9 Brilliant Business Minds and Their Totally Irrelevant College Majors

9 Brilliant Business Minds and Their Totally Irrelevant College Majors

If you think you’re going to have to shell out thousands more dollars for an MBA just to get your brilliant business idea off the ground, you’re wrong. As the men and women on this list prove, what you study in college — as an undergraduate or graduate student — may have little to do with your actual career, especially if you’re ambitious enough to go after what you really want and believe in. From Classics and Liberal Arts majors going on to influence media and entertainment companies to engineers ending up in finance, here are 9 brilliant business minds and their totally irrelevant college majors.

  1. Ted Turner, Classics: TV emperor Ted Turner has been in the business since he was just 24, when he took over his father’s billboard business after he committed suicide. Turner’s dad expressed disapproval of his son’s college education, and wrote him a scathing letter while he was studying at Brown. He wrote, “I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on my way home today. I am a practical man, and for the life of me I cannot possibly understand why you should wish to speak Greek,” Minnesota Public Radio reported. While Turner may not have ended up translating Greek for a living, he did start the first 24-hour news channel, resurrected many dying TV channels, started Turner Network Television, Turner Classic Movies, and now has a hand in film production, philanthropy, and has even done a little acting.
  2. Michael Dell, Pre-med and Biology: When Michael Dell realized his pre-med and biology major wasn’t taking him where he wanted to go, he didn’t just switch majors: he dropped out altogether and started his own company. To be more specific, Dell actually started the company PC’s Limited while still a student at the University of Texas at Austin, and that company is considered the foundation of Dell Computers. In 2009, Forbes estimated him as the 25th richest billionaire in the world — with a net worth of $12.3 billion. That’s a hell of a lot more than any doctor makes.
  3. Martha Stewart, History and Architectural History: The hostess with the mostest — with a dash of street cred — is undoubtedly Martha Stewart, but she didn’t decide on her arts and crafts career until a few years into the workforce. At Barnard, Martha studied history and architectural history, and after graduation (and getting married as a sophomore), she worked as a stockbroker. Quitting after an alleged scandal, Martha moved with her family to Connecticut, where she set up house and discovered a remarkable talent for design, cooking, crafts and being domestic.
  4. Michael Eisner, English and Theater: While he did work in the entertainment industry — effectively molding children’s imaginations and pop culture education for decades as COO of Paramount and later Chairman and CEO of Disney — Eisner’s English and theater degrees probably didn’t prepare him much for the day-to-day responsibilities of running such profitable, iconic companies. As a student at Denison University, Eisner started as a pre-med candidate, then switched to English and theater. His first gig was at NBC, and he never left the business.
  5. George Soros, Philosophy: Enrolling in the London School of Economics in 1947, just after surviving Hitler and Stalin in his native Hungary, it’s no wonder George Soros took some time off to contemplate life. Soros was a philosophy major, graduating in 1952 with a focus on totalitarianism, but eventually found his way to New York, where he worked as a trader and financial analyst. Soros’ Open Society Foundations’ website (he’s the founder and chairman for the organization that aims to influence public policies in troubled democracies) notes that he did use his philosophy degree to shape his investment tactics, and is even credited with starting one of the first hedge funds.
  6. Sheila Bair, Philosophy: Now the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and a member of its Board of Directors, you could say Sheila Bair is pretty good with money. Her resume includes posts as the Dean’s Professor Financial Regulatory Policy for the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Commissioner and Acting Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and other prominent positions. Once ranked number 2 on Forbes’ most powerful women list, Bair earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Kansas.
  7. Ramani Ayer, Chemical Engineering: Indian-raised Ramani Ayer moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school in 1969 — at Drexel University. Ayer stayed with the school for his master’s and Ph.D. in chemical engineering, but he never worked in his field. While finishing his Ph.D., Ayer took a job with The Hartford Financial Services Group and never left. Named president and CEO in 1997, Ayer led the company for over a decade. In 2006, Forbes estimated his total compensation at $21.5 million.
  8. Michael Lynne, English: As the co-founder of New Line Cinema, Michael Lynne has produced big-budget movies like the Lord of the Rings series and Hairspray in recent years, although the company was first organized as a film distribution company, which released the cult favorite Reefer Madness in the 1970s. Lynne helped bolster his company along with co-founder Robert Shaye through mergers and deals with Turner Broadcasting System and Warner Bros., and now has several divisions that focus on theatrical distribution, home video, and other aspects of the film and entertainment industry. Before starting New Line as a young man, Lynne majored in English at Brooklyn College, and also earned a law degree from Columbia.