Hamilton in 1969, and briefly attended a doctoral program in the same area of study at the University of Virginia before dropping out and serving in the Navy. Lafley earned an MBA at Harvard before starting at Proctor and Gamble, where he spent his entire career. He recently wrote on op-ed in the Huffington Post arguing for the benefits of a liberal arts education.

Dan Hesse, Sprint Nextel CEO and government and international relations major at Notre Dame University

Hesse has been the CEO of Sprint Nextel since the end of 2007, also appearing as spokesman in a series of ads for the company.

He started out as a 23-year-old intern at AT&T and rose to run the company's wireless division. Hesse graduated from Notre Dame with a Bachelor's degree in Government and International relations in 1975, followed by an MBA at Cornell.

Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone Group CEO and interdisciplinary major at Yale University

Schwarzman co-founded the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, in 1985, after heading Lehman Brothers' mergers and acquisitions team.

He graduated from Yale in 1969, with an interdisciplinary major, which he described as incorporating "psychology, sociology, anthropology and biology, which is really sort of the study of the human being." He was one year ahead of George W. Bush. Both were members of the Skull and Bones society, and the two remained close. He received an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1972.

Judy McGrath, ex-MTV CEO and English major at Cedar Crest College

McGrath was the chairwoman and CEO of MTV from 2004 to the summer of 2011. She oversaw a period of great success for the company's networks, which include Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, in part due to shows like "Jersey Shore," "Spongebob Squarepants," and "The Daily Show."

She started out as a copywriter at the network in 1981, just as it started. She got her B.A. in English from Cedar Crest College, near her home town of Scranton, PA in 1974.

Mario Cuomo, former Governor of New York and English major at St. John's University

Cuomo served as the 52nd Governor of New York, and his son, Andrew Cuomo, is the current governor of the state.

Cuomo earned a B.A. in English from St. John's in 1953, took some time off to play minor league baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, then graduated first in his class from St. John's law school in 1956.

Robert Gates, ex-Secretary of Defense and history major at the College of William and Mary

Gates served as Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He is currently chancellor of his alma mater, William and Mary.

In college, Gates was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, and active in the College Republicans. He went on to get a masters in History from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in the same from Georgetown. His thesis was "Soviet Sinology: An Untapped Source for Kremlin Views and Disputes Relating to Contemporary Events in China."

Jerry Brown, Governor of California and classics major at UC Berkeley

Brown has been Governor of California twice, from 1975 to 1983, and from 2011 to the present. His father was also a former Governor of the state.

He started out at Santa Clara University, before moving to Sacred Heart Novitiate with the intent of becoming a Catholic priest. After a year he transferred to Berkeley where he majored in classics. He later earned his law degree at Yale.

Robert Iger, CEO of Disney and communications major at Ithaca College

Iger took over as Chairman and CEO of Disney from Michael Eisner after a well-publicized shakeup by Roy E. Disney. He recently spearheaded the acquisition of Lucasfilm.

He graduated magna cum laude from Ithaca College's Roy H. Park School of Communications with a B.S. in Television and Radio. He started as a weatherman at a local TV station, and went on to rise through the ranks at ABC, which was eventually bought by Disney.

Christopher Connor, Sherwin Williams CEO and sociology major at Ohio State University

Connor has been the CEO of the Fortune 500 building materials company since 1999, and became Chairman in 2000. He started out not in strategic planning or finance, but as the director of advertising for the company's paint stores group in 1983.

He earned his B.A. in sociology from Ohio State University in 1978.

Herbert Allison Jr., ex-Fannie Mae CEO and philosophy major at Yale University

Herbert Allison Jr. rose through the ranks at Merrill Lynch, eventually becoming Chief Operating Officer. He left the company in mid 1999 and went on to serve as CEO of Fannie Mae, and to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief program.

He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Yale, served 4 years in the Navy, then got his M.B.A. from Stanford. 


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