A week ago, Brian Chesky, CEO/ Founder of Airbnb, amusingly posted the rejection letters he had received to initially fund his startup after he had met with investors in Silicon Valley on his blog long before his startup became valued at $25 billion.
It tells a very interesting story: VCs who are probably hitting themselves on the head now for not seeing the future of open e-Commerce real estate rental platforms. Perhaps there were even some prejudice there of Chesky's liberal arts education. Hype has always existed about Founders who are Engineers, and even Y Combinator will only accept candidates who are primarily engineers and developers, but the reality is that in recent history, the most iconic Founders and heads of companies often have liberal arts degrees.
An Incomplete List
Chad Hurley, Founder CEO YouTube (BA Fine Art, Indiana University)
Brian Chesky, Founder CEO Airbnb (BFA Industrial Design, Rhode Island School of Design)
Stewart Butterfield, Founder CEO Flickr and Slack (BA Philosophy, University of Victoria, M.Phil Philosophy, University of Cambridge)
Mark Zuckerberg, Founder CEO Facebook (Psychology Major at Harvard who also liked Greek and Latin before dropping out)
Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook (AB Economics, Harvard University)
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs (AB, History, Harvard University)
Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase CEO (BA Psychology and Economics, Tufts University)
Starbucks founders, who were all friends at the University of San Francisco- Gordon Bowker (BA, Literature), Jerry Baldwin (BA Literature) and Zev Siegel (BA History) were all writers/teachers
Steve Ells, Founder CEO Chipotle (BA Art History, University of Colorado, Boulder)
Jack Ma, Founder/Chairman Alibaba (English language- was a teacher) who convinced his students to become Co-Founders of his company. Rejected by all of VCs in the US until he came back to launch the biggest IPO ever in US history
Chris Morton, Founder CEO Lyst (MA Philosophy from Uni of Cambridge)
And even Evan Spiegel, Founder CEO Snapchat (Design Major at Stanford before dropping out)
Sheryl Sandberg has said that the modern career trajectory is not a corporate ladder but a jungle gym and we have to wear many different hats and be able to do different functions. In a similar vein, Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief at Vogue Magazine, talks about the problem with specialisation, and becoming quickly outdated in her address to the Oxford Union earlier this year.
My personal experience with many Engineers or Maths majors (not all of course as there are many brilliant exceptions) is that more often than not, they do not possess the kind of noblesse oblige nor a moral compass necessary to lead a company. They mainly function in an insular dog-eat-dog world and that is not good for business, which is primarily built on a system of trust. If you don't trust someone, if someone can't honour contracts or simple verbal agreements, you won't go that extra mile for someone and you won't want to work with them. It's really that simple.
In Silicon Valley, many software developers often have an air of arrogance and dreams of being famous billionaires and retiring on a private island with supermodels, but ultimately, not the least bit interested in solving the world's problems nor any complex problem. The current US government has created an atmosphere that deifies software developers and engineering majors, hoping to encourage more students to major in STEM education. Certainly, STEM is important- however, I wonder if we might not be propagating a society of idiot savants in era of specialisation?
When I first started talking to my CTO, Sam Keays, we had to solve a problem regarding user privacy. His response was so different from the developers in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles I had encountered (who certainly would've never thought that it was important to abide by a moral code nor to honour users rather than exploit them for profit). In Silicon Valley, the mottos: "That's just the way the world is," "Kill before being eaten" and other such mainstream solipsism-derived thinking could often be heard echoing through the halls of different start-ups. However, Sam came to me and told me it was the utmost importance that we do not exploit our potential users and to create an environment where their personal data is completely safe. Sam tends to be on the quieter side, so I was a bit surprised that he had taken an important moral stance against solving a complex problem.
Sam also taught himself how to speak Esperanto, and received a first class degree in History and Political Science before he did his MA in Computer Science in the UK. The great thing about a UK education is that those very qualities: critical thinking, analysis, understanding of a wider scope of vision, integration of contradicting views, is what makes UK education the very best in the world.
That's why a liberal arts education is important. When was the last time a specialist engineer or software developer solved an important societal problem? Instead, if we look at a few representative sample of engineers/ developers who have been CEOs we most often, do not have Google or Microsoft (which were the outliers) we often have abject debacles:
Homejoy- founded by two engineer siblings. A lot of their users were discovered to be homeless people, and instead of creating a platform that solves the homeless problem in San Francisco and abroad, they mercilessly tried to pay them less than minimum wage until they were taken down by multiple lawsuits
(As a bit of digression, I had great hopes for HomeJoy, hoping that it would follow a path similar to Dr. Mimi Silbert's Delancey Street Foundation. She has a criminology degree from UC Berkeley and founded the Delancey Street Restaurant in San Francisco that employs former criminals, drug addicts and convicts. She envisioned a place where substance abusers, former felons and others who had hit bottom would, through their own efforts, be able to turn their lives around. I only know of this restaurant because I used to have brunch there all the time, not realising the people who were serving me were reformed criminals until an entrepreneur friend told me about it. Delancey Street Foundation is a hugely successful, award winning non-profit and the restaurant is very popular with SF's technocratic class, similar to what Jamie Oliver did with Fifteen Restaurant in Hackney, by training and employing at risk youth who were former drug addicts.)
Clinkle, Founder CEO Lucas Duplan (BS Computer Science, Stanford) He is an infamous founder who had often posted photos of himself posing with loads of cash on social media. Treated his employees like navy seals in torture camp. We might be able to forgive him for being young and inexperienced. Hopefully, he'll do better in his next startup.
Secret, Founded by two former Google employees, engineer David Byttow, and product manager Chrys Bader, with the former returning his Ferrari and investor money after the startup raised more than $25 million just a couple of months after it raised $8.6 million in Series A, and then failed.
There are many more examples such as these above, but I think it's worth it to note that they are not the exceptions, but the norm in Silicon Valley.
In fact, more than 90% of Y Combinator's entire net worth is based on 2 startups alone in their entire 10 year history: Dropbox and Airbnb. Out of the hundreds of failures, they have supported exactly 13 winning startups with a valuation of more than 1 billion. 93% of the companies that get accepted by Y Combinator eventually fail.
That is something to think about because contrary to popular media opinion, engineers do not rule the world. At least, engineers who have not been exposed to a liberal arts education, perhaps because they cannot understand concepts and ideas beyond their own specialisation. When we examine the the kind of Founders and Entrepreneurs that have often changed our society, most often than not, they had all studied the liberal arts.
Doing the right thing isn't about idealism, it's about a triple bottom line- when society is able to invest in the very people who are often disenfranchised or ignored by society; care for our environment and increase social value.
That is one of the reasons why I think Brian Chesky is one of the iconic Founders and Entrepreneurs of our generation. He had a choice in Airbnb's early days; if they were going to pay reparations for a user's much publicised trashed apartment, and what did he do? Lawyers and everyone else advised him against admitting guilt in the share-economy, because then Airbnb would be liable to pay damages. But he did what he felt was the right thing to do, which was to apologise for what had happened to that particular user, and then completely compensated her for all damages. Then he integrated (what is now) a $1 million insurance policy for each incident to protect the users who are listing their homes and flats on Airbnb, and that created collective trust within his startup amongst the people who were using his platform, and Airbnb continued to flourish. Brian Chesky is someone who is motivated by that double/triple bottom line. He is more than an entrepreneur, he is a philanthopist and humanist. He cares about his users, cares about his employees and does not see them as disposable methods for short-term profit.
When I think of which startups I want to work with, I always ask myself, which Founders understand the human condition?
Those are always the Founders to invest in long-term.
By Sierra Choi, Director of Marketing