You are here

English Grads, Brilliant Careers

Story by
Nancy Joseph

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.

“Great writers 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.”

Creative People, Creative Business 

"The liberal arts--that's where innovation comes from," says Jayson Jarmon, CEO of Lux, an Internet company.

"The liberal arts--that's where innovation comes from," says Jayson Jarmon, CEO of Lux, an Internet company. Media credit: 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.”

From English to Biotech

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.

"You're giving away your authority if you can't articulate your expertise," says Karen Hedine, CEO of Micronics.  Media credit: 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 degree.

“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 University. 
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 edge research.”

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.”

Everything is a Narrative

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.” 

"When you are out in the world, no matter your profession, sooner or later everything is reduced to a narrative," says Tony Leung.

"When you are out in the world, no matter your profession, sooner or later everything is reduced to a narrative," says Tony Leung. Media credit: 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 held companies. 

“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.”

Liberal Arts and Innovation

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.

“I’ve met 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.”