Here's why an education in the liberal arts is the key to our technological future.
21 Jun, 2018TECHINASIA.COM
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The following is an abridged excerpt from The Fuzzy and the Techie, authored by Scott Hartley, a leading venture capitalist and global startup adviser who has worked at Google, Facebook, and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. The excerpt is published courtesy of Penguin Random House.
Shoaib Makani, with his Bollywood good looks and broad smile, was working for an Indian billionaire, helping him invest in the latest technology start-ups, when he quit his plush job to start his own technology company focused on delivery trucks. He didn’t have experience as a technologist or in driving a truck, but he’d observed the evolution of efficient marketplaces that used technology, and he’d gained an appreciation for logistics.
A Pakistani-American, Shoaib grew up in Texas, studied government at the London School of Economics in England, and began his career working at a mobile ad-tech company called AdMob in Silicon Valley. Through a stroke of good fortune, Google had acquired AdMob, and Shoaib soon found himself on the investment team of the opinionated Indian billionaire and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Vinod Khosla.
Though he had a degree in political science, Shoaib was the one evaluating the technology of hundreds of founders, and he soon began to form his own opinion on what really made a great business. The tech was important, but it wasn’t everything. He had something not all people are born with: grit, passion and an ability to sell his vision, and he learned that he could easily hire those who could build the tech.
Shoaib left the investment world to found KeepTruckin’, a service that allows truck drivers to electronically manage their logs of when and where they deliver goods. Along with his brother-in-law, Obaid Khan, whose family had emigrated from Islamabad and Karachi in the 1970s, they had been in search of a good business. Obaid had an “aha” moment when sitting in a filthy truck, having a conversation with its driver.
As the driver complained about his job, and a new federal requirement mandated by then president Barack Obama, Obaid remembers how “a light bulb went off to make him realize that this was an opportunity”. KeepTruckin’ uses a mobile phone application to allow truck drivers to update their duty status, and comply with hours of service regulations for commercial drivers.
Shoaib and Obaid are both “fuzzies”, students of political science and government, who came from broad liberal arts backgrounds, whose non-linear approach to starting a company is by far the norm rather than the exception. Shoaib had become a domain expert in marketplaces, and he observed trends and efficiencies in advertising technology that he thought could be applied to electronic freight and logistics.Shoaib might be an unlikely character to be at the helm, but it was exactly his liberal arts prowess that set him up to succeed
As one of the world’s largest industries is on the cusp of change, Shoaib might be an unlikely character to be at the helm, but it was exactly his liberal arts prowess that set him up to succeed. He saw the big picture, knew how to study a market and ask the big questions, learn the nuance of government regulation, and sell his vision through charisma, communication, collaboration, and a strong sense of empathy.
He was able to identify a market need because he had talked with hundreds of people, and learned their pain points. He had a deep sense of empathy for who they were and what they needed.
While Tesla and Mercedes are debuting expensive driverless trucks, this transition away from old durable goods will take decades, and in the interim, the winners will be the Shoaibs and Obaids of the world.
These are the people who don’t blindly believe the hype that “the robots are coming,” nor are they intimidated by engaging with new-found technology, but they are also the ones who see its broader purpose in helping solve problems that are deeply human. The biggest problems are those that require seeing the big picture, having a strong sense of values and purpose, and empathizing with others.
Today KeepTruckin’ has raised over $50 million at a half-billion dollar valuation, and has over 300 employees in Pakistan.
Across the world, a young woman named Katelyn Gleason is creating her own opportunities as the CEO of Eligible, an innovative healthcare technology business she founded when she was twenty-six years old.
Before she decided to start the company, Katelyn had limited expertise in healthcare or in technology, and in college she certainly did not anticipate that she would become an entrepreneur, let alone a tech entrepreneur.
She was a theater arts major. After graduating in 2008, she pursued an acting career for several years, but jobs proved elusive. She credits her acting experience with contributing significantly to her social skills, confidence, and talent for sales, which were all instrumental in launching Eligible.
In fact, Katelyn became a health-tech entrepreneur by chance. She could have been a poster child for the argument against a liberal arts education made so often in recent years—that it doesn’t prepare students for the jobs the economy needs filled. Indeed, once she determined that acting might not work out and that she should search for other work, she had no clear idea what kind of job she should look for. But she did know she was good at sales.
Katelyn says that her acting experience taught her to be persuasive in sales pitches, and to deal with the emotional impact of people telling her no again and again. Acting taught her how to quiet her self-doubt and forge ahead despite rejections. She proved so talented at selling that by the time she was twenty, she was managing a sales force of forty.
As she looked for job openings in a wide-ranging job search, she was drawn to an advertisement on Craigslist for a job in sales for a web-based start-up providing services for healthcare practices called Dr Chrono.Katelyn says that her acting experience taught her to be persuasive in sales pitches, and to deal with the emotional impact of people telling her no again and again
Dr Chrono won a coveted spot at YC Combinator, and Katelyn impressed Paul Graham so much that when she decided to leave Dr Chrono, he advised her that she should found her own health-tech start-up, even though she didn’t have fancy degrees from an Ivy League or stellar connections like some of her peers.
Katelyn still knew relatively little about technology, but she did have a clear idea for a business. She had been stunned by the inefficiencies in the way doctors’ offices verified patient insurance coverage. It was done mostly by phone and involved time-consuming paperwork, which often led to long delays and mistakes.
Katelyn had heard about another YC-backed start-up called Stripe that offered an easy way for 100,000 merchants to handle all the complexities of accepting payments on the Internet. She boldly decided that she would create a similar system for healthcare providers. Though she had no idea what programming would be involved, she believed she could learn what she needed to know in order to hire software engineers to do that work.
She hired two freelance software engineers, and as they built a prototype, she began seeking angel investment. “As a woman with no technical background,” she recalled, “I met lots of skepticism, but again, my acting experience developed my resilience to keep forging ahead in the face of so many turndowns.”
Her acting work also helped her understand how to craft a compelling story about the company, which is essential to convincing investors to provide support.
“In theater, the playwright gives you the play, but you have to tell the story,” she explained to me over coffee in 2016. “I knew I just had to figure out how to tell the right story. When you start rehearsal, you’re completely lost. You don’t know the characters at all. When you start to build a product, when you start to build a company and you don’t even know what your product is going to be, it’s exactly the same feeling. You’re completely lost. I learned in the rehearsal process, that if I worked hard enough, I could gain that clarity where I would start to take off like a rocket ship.”
In the summer of 2012, Katelyn found herself back at Y-Combinator, pitching Paul Graham and team, but this time as a start-up founder. She won their backing, and on the heels of their support, she was able to quickly raise $1.6 million to continue building Eligible’s product.
After launch, the company took off with a growth rate of 60 per cent week after week. In 2013, Katelyn was selected by Fast Company magazine as one of its top one hundred most creative people, and in 2015, she was named one of Forbes’s 30 under 30 innovators in healthcare.
Rather than be a poster child for the impracticality of getting a liberal arts degree, Katelyn became a representative of how applicable the fuzzy skills developed by the liberal arts are as well as how important they are as complements to technological expertise.
Many other successful founders of innovative technology-driven businesses also credit their liberal arts education with preparing them for pioneering new ways of harnessing the power of technology.
Founder of corporate communications platform Slack, Stewart Butterfield credits his ability to develop a successful product to following lines of inquiry to their logical conclusion. It’s fitting that Butterfield studied philosophy at both the University of Victoria in Canada, and then the University of Cambridge in England, but his story is not unique.
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman earned his master’s degree in philosophy at Oxford University. Billionaire venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, studied philosophy and law, and his co-founder of Palantir, CEO Alex Karp, earned a law degree and a PhD in neoclassical social theory in Germany.
Billionaire founder of Pinterest, Ben Silberman political science at Yale, while Airbnb founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky earned bachelor of fine arts degrees at the Rhode Island School of Design. Steve Loughlin, founder of RelateIQ, which Salesforce bought for $390 million three years after he founded the company, was a public policy major. The co-founder of Salesforce, Parker Harris studied English literature at Middlebury College.
Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was a medieval history and philosophy major, and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki studied history and literature at Harvard. Take a look at some of the most successful global brands in technology, and many of these exemplars of ‘tech’ are grounded in educations that taught methods of interrogation and rigorous thought, with many technology companies formed on the philosophies learned through liberal arts educations.Many of the exemplars of ‘tech’ are grounded in liberal art educations that taught methods of interrogation and rigorous thought
The United States has no exclusive on this; across the Pacific, the richest man in Asia is Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant, Alibaba. He was an English major.
While a bounty of opportunity undoubtedly exists for techies as well, and they are in high demand, what’s little understood about today’s tech-driven economy is that as technology offers an ever more accessible toolbox, our differentiation—our very competitive advantage—becomes the very things liberal arts programs teach.
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