What do the liberal arts have to do with business? A lot, actually

Paul Solman
Business and Economics Correspondent
BY  
Students collaborate on a brainstorming exercise at Middlebury's MiddCore program.

Students collaborate on a brainstorming exercise at Middlebury’s MiddCore program. Photo courtesy Middlebury College.

Editor’s Note: You don’t go to a liberal arts college to become an entrepreneur. Or do you?

Economics correspondent Paul Solman traveled to Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in northern Vermont with that question in mind. With programs like MiddCore, Middlebury Entrepreneurs and the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the college has become known as a cultivator of entrepreneurs, an incubator of innovation. For most familiar with the liberal arts, this development is, well, rather strange. What do the liberal arts have to do with business?

A lot, actually.

Sword & Plough, a startup that repurposes surplus military supplies into fashionable bags, is one such example. The company was founded by Emily Cavness, an active duty U.S. Army officer who grew up in a military family and came up with the idea during Middlebury’s first social entrepreneurship symposium. Paul spoke with Cully Cavness, the CFO of Sword & Plough, a Middlebury graduate and Emily’s husband, about how an education in liberal arts helped the company take off.

The following conversation between Paul and Cully has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. For more on the topic, watch tonight’s Making Sen$e report on the PBS NewsHour.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor


Paul Solman: So you didn’t go to Middlebury to become an entrepreneur, did you?

Cully Cavness: I think I always had entrepreneurial inclinations, but I went to Middlebury to study Geology and was originally interested in the energy business. So it was definitely a bit a left turn when I met Emily and went into fashion with her, but something that I think Middlebury prepared me well for.

Paul Solman: Middlebury must have changed a lot over the years?

Cully Cavness: Absolutely. I think right now, liberal arts schools like Middlebury are grappling with this question of “Are we just pure liberal arts and theory-based education? Or are we trying to be more practical and equip students with skills for real jobs in the real world?” And entrepreneurship is one of the great ways that you can blend those two different spheres.

Paul Solman: How is a liberal arts education similar to an entrepreneurial education?

Cully Cavness: I think the essence of any good entrepreneur is a good idea that’s been thought through and explored creatively. There’s a lot of soul searching involved in any kind of good entrepreneurial endeavor, and all of that is essential to any liberal arts education. You’re being asked to think through ideas and explore them with creativity and with a critical mindset. And those are complementary.

Paul Solman: Why haven’t liberal arts schools been doing this for a hundred years?

Cully Cavness: Well, my guess is that liberal arts schools have been graduating great entrepreneurs for a hundred years and more, and it’s now being publicized a bit more and formalized with programs like MiddCore, Middlebury Entrepreneurs and the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Middlebury. These are more formal ways to promote entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, but they’ve probably been helping people become entrepreneurs for a lot longer.

Middlebury’s entrepreneurship programs create opportunities to bring creative ideas to life; for this student, designing his own backpacks led to a job at Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Middlebury College.

Middlebury’s entrepreneurship programs create opportunities to bring creative ideas to life; for this student, designing his own backpacks led to a job at Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Middlebury College.

Paul Solman: I went to Brandeis in the 1960s. I might well have gone to Middlebury. Nobody in my year had talked about starting a business.

Cully Cavness: I think we also have to put it in the context of today’s youth graduating from college where startups are a big draw. That’s the main goal for a lot of students going to college these days. How am I going to start my startup, my first company?

Paul Solman: Is that desperation, because you can’t get a good job with a liberal arts degree? Or is that seeing rich people out there who’ve made it doing creative things? Or is it both?

In any business, you don’t have all of the skills going in. You certainly don’t have all the credentials or experience, so you have to know how to adapt and learn on the fly. That is liberal arts education right there.

Cully Cavness: I bet it’s a little bit of both. I hope it’s a little bit more of the latter where people are inspired by the success stories they see out there in the world. But the economy has definitely changed. It’s was typical to graduate college and go to a company where you’d spend your career. Today, it’s very different. You graduate, and you’ll probably be at your first job for only a few years.

Paul Solman: Well, when I graduated in the mid-60s, you didn’t worry about what kind of job you were going to do, because the economy was growing. And when I graduate in the mid-60s, none of us really worried.

Cully Cavness: Young people today, they really do have to worry and have to be strategic about it. And frankly, you have to be aggressive about planning a career from a much earlier age. Students are thinking about that internship for their freshman summer — and that’s the first step towards that first job. And it does sound like things have become much more competitive.

Paul Solman: What have been the main challenges starting and running this business?

Cully Cavness: Sword and Plough faced a lot of unique challenges. Our CEO, my wife, was deployed to Afghanistan shortly after we launched on Kickstarter, when we had just received this influx of orders and really emerged as a brand. So that was an essential, crucial time in the company’s history, where all of a sudden, we didn’t have a CEO to put together a team of people. We were trying to understand how to make a manufacturing business happen, how to hire people, how to do a supply chain, how to do marketing. None of us were trained formally in these areas, so we had a lot of unusual, unique challenges as a startup.

Paul Solman: Where could you possibly have learned about manufacturing at Middlebury College?

Cully Cavness: Liberal arts is about thinking about how to think, learning how to learn. And in any business, you don’t have all of the skills going in. You certainly don’t have all the credentials or experience, so you have to know how to adapt and learn on the fly. That is liberal arts education right there.

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