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How the liberal arts build entrepreneurial muscle

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Virtually all of the people I have met as an entrepreneur have had good ideas, and some of them even had great ideas. However, only a tiny fraction of those people have taken those ideas and made them happen. It is only by moving from thought to action that you make a difference.

Andy Greenfield

Andy Greenfield

Liberal-arts graduates have great basic training for turning an idea into an action. The school from which I graduated, Colgate University, prepared me for the rocky road of entrepreneurship by teaching me to think critically, communicate well, and to ask the question “What if” Regardless of the subject, our professors would force us to consider, “What if?” I soon learned how to turn the answer into an explanatory framework, also known as a theory.

Along with critical thinking, it is this element of liberal arts that builds entrepreneurial muscle: teaching students how to build theories. Theory-building requires imagination, discipline, and a bit of courage as well. And yes, it also involves asking questions, and then painting a picture of what things might look like with the correct answers. An entrepreneur questions things, and then works towards making the answers a reality.

Find your favorite liberal-arts institution, and you’ll find graduates who identify themselves as entrepreneurs because they learn to ask questions.


Liberal-arts training is fertile ground for fostering and fueling questioning. Liberal-arts students are encouraged and challenged by their professors to challenge conventional wisdom, and to ask — and answer — important questions about everything, be it biology or classical Greek. This kind of thinking in the classroom leads to questions in the real world such as, “What if that could be made differently?” “What if this could work?” The entrepreneur turns questions into doing.

In 2009, I planted a seed called The Thought Into Action Entrepreneurship Institute  (TIA) that today is growing into a mighty oak at Colgate. The concept was simple: Empower students who had an idea that they wanted to make happen by mentoring students as they traveled the path from idea to action. Mentors are a most valuable resource, offering time and expertise. Alumni who have experienced a life-changing mentorship relationship know the power of a mentorship. That is why we pay it forward with our time and energy.

In a hyperconnected world of followers and connections, the residential liberal-arts alumni understands that there is no replacement for genuinely being present, in the flesh, and caring about people’s ideas.

Additionally, these mentors have already traveled this path, which puts them in a position to mentor the craft of doing. TIA is not about theory, it is about practice; it is not about thinking, it is about acting. It is about the most fundamental element of entrepreneurship — creating something that didn’t exist before by taking an idea, and mixing it with passion, mentorship, persistence, sweat and courage.

During TIA’s first year, I led eight liberal-arts students down the path of action. They began the process with questions, and by the end of the year they had taken an idea, a thought, and turned it into something real. They had gone from thought to action.

Without action, an idea has little value, and can’t make a difference in someone’s life. Students are asking “What if?” of alumni entrepreneurs who can mentor them along the road to becoming an entrepreneur. Students make their ideas go live, and begin to make a difference. We describe what we do as “applied liberal arts” — taking critical thinking and theory-building skills, mixing in “What if?” thinking, and then taking action to turn ideas into reality.

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If you look at the LinkedIn profile of liberal-arts schools, you will see a pattern. In the outcomes section, “Entrepreneurship” is often in the top five. At Colgate University, entrepreneurship is third. At Stanford University it is also third. Find your favorite liberal-arts institution, and you’ll find graduates who identify themselves as entrepreneurs because they learn to ask questions.

Steve Jobs said: “It’s 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 result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.”

Liberal-arts students are curious, and think of questions. I work with a team of mentors to turn those questions into actions. There is nothing more empowering than creating something that didn’t exist before.

A graduate of Colgate University with an MA and ABD from Brown, entrepreneur Andy Greenfield has founded a number of companies including Greenfield Online, which was purchased by Microsoft. His latest start-up, The Thought Into Action Entrepreneurship Institute at Colgate, recently became the umbrella for all of Colgate’s entrepreneurial activities.

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Larry Trink

Colgate was great prep for starting and being successful in my own ad agency. History major translated into being a very good interviewer, which extracted ideas from clients enabling me to translate them into actionable marketing strategies. It did not serve me as well working at a large corporation. Too many ideas and questions fall outside the expected norm. Few appreciate being challenged. If you want to work at a large corp, better to go to a big ten school or any large state university.

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