Ever been asked what you plan to do with that history degree once you’re out of school? You’re not the only one. It makes us wonder if we should major in history at all. You’re not supposed to have it all figured out by graduation, but you can always look to these famous history majors for inspiration.
These professionals have created successful careers in just about every industry you can think of, including finance, technology, food, television, and literature.
Here’s the list:
- Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
- Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs
- Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express
- Carly Fiorina, CEO of HP Computers
- Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle
- Jennifer Robson, Author
- Alexa Hirschfield, Co-Founder of Paperless Post
- Chris Hughes, Co-Founder of Facebook
- Donna Dubinsky, CEO of Palm Inc.
- Martha Stewart
- Sir Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony
- Samuel Palmisano, President of IBM
- Charles Sennott, Co-Founder of GlobalPost
- Ben Silverman, Co-Chair of NBC Entertainment
- Ian Caldwell, Author
- Malcolm Gladwell, Author and Essayist
Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
Susan Wojcicki is probably my favorite famous history major on this list. She majored in history and now serves as the CEO of YouTube, which is a large property owned by Google. Before that she was the Senior Vice-President of Google’s AdSense product—which is what made the company a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
Wojciki was, in a sense, one of the original Google founders. She wasn’t one of the core software engineers like Sergei Brin and Larry Page, but she was with them from the start. In fact, it was her garage that they worked out of after college.
She’s been an integral part of Google’s rise since the 1990s, plain and simple. She has also proven that history majors can rise to become executives in cutting-edge tech companies.
Hers is the success story they should teach in schools.
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs
Lloyd Blankfein served as the chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, but he majored in history before he got there.
Along the way he also earned a law degree and traded commodities in the 70s and early 80s. The trading company he joined was acquired by Goldman Sachs, and he was named a partner in 1988. He became the chairman and CEO in 2006—right before the Great Recession of 2008. He steered the company through that crisis and transformed it into a bank holding company while Lehman Brothers collapsed.
That’s an impressive resume, but what’s even more interesting is that he brought an outsider’s perspective and pattern-recognition to the financial services industry. Where the rest of the industry relied almost exclusively on quantitative financial models to understand market changes, Blankfein understood their limits. He understood large-scale change and qualitative factors that quantitative analysts weren’t trained to see.
He continued to serve until retiring from Goldman Sachs in 2018.
Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express
Ken Chenault served as the CEO of American Express, one of the largest financial companies in the United States—and he holds a bachelor of arts in history from Bowdoin College. He also earned a degree in law before joining.
Instead of simply resting with the status quo, he led the growth of American Express by initiating small business offerings and building partnerships with 85 major banks across the world. He left his mark on the business world by challenging “the way things have always been done.”
Chenault retired from American Express in 2017, joining a venture capital firm where he invests and mentors newer businesses.
Carly Fiorina, CEO of HP Computers
Carly Fiorina is best known as the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP Computers). That made her the first woman to lead a Fortune 50 company in the country, which is a hell of an accomplishment! Her strategy focused on a customer-first approach to service, which was new to HP’s product-centered past. This put her at odds with HP’s board of directors at the time, but time has shown that excellent customer service is a pillar of brand loyalty—something that most hardware companies wish they had.
She has also run for leadership of the Republican Party in the United States, and served as an advisor to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.
Fiorina also has a podcast on leadership in case you’re interested in learning more about her business philosophy. Check it out!
Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle
Steve Ells has a fascinating career trajectory. First, he majored in art history from the University of Colorado at Boulder, then enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
He actually started his first Chipotle restaurant in the 1990s as a source of income to fund the fine-dining restaurant that he truly wanted to run. His first location was successful, so he opened “just one more.” Then another one, and another.
If you’ve ever thought of starting a food truck business after graduating from a history program, then don’t write it off as a pipe dream. You could still be incredibly successful.
Jennifer Robson, Author
This entry on the list came from my own alma mater: Jennifer Robson. Robson has written a series of historical fiction novels through the HarperCollins publishing house, including:
- Somewhere in France
- After the War is Over
- Moonlight Over Paris
She has carved out a niche in historical fiction in the 20th century, especially during wartime periods.
What’s particularly interesting here is that Robson did what almost no one else manages: putting a PhD in history to direct use outside of academia. That PhD is from Oxford, too, which is quite prestigious.
Robson is the textbook example of how to carve your own path with a background in history.
Alexa Hirschfield, Co-Founder of Paperless Post
Alexa Hirschfield is one of the youngest success stories on this list, and she’s also an entrepreneur, to boot. She majored in classics (ancient history, languages, and literature—usually Greek and Roman), then landed a job as an editorial assistant at CBS.
She left that job to co-found Paperless Post. The first two years were rough, but it’s a thriving company now. The best part is that the soft skills and empathetic thinking she developed through her undergraduate program helped her see that electronic invites didn’t need to be stripped-down calendar invites.
Her company flies in the face of the rest of the internet, and that’s what brought it success. Not everything needs to be impersonal or utilitarian—and the customers of Paperless Post agree.
Chris Hughes, Co-Founder of Facebook
Regardless of what opinions we might hold about Facebook (recently rebranded as “Meta”), there’s no denying its prominence. Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t the only mind behind Facebook’s inception, though.
Chris Hughes was one of those minds. Hughes took on responsibilities to test the platform’s new iterations and to facilitate new features that made Facebook a global platform. Remember: it had just been a Harvard-wide index before that.
Hughes returned to Harvard to finish his degree in history and English, then went back to Facebook as a co-founder until 2012. Since Facebook’s inception he has also volunteered with the Obama presidential campaign of 2008, and served as a director in several organizations. He is currently the co-founder of the Economic Security Project.
Donna Dubinsky, CEO of Palm Inc.
Remember the Blackberry phone? It had a predecessor called the Palm Pilot, and Donna Dubinsky pioneered that product. Its importance can’t really be stressed enough, considering that we all live with our smartphones in our pockets and in our hands decades later.
She earned her degree in history from Yale in the late 1970s, then an MBA from Harvard in the early 80s.
How does a history major become the CEO of a technology company, though? Earning an MBA helps, but Dubisnky’s development of the Palm Pilot merged technology with real daily needs—the kind of thing that Apple products are known for. It might not surprise you to learn that she worked for Apple in the support department for several years before rising through its ranks.
What I love about this story is that Dubinsky leveraged the ability to think in long-term trends and “productizing” it. She saw the rise of mobile technology and the need for personal devices, as well as how that should serve people in their daily lives—and turned it into a pocket-sized device. It’s the kind of thinking that Steve Jobs got credit for years after the Palm Pilot hit store shelves.
Yes. Martha Stewart, the TV icon, had a degree in European and architectural history from Barnard College in Manhattan in the early 1960s. She also worked in Wall Street until the early 1970s, if you can believe it!
She started her own catering business in the late 70s and grew it into a $1,000,000 enterprise by serving large corporate clients. She turned her catering knowledge into media products, more popularly known as… cookbooks. We get our recipes from blogs these days, but that was how you did it back then.
Throughout the 90s she had her own magazine and television show—even a radio show, a newspaper column, and various retail products under her brand name.
The takeaway? One of the most successful lifestyle brands in the world was built on a history degree.
Sir Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony
If you’ve ever heard of Playstation then you’ve heard of Sony, the company that owns the brand. Sir Howard Stringer served as the CEO of Sony until 2013. He spent 30 years working at CBS before he joined Sony, and was even drafted as a military police officer during the Vietnam War at one point in his life.
Before all of that, however, he earned his degree in history—two of them, actually. He holds both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in history. The English crown knighted him in 2000 for his distinguished career in media up to that point.
Samuel Palmisano, President of IBM
Samuel Palmisano once led IBM, one of the most important technology companies of the 20th century (back when they focused on hardware rather than software, before the rise of Microsoft).
Guess what? He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Johns Hopkins University. Soon after graduating in 1973, he used that background to get his foot in the door as a salesperson, one of the more accessible entry-level jobs for history majors at the time. He climbed the ladder to the rank of President in 2000 and served until 2012.
It’s more than fair to point out that very few people get to stay with a single company for that long anymore. Just as important is that he used communication skills and soft skills to build his career in an engineering-focused organization.
Charles Sennott, Co-Founder of GlobalPost
The founder of GlobalPost, an early digital journalism platform, had a master’s degree in journalism—no surprise there. But you might be surprised to know that this entrepreneur, Charles Sennot, started with a degree in history from the University of Massachusetts.
You probably haven’t heard about GlobalPost because it has found success syndicating stories to larger publications, like PBS, CBS, and the New York Daily News.
Since then, Sennott has started something called the GroundTruth Project. It’s a non-profit organization that trains journalists to cover under-reported stories across the globe.
Ben Silverman, Co-Chair of NBC Entertainment
Ben Silverman has served as the Executive Producer for TV shows like The Office, Ugly Betty, The Biggest Loser, and The Tudors. It’s a long list of credentials—and it helped him become the Co-Chair of NBC Entertainment.
He has also founded and led media companies outside of NBC, such as Reveille and Electus—and it all started with his degree in history from Tufts University.
Ian Caldwell, Author and Essayist
Ever read The Rule of Four or The Fifth Gospel? They are highly popular novels—collectively they have sold more than two million copies on the New York Times best-seller list.
Fun fact: The Rule of Four has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, both in style, premise, and even in sales. Check it out!
Ian Caldwell wrote them (he co-wrote The Rule of Four), and it came directly from his love of history. This far down the list, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Caldwell majored in history.
He proves that you don’t need to found a company to be successful with a history degree. He carved out a career as a creative writer and made history itself a core part of that career.
Malcolm Gladwell, author
Malcolm Gladwell is a famous Canadian author and essayist whose work is known in the New York Times as well as the more recent podcast Revisionist History. He made his break with the book Tipping Point, but you probably know of his book that spawned the “10,000-hour rule.”
His ideas have underpinned quite a bit of public discourse across the globe. That journey began after earning his degree in history from the University of Toronto.
Honorable mentions from non-historians
This page is all about famous history majors, but there are quite a few successful people out there who hold other kinds of degrees in the liberal arts and humanities
They’re not historians but you’ll recognize more than a few of them.
- Stewart Butterfield, who majored in philosophy and founded Slack.
- Steve Jobs, who pursued creative humanities courses before dropping out and founding Apple Computers.
- Andrea Jung, who majored in English and became the CEO of Avon.
- Howard Schultz, who majored in communication studies and became the CEO of Starbucks.
- Michael Eisner, who majored in English and theatre before becoming the CEO of Disney.
- Jack Ma, who majored in English before founding Alibaba.
- Whitney Wolfe, who majored in International Studies before founding Bumble.
These famous history majors prove that you don’t need a specific degree to become successful. You don’t necessarily need to have enrolled in computer sciences, nursing, or engineering to make a fulfilling or lucrative career for yourself. Remember them when deciding on your degree.