You Don’t Have to Study Business to Do Business

Viet Nam currently ranks 5th among all countries sending students to the United States - with nearly 31,000 at all levels, mostly in higher education.  According to the 2016 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, 29.3% of all Vietnamese undergraduates in the US were studying business/management. This was the second highest percentage of any sending country – after Indonesia.   

Why are so many young Vietnamese studying business in the US, among other countries? Because parents - as the key decision-makers – have bought into the seemingly logical notion that their children need to major in business in order to work in the private sector. In other words, they believe that their sons and daughters have to study business in order to do business. This is in part because most Vietnamese are not yet familiar with the concept of a liberal arts education and its many benefits, both intrinsic and tangible.

In a 2013 essay entitled Business and the Liberal Arts Edgar M. Bronfman, Sr. (1929-2013), who was chief executive officer of Seagram Company Ltd., advised young people to get a liberal arts degree, emphasizing the value of curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking, and describing it as “the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.” 

Bronfman, who studied history at Williams College and McGill University, described a liberal arts degree as “the best preparation for life and career.”  A recent study suggests that "the liberal arts college experience prepares students for a life well lived, but for a life of financial success." 

Steve Jobs was also the product of a liberal arts background, even though he never completed his bachelor’s degree.  He had this to say about it when he introduced the iPad2 in March 2011: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

There are many exemplary Vietnamese role models, entrepreneurs and others, who pursued a liberal arts major and have returned home to pursue successful careers either as entrepreneurs or employees of Vietnamese and multinational companies. About a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees. 

The Power of Analysis and Interpretation

For example, Toan Nguyen, a contractor consultant for McKinsey & Company Vietnam, who was a double major in history and economics at Amherst College (MA), credited the study of history with helping him in his current job by teaching him “how to collect and judge evidence, tell a story, interpret a story, judge a story told by someone else.”  This is especially relevant because management consulting firms need to be able to tell "business stories" to their clients backed up by solid evidence. 

Toan’s liberal arts education also helps him to think critically and communicate clearly across disciplines. “It benefited me because business sometimes requires such interdisciplinary thinking (e.g. evaluating a business opportunity, solving a complex business issue) and clear communication (e.g., pitching to an investor, directing an employee).”  It also helps him learn new things on his own, and, as he put it, “can pay off in the long term even though a business or related degree may get you up to speed faster in the short term,” a sentiment echoed by experts. 

Another young Vietnamese, Lan Doan, topped off her liberal arts education with a Harvard MBA and is now a strategic consultant at top consulting firm in Viet Nam, was a double major in economics and mathematics at Colgate University.  She said that “The ability to delay selection of major,” a unique feature of US higher education, “made these schools even more attractive to me since I could avoid making a decision back then.”  While she admittedly chose a liberal arts education for the scholarship, having read on a well-known online forum that “private liberal arts colleges offered generous scholarships that seemed reachable to Vietnamese students like me, she realizes in hindsight that “the education changed my life.”   

Here are the benefits that she attributed to a quality liberal arts education: 

  • It was particularly helpful for Vietnamese students who were discouraged to think for ourselves. Critical thinking and the ability to express perspectives have benefited me in all my jobs as well as everyday life.  I think differently and live differently.
  • The benefits might not be apparent in the first years after college. However, as I moved up the ladder, it became clearer that my ability to communicate effectively, learn independently, and work with others has clear advantage compared to colleagues without a liberal arts education.
  • At business school, I further confirmed that a liberal arts education clearly taught me beneficial things that would have been difficult for me to learn by myself or developed through work. While I cannot speak for all careers, for climbing the corporate ladder, liberal arts education is certainly helpful!

The Beginning of Your Second Life:  Finding Your Ikigai

Quality educational advising and career counseling are essential to helping young people decide what they want to study and do with the rest of their lives, professionally and otherwise. 

To parents - what is your child good at, where do his talents lie, what is her realized and untapped potential?  To young people – What do you enjoy doing (interests), what are you good at (abilities), what do you find to be personally rewarding, what are your goals? 

One of the most important and challenging questions young people can ask themselves, or anyone, for that matter is, what is my ikigai?, a Japanese concept that means reason for being, the thing that gets you up in the morning, the passion that drives your life. 

Ikigai is the intersection of that which you love, that which you’re good at, that which the world needs, and that which you can be paid for.  It is the convergence of passion, mission, profession and vocation in one existential sweet spot

Confucius is quoted as saying We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.  Discovering your ikigai is one sure way to jumpstart your second life.  Choosing a path in the liberal arts is one possible means to that end.             

Mark A Ashwill, Ph.D., is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States, and officially accredited institutions in other countries. Dr. Ashwill is an educational entrepreneur with an extensive liberal arts background at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  An abridged Vietnamese language version of this article was published in the February 2017 issue of Forbes Vietnam

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