During my three years at Cal Poly, I’ve studied philosophy while working for the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). During my interview for my position at CIE, I was asked about the relevance of studying philosophy for a job centered around entrepreneurship. This question followed me throughout my collegiate career, and I’ve often joked that my internship at CIE helps ease my parents’ concerns over my major choice.
However, despite widespread notions that studying philosophy is impractical or irrelevant to “real-world” careers (e.g. entrepreneurs and engineers), I’ve personally witnessed that studying philosophy is one of the most practical and relevant pursuits available today, especially for those in the startup world.
A rarely publicized fact, those who studied philosophy in college have founded some of the most successful companies around the world. Philosophy majors founded LinkedIn, Paypal, Slack, Whole Foods, Intel, and Wikipedia.
Damon Horowitz, who serves as Google’s in-house philosopher, founded several successful startups before getting a Ph.D in philosophy, calling it the “best decision he ever made.” Major publications like The Atlantic, Forbes, Bloomberg, and The Huffington Post have written about the increasing impact of philosophy majors on the business world, some going as far to say that philosophy is the most practical major available to college students.
It seems that popular perception fails to account for the immense success of philosophers in the startup world. How does a discipline that focuses on the foundational structure of reality and pride itself in abstract thinking produce such great entrepreneurs?
First, philosophy teaches you how to think. And if you can think well, you can create well, lead well and build well. Further, the study of philosophy demands clear and concise writing as well as rigorous analyses of difficult arguments. These attributes translate directly to an entrepreneurs’ skill set, allowing co-founders to parse through the unnecessary fluff and focus on the crucial elements necessary for the success of their startup. It also enables an entrepreneur to quickly and compellingly communicate the vision of their venture.
However, studying philosophy is not simply an exercise in strengthening your critical thinking abilities. Philosophy’s subject matter immerses itself in the questions that entrepreneurs should be and need to be wresting with—namely, the question of what it means to be human.
In ethics, one of the fundamental pillars of philosophy, we’re attempting to answer the question, “How should we live?” And whether or not you’ve spent time contemplating that question, your startup (and its product or service) represents a de facto answer to ethical concerns.
If you have an app that helps friends communicate through short video messages, you’re promoting certain values (i.e., how time should be spent and how we should relate to other people). Similarly, if you have a clothing startup that donates a percentage of your proceeds to developing countries, you, too, are promoting a certain set of ethical norms. Entrepreneurs who are cognizant of which values and lifestyles their companies endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, will create better startups and a better world.
For some, this kind of thinking may sound idealistic and unnecessary. However, choosing to ignore a philosophical approach to your startup does not entail neutrality on these issues. Simply building a profit-accumulation machine ignorant of its impact on the world amounts to an endorsement of a self-centered and egoistic philosophy. From issues like climate change to working conditions in developing nations, this next generation of entrepreneurs cannot afford to produce philosophically lazy businesses.
In a Bloomberg article, “Philosophy is Back in Business,” Dov Seidman wrote, “Philosophy can help us address the (literally) existential challenges the world currently confronts, but only if we take it off the back burner and apply it as a burning platform in business.”
Asking the more existential questions about your startup, while challenging, provides a sturdy foundation from which the future of your company can build upon. Elon Musk summarizes this approach concisely: “Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.” By implementing a more holistic approach to entrepreneurship, we will begin to incorporate an analysis of business success that includes human impact alongside profit margins.
What does this mean for entrepreneurs without a philosophy background? If you haven’t read Plato, does that mean your startup is destined for failure? Clearly not; however, taking an ethics course, reading the classic thinkers or even listening to a podcast on the history of philosophy all present great opportunities for personal growth that will inevitably extend to your startup.
As obvious as it sounds, only humans do entrepreneurship. This is because only humans can reason, that is, synthesize abstract information, project outcomes and reflect on past decisions. A discovery from Aristotle, this insight remains just a valuable over 2000 years later. When we reason well, we become better people and consequently, better entrepreneurs. Maybe that philosophy course in college was more practical than you thought.