Fast Talk: Voices From the Creative Front Lines

Remember when MBAs ruled? No more. Creative thinkers are in demand for their flexibility. Meet five leaders who have parlayed their "useless" academic degrees into business success.

Justine Foo

Strategist and manager, Neurostrategies group
BrightHouse
Atlanta, Georgia

Foo has a PhD in complex systems and brain sciences from Florida Atlantic University. BrightHouse is a consultancy that works with companies such as Coca-Cola.

"The brain is arguably the most complex system we have ever encountered in the universe. I spent six years studying its dynamics, and it fundamentally changed the way I look at the world. I decided not to pursue academia afterward because I wanted to branch out and experience something new.

Transitioning into business from a background in academia was difficult. There's a certain amount of just acquiring the words in order to communicate effectively. The other issue is the pace. Science progresses quite slowly, and you don't talk or publish anything until you've checked, rechecked, and double-checked everything. Business is the 80/20 rule: You can't wait until you're 110% sure, or you'll miss the opportunity.

I joined BrightHouse [a hybrid creativity/strategy consultancy] in 2001. Einstein said you could never solve a problem in the framework in which it was created. So we try to deliver creative and innovative thinking by getting a roomful of people from diverse backgrounds—MBAs, artists, writers, health experts—who look at a problem from different angles. I am the only neuroscientist on board.

Now more than ever, companies have to understand human behavior in their effort to inspire customer loyalty. I can explain how brain and behavior are linked, how we take in and process information around us, and how that information motivates our choices. Companies are very hungry for that kind of clarity and insight. They can't get that with the research techniques currently available to them."

Thom Mount

Partner and president
Mount Films
Los Angeles, California

Mount received an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. He has produced such films as Bull Durham and Natural Born Killers and is collaborating on an upcoming production with acclaimed writer Horton Foote.

"I was a painter in undergraduate school and lived in a loft in SoHo. I went to graduate school because I needed a master's degree to be able to teach. I got tangled up with filmmaking, which I enjoyed enormously, and thought it was, for me, a little better than being isolated in a loft all day painting.

Filmmaking has an artistic component and a business component. The two are inseparable. Film school was incredibly educational, not because it taught me how to use an editing machine or point a camera in the right direction, but because it showed me the dynamic interaction between the film you make and the society that embraces that film as users of the product.

When I started at Universal Pictures, I was put on the finance committee. I had no more business doing that than trying to fly to Mars, but I quickly came to understand that by being on the committee, I had to learn everything. Now we are constantly sifting through the changing world of film financing and redesigning strategies on a picture-by-picture basis. We do things like take advantage of governments' soft-money programs in places like South Africa and Australia and England. They give financial incentives or tax or labor rebates if the pictures have some sort of national origin. It's a horrible cliché, but we don't have any choice. When you're an independent producer in a world full of corporate behemoths, if you're not creative in your thinking, you're not alive."

Patrick M. Byrne

President and chairman
Overstock.com Inc.
Salt Lake City, Utah

Byrne, a Marshall Scholar, got his PhD in philosophy from Stanford University. Overstock.com is a $640 million—but not yet profitable—Web outlet mall.

"I've always been naturally curious about man's role in the universe and whether there was any meaning to life. Then I got cancer after graduating college, and it took on more urgent significance. After three years of being hospitalized, I thought studying philosophy would be a nice way to recover.

Learning philosophy has been useful in teaching me how to get to the heart of things—to be able to deconstruct what the real issues are. People think we're endless debaters, but what we're really doing is refining concepts in order to reach agreement. With negotiations, instead of trying to fight someone on every one of the issues, most of the time it turns out he cares about a whole bunch of things that you don't care about. Make those trade-offs, and he'll think you're being too generous when in fact you're just giving him the sleeves off your vest.

I suspect my philosophy degree worked against me when I started Overstock.com in 1999. I went to 55 venture capitalists in Silicon Valley to raise money, and each one turned me down. It wasn't like I didn't have any experience: I had run a company for Warren Buffett and worked on Wall Street. Meanwhile, kids were dropping out of B-school with one-page business plans who were getting $40 million.

Ultimately, philosophy is about values, and that definitely has its place in business. I consider myself a far outsider to Wall Street. There's a whole lot of obfuscation involved. In August, I spoke out on how the Wall Street system was corrupt and how the financial press was co-opted. Because of it, I got called a buffoon and wacky; then a lot of lies came out about my being gay, taking cocaine, and hiring a stripper. That's sort of the fifth-grade level that we're operating on. It doesn't bother me. When you decide to stand for things, you have to be prepared to face criticism, mockery, and derision."

Maurice Blanks

COO and cofounder
Blu Dot
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Blanks earned a master's in architecture from the University of Illinois, Chicago. Blu Dot is a furniture designer whose midcentury-inspired wares are sold at Target and Design Within Reach.

"Architecture is a profession everyone fantasizes about. Like George on Seinfeld; he'd always say he was an architect. But people who can't keep fighting in the storm get weeded out early. When I started architecture school, one of the professors said only 25% of us would make it. Of those, many drop out of the field by age 40. I did that in 2002. I closed my practice in Chicago and moved to Minneapolis to devote myself full time to Blu Dot, which I helped found in 1996.

Architecture is about keeping track of thousands of pieces of information and making sure they're all covered in the design. The implications of failure are pretty high if you don't: People could get hurt. Therefore, you learn that you must be very efficient with information and organization, which naturally translates to running the day-to-day operations of a company.

It's funny how the word "sell" is never used in architecture school, but to me the critiques were kind of informal lessons in sales. For exams, you'd present your work to a jury—your professors, peers, local architects, and so forth. Their job is to shell you; your job is to defend yourself. It's pretty brutal. Typically, you've pulled at least one all-nighter. Tears are not uncommon. But it taught me how to communicate ideas quickly and tailor information to an audience. When I show a coffee table, I'll talk about the decisions we made, how we designed one part to hold magazines, or why having wheels makes it easy to move around. You can't possibly cover every single aspect. You have to figure out what's important and how your design solves their problems.

Architects say yes more often than they should, and I still do that at Blu Dot. It often brings about unexpected opportunities. Last year, a pharmaceutical company wanted us to make a custom bookend for a trade show within three months. It was an unusual project, but we figured out a way to do it—and discovered a whole new market that was perfect for one of our desk-accessories lines."

Doreen Lorenzo

COO
frog design Inc.
Austin, Texas

Lorenzo has a master's in communications from Boston University. Frog design has created the look and feel of Dell's Web site, Disney's karaoke microphone, and Old Navy's signs.

"While getting my undergraduate degree in theater, I got involved in public speaking. I found that I loved talking to people, and I thought public relations or marketing would be interesting. I went to Boston University for my master's in communications without any real idea of what I was going to do.

I specialized in film and video at school. I loved being around theatrical people because of their creative energy. My job was producing—learning to take all these wonderfully creative writers and directors and form that into a package where something could get finished. I remember taking classes where you'd have to write, direct, and produce with a team. If I could be the one to understand what they were all doing, ultimately we could pull this project together successfully. It was an "aha" moment for me because we got an A, and everyone looked at me and said, "You really helped!" I then realized that I was good at understanding how to take creativity and build successful businesses with it.

How many years later, here I am. Everything frog design does is team based. I use the same exact skills, only the stakes are higher. To design a beautiful thing requires certain skills. So does making sure it fits within our client's mission and desires. That's what I do.

Even though I've been trained in communications, my job is really about listening. Throughout my entire career and particularly at frog, you really have to listen to and analyze what someone's saying to try to interpret that into something tangible. I have a lot of respect for the creative folks, and they appreciate me because I understand what they have to accomplish and empathize with them. There's a mutual appreciation because I'm not this hard-core businessperson who's all about the numbers."

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