As college graduates from the Class of 2014 go off into the real world, they are walking into an ominous job market. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors are in big demand. But what about everyone else? But many CEOs have spun their surprising undergraduate degrees into springboards for successful careers. Here are a few of those stories.
Company: American Express (AXP), CEO
Degree: History at Bowdoin College
Ken Chenault, one of the first African-Americans to head a Fortune 500 company when he became CEO of American Express in 2001, started impressing early in his academic career. As the class president of his Long Island high school, the New York-native first attended Springfield College on an athletic scholarship. But, he later moved to Bowdoin College for its strong liberal arts program and earned a history degree.
Company: Sherwin-Williams (SHW), CEO
Degree: Sociology at Ohio State University
Christopher Connor, who has led Sherwin-Williams Company since 1999, said his experience studying sociology at Ohio State University directly fed his passion for business, marketing and leadership.
In an interview in 2007, Connor praised the opportunity to study a vast number of subjects. “I found a liberal arts education and studying philosophy, sociology and psychology was really energizing,” he said. “In so many ways, it’s what business is all about — understanding the needs of your employees and customers.”
Company: Dell, CEO and founder
Degree: Incomplete, Pre-med at the University of Texas at Austin
Unlike the other CEOs on this list who graduated from schools with at least a B.A., Michael Dell took a circuitous route before starting Dell. Hailing from a family of doctors, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin where he majored in pre-med and biology. But as his business acumen overtook his desire for a college degree, things changed. In an interview with USA Today, Dell recounted his rocky road to becoming one of the most powerful men in tech. “My parents weren’t very happy when I decided to drop out of college,” he said. “I majored in biology but as a freshman got very excited about computers. I just saw an incredible opportunity in the business.” And that was that.
Company: Hewlett-Packard (HP), former CEO
Degrees: Medieval History and philosophy at Stanford University
Ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina grabbed two degrees at Stanford University and those studies proved to be part of a winding path to success. While at Stanford, she worked in a hair salon and as a secretary. After stints at UCLA’s School of Law for a semester and as a receptionist, Fiorina collected an MBA in marketing from the University of Maryland, College Park and a master’s in management from MIT. “Only in America could a medieval history student, a law-school dropout and a full-time receptionist rise to become the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world,” she once said.
Company: The Walt Disney Company (DIS), CEO
Degree: Communications at Ithaca College
Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger and finished his undergraduate studies as magna cum laude at Ithaca College as a communication major specializing in television and radio. His next stop? Working as weatherman for a television station in the area. But Iger quickly moved up the ranks in the media industry, in part because of his undergraduate studies. He was an executive at ABC before taking charge of Disney in 1999.
Denise M. Morrison
Company: Campbell Soup Company (CPB), CEO
Degrees: Economics and psychology at Boston College
Psychology majors, like their English literature counterparts, sometimes get a bad reputation. But Denise Morrison is a prime example of a woman who made the most of her dual-degree, along with a B.S. in economics from Boston College. As a magna cum laude graduate, the New Jersey-native started in the food industry, where she’s remained for over three decades. Named one of the most powerful women by Fortune Magazine, Morrison is Campbell’s twelfth leader since its founding more than 140 years ago. She became President and CEO of Campbell in 2011.
Company: Blackstone Group (BX), CEO and co-founder
Degree: Interdisciplinary studies at Yale University
Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone Group, started at Yale a year after George W. Bush and, like Bush, joined the secret Skull and Bones society. In a 1999 interview, Schwarzman talked about his decision to major in interdisciplinary studies, a relatively unknown degree at that time. “Remember, this was the 1960s, when everything was touchy-feeling,” he said. “I was in an interdisciplinary major — which was a new thing then — which was psychology, sociology, anthropology and biology, which is really sort of the study of the human being.” He graduated in 1969 and finished up at Harvard Business School three years later. Schwarzman next started a career in investment banking and co-founded Blackstone Group in 1985.