The Value of Philosophy in Entrepreneurship

09/05/2012 04:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2012

In general, philosophy is not considered a practical major. Parents of philosophy students are reassured when their children talk about the LSAT and percentage of philosophy majors who are accepted into top law schools, while philosophy majors themselves often shoulder jabs from friends with conventionally practical majors about working at the local Starbucks. Bookstores, once an employment hub for philosophy grads who were "taking a year off" before law school, are no longer a safe option. I recently passed by the now-closed Borders at which I once worked... while finishing my philosophy degree and studying for the LSAT. Some of the philosophy majors in my class did go on to law school. Others went into government, finance, publishing, and even medicine. At the time, none of us considered taking a more entrepreneurial route. Perhaps we should have.

While working with a team this past year to develop an entrepreneurial education program, I met with dozens of entrepreneurs from around the world, listened to their stories, and looked for patterns in their experience. Even in skill-specific fields such as technology, many successful entrepreneurs studied -- and were downright passionate about -- philosophy. Curious, I decided ask these philosophy grads how their major had contributed to their success and found that many of their answers were, in fact, similar.

Few said that they were likely to reference Foucault in a meeting or zip home in a hurry to consult their much-highlighted copy of Husserl's Logical Investigations before making a business decision. They found, however, that the ways of thinking, making connections, and approaching problems developed through the rigorous study of philosophy maintained their relevance and value long after graduation. While having a background in philosophy may not be enough to start and manage a successful business, philosophy grads do bring a unique set of skills to new businesses.

Generating unique ways of viewing existing problems: Open-ended assignments push philosophy students to find and take on a unique aspect of the work of the philosopher they are studying, to frame their thinking around a fresh and interesting question, or to make original connections between the writings of two distinct thinkers. Similarly, entrepreneurs need to be able to identify and understand new and unique opportunities in existing markets.

Seeing themes and patterns: Philosophy itself is organized by themes and the "big ideas" addressed by the philosophers themselves. Students are often asked to examine how concepts and texts connect to and diverge from one another. In the same way, entrepreneurs need to be able to interpret data and to see trends and patterns through different lenses, ranging from the end-user to potential investor.

Organizing people and ideas into systems: In his 2010 Bloomsberg Businessweek article, "Philosophy is Back in Business," Dov Seidman wrote:

"Credit, climate, and consumption crises cannot be solved through specialized expertise alone. These problems, like most issues businesses confront in the global marketplace, feature complex interdependencies that require an understanding of how political, financial, environmental, ethical, and social interests influence each other. A philosophical approach connects the dots among competing interests in an effort to create synergy."

Crafting well-reasoned arguments: Whether drafting a business plan or presenting to potential and current investors, entrepreneurs need to be able to explain why they are making the choices they are making. Likewise, you shouldn't even think about making an assertion in a philosophy class unless you are prepared to back it up. Whether we call it epistemology or common sense, differentiating between knowledge and assumptions and supporting both with a blend of reason and data, is vital in both philosophy and business.

Reading and writing well: Studying philosophy requires that you read and make sense of what are often dry and dense texts -- and then write about them with clarity. Entrepreneurs need to be able to explain even the most technologically complex aspects of their businesses to diverse constituencies. Paul Canetti, founder and CEO of MAZ Media and philosophy grad, distinguishes between the practical and "fuzzy" skills developed while studying philosophy. The philosophy grads with whom I spoke cited developing the ability to read critically and write clearly as the most practical outcome of their studies.

Creating entrepreneurs has never been the purpose of a philosophy department, nor is creating a business typically the goal of a philosophy student. And that is a good thing. Reading Descartes, for example, while wondering how his work might tie into ones start-up would be confusing at best. Yet, as cash-strapped colleges and universities begin to consider cutting funding for the humanities -- and, in particular, philosophy -- it is vital to consider to full value of this discipline and the fact that it may manifest itself over time in surprising ways.