During a recent business
meeting, Jayson Jarmon asked the directors of his technology company
about their college major. Their answers surprised him. Five of
the six—including Jarmon— had been English majors. The
sixth majored in Japanese literature.
“It led to an
interesting conversation,” recalls Jarmon, “about how
you get from ‘there’ to ‘here.’ From an
entrepreneurial point of view, people don’t associate this
work with an English degree.”
Perhaps they should.
An English degree can
be a valuable asset in many fields, not all of them obvious. The
discipline’s emphasis on clear writing is a plus, of course,
but there’s something more: an understanding of people through
the study of literature.
are great judges of human nature,” says Jarmon. “I was
just reading Henry IV, Part I, and I felt like I know these
people. I meet these people in business all the time. You know when
you see a Falstaff.”
In the following pages,
Jarmon and two fellow English alumni—one in biotechnology,
the other in finance—share their thoughts on English, their
careers, and how they got from “there” to “here.”
liberal arts--that's where innovation comes from,"
says Jayson Jarmon, CEO of Lux, an Internet company. Photo
by Fowler Schocken.
Jayson Jarmon, named
Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998, did not have a
technology career in mind when he came to the UW for a master’s
degree in English. “I’d always had an interest in writing
and literature,” he explains. “I was considering going
on for a PhD and then pursuing an academic career.”
Opportunities led Jarmon
in a different direction. While still at the UW, Jarmon worked as
a public relations writer for the Burke Museum. After graduating,
he served as communications director at Cornish College of the Arts,
followed by six years at Microsoft with positions in production
and product marketing.
In 1995, as the Internet
began taking off, Jarmon and colleague Ben Thompson decided to leave
Microsoft to begin their own company, Saltmine. “The company
built websites and software applications for the Internet,”
says Jarmon. “It grew very quickly, and soon we had 500 employees
and offices in London, Chicago, Seattle, and Bellevue.” Although
Saltmine earned Jarmon an Entrepreneur of the Year award, he and
Thompson decided to sell the company in 2000, staying on an additional
year to help with the transition.
That was a memorable
year for Internet companies—and not in a good way. Start-ups
were crashing and burning all around. But Jarmon and Thompson decided
to launch a new Internet company, Lux.
The company designs websites, builds Internet software and applications,
and publishes an internal website for Microsoft each day.
“A lot of people
thought starting our company at that time was crazy,” recalls
Jarmon. “They asked, ‘Isn’t the Internet all washed
up?’ Of course it wasn’t all washed up.”
Lux’s clients include
major corporations like Microsoft, Adobe, and PEMCO, as well as
smaller businesses and non-profits like World Vision. “There’s
a lot of opportunity for creativity,” says Jarmon. “And
fun. This business wasn’t created by business people or technical
people. It was built by creative people.”
Which gets back to the
abundance of English majors on Lux’s Board. Really, he says,
it makes perfect sense.
“In the liberal
arts, the focus is more on the learning than on the profession,”
says Jarmon. “I do think it prepares you more for life. People
who read a lot are exposed to this huge range of behaviors and situations
through literature. It helps them understand people. And generalists
who can talk to clients, talk to management, manage people, and
adapt quickly are the ones who survive. We call them ‘Swiss
army knives’ because they can do everything. That’s
what a liberal arts background provides.”
The Swiss army knife
analogy hits home with Karen Hedine. She has parlayed her English
degree, and her ability to communicate with diverse audiences, into
a successful career in biotechnology.
"You're giving away your authority if you can't articulate
your expertise," says Karen Hedine, CEO of Micronics.
Photo by Jeffrey Luke..
Hedine is currently president
and CEO of Micronics, a
company that has developed “lab cards” that allow certain
lab tests to be completed on the spot, in any location. It’s
the second biotech company she has headed—without a science
“My role has always
been the communicator in a company,” says Hedine. “I’m
not the inventor. But what good is science if you can’t communicate
it—to investors, clients, customers, and the public?”
When Hedine came to
the UW as a freshman, she was already steeped in Russian language
and literature, thanks to an outstanding high school teacher in
Walla Walla. She planned to major in Russian until she found her
English skills slipping. “I loved the Russian literature,
but my English began coming out wrong,” she recalls. “My
basic skills were lost due to my focus on Russian. I continued to
study Russian, but I decided to major in English.”
Hedine served as president
of Gamma Phi Beta sorority during her senior year at the UW, which
led to a job as a “collegiate consultant” for the sorority’s
national organization after graduation. She assisted chapters with
administrative issues and helped create four new chapters, while
earning a graduate degree in personnel administration at Indiana
Then she returned to the Northwest to join
the human resources staff at Safeco, where her focus was the 500
employees in computing.
After five years at
Safeco, Hedine was recruited by Genetic Systems, a new company looking
for a human resources manager. “I was recruited because I’d
done some pretty creative things at Safeco,” she says. “Biotech
was just starting to build worldwide. It was a vibrant industry
and I loved it, working with a brilliant science team doing cutting
When that company was
sold, Hedine was invited to join a new start-up. “That’s
really been my story in biotech,” she says. “I’m
brought in at an early stage or a
transition phase. Maybe the company has its core science discovered,
but now it needs to figure out what to do with it. I’m recruited
to help the company grow.”
Hedine joined Procyte,
which developed a treatment for diabetic wounds, and Qiagen Genomics,
in the field of genomics, before joining Micronics in 2001.
All this with no science background. “Well, I did take a mandatory
chemistry class where you had to grow crystals,” admits
Hedine. “I think I did pretty
miserably in that class.”
That is not necessarily
a bad thing, Hedine says. “Because I don’t speak ‘science’
fluently, I’m able to translate what we do in a way others
can understand,” she explains.
Hedine credits her years
as an English major with preparing her for this challenge. She wishes
more people were similarly prepared. “I mentor MBAs and I
have mentored science students, and I generally find that their
language skills are deplorable,” she says. “I find that
unacceptable. I’m always telling them, ‘Go back and
take an English class.’ You can’t disconnect the English
and the technical. You’re giving away your authority if you
can’t articulate your expertise.”
For Tony Leung, who
grew up in Hong Kong, English literature was a great escape. “My
high school curriculum was heavily into the sciences,” he
says, “so I would read on my own time. I read a lot of English
novels—some Victorian, some contemporary.”
you are out in the world, no matter your profession, sooner
or later everything is reduced to a narrative," says
Tony Leung. Photo by Mary Levin..
Leung came to the U.S.
at age 19, and enrolled at the UW soon after. He began as a philosophy
major but switched to English. After graduating, he applied to graduate
programs in English and business and was accepted to both. “I
decided to pursue the MBA to see what I could get out of it,”
says Leung. “But I knew that I would enjoy reading books for
the rest of my life.”
After earning his MBA,
Leung worked for Seafirst National Bank, in a small department whose
customers were privately held companies. He and his colleagues were
“valuation experts” who determined the value of privately
“At the time, less
than 100 people nationwide were doing this,” says Leung. “Even
today, maybe 1,000 people in the country can do this. I was lucky
to be part of an emerging profession.”
The department split
from Seafirst and became independent in 1980. Leung stayed with
the company for 12 years, then formed his own firm—Corporate
Advisory Associates—in 1992.
Through it all, Leung’s
English degree has helped him in unanticipated ways.
First, he says, there’s the importance of good writing skills.
“We do a lot of report writing,” Leung says. “The
report is not just numbers. We have to describe the client’s
business, how it got started, how it evolved. The ability to write
well and tell a story is a big advantage. Having read a lot of books
and having had to distill them, get to the essence of them, has
been helpful. Some of my colleagues stumble when faced with telling
the story. It is harder for them to make their point.”
When Leung spoke to
a group of UW English majors last year, he emphasized this point.
“I told them that when you are out in the world, no matter
your profession, sooner or later everything is reduced to a narrative,”
he says. “I may be overstating it when I say this, but at
least in the business world this is definitely true.”
Perhaps even more important,
says Leung, is the ability to understand people and situations as
a result of reading great literature.
“In my business,
we often need to manage clients’ reactions to our numbers,”
he explains. “They don’t always like what we need to
tell them. Having read so many books has helped me anticipate my
clients’ behavior. It’s made me a good judge of character.”
This ability has been
particularly impressive given that Leung comes from another country
and culture. “The fact that I grew up in Hong Kong yet I’ve
been able to interact with all my clients—99 percent of whom
are white Americans—has been surprising,” he says. “I
think that it is all those characters in literature that I have
been studying, trying to figure them out, that has really helped
me. There was already an affinity with these people because these
are characters I have read about for years.”
Although Jarmon, Hedine,
and Leung have made their mark in vastly different fields, they
have one thing in common, beyond their UW English degree: an entrepreneurial
spirit. Each has taken risks, seized opportunities, and plunged
into an emerging field.
A coincidence? Not at
all, says Jarmon.
so many business folks who look to the past to see how things were
done,” Jarmon explains. “They take advantage of developments
but are not innovators themselves. The liberal arts—that’s
where innovation comes from. I see it when I interview job candidates.
I see it in how they present themselves. I see supple minds—people
interested in varied experiences who can bring those experiences
to bear on my business.
“You know how they
always talk about how the liberal arts teach you how to think? Well,
it’s true. It’s palpably true.”
Poetry and Friendship
When in Doubt, Ask Betty
[Winter-Spring 2006 - Table of Contents]