Liberal arts meets business at entrepreneurship symposium

February 20, 2013

Edward Weinman

Entrepreneurship Panorama
Panelists at the entrepreneurship symposium included Scott Alderman '90, president of Trilogy Equity Partners; Physics Professor Moira Gresham; English Professor Katrina Roberts; and Lisa Taylor '08, marketing manager at Redfin. David McGaughey '13 moderated. 

He received an award from former President Bill Clinton’s organization. Ashifi Gogo ’05 has also been named to the Boston Business Journal’s 40 under 40 – recognizing 40 of Boston’s best and brightest young professionals. And he founded and serves as CEO of Sproxil, a successful venture-backed enterprise that provides brand protection in emerging markets.

Yet the first business idea entrepreneur Gogo came up with failed.

After developing a method to track the authenticity of organic and free-trade branded foods to ensure consumers were getting what they paid for, he found out nobody was interested in investing capital.

“No one wanted to pay,” Gogo said. “People trust Whole Foods.”

Thankfully for millions of pharmaceutical consumers, Gogo didn’t let one failure knock him down. Instead, he modified the technology he had developed –  a Mobile Product AuthenticationTM (MPATM) system – and applied it to track and verify drugs being sold in developing countries.

gogo
Ashifi Gogo '05 is CEO of Sproxil, which was named the most innovative company in healthcare worldwide by Fast Company.

“Counterfeit meds were beginning to make the headlines, so I pivoted,” Gogo said.

Today, Sproxil’s technology has helped more than two million consumers verify the authenticity of their medications.

Because Gogo is a successful entrepreneur who is making money while making the world a better place, it might seem logical to think the Ghanaian native studied business as an undergraduate student and then earned an MBA from a prestigious business school.

Actually, Gogo majored in math and physics at Whitman before earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Dartmouth College.

Gogo believes Whitman prepared him to become a successful business owner. He feels indebted to Whitman, which is why he returned to give the keynote address at “Entrepreneurship and a Whitman Education: A Symposium,” hosted by the college's Student Engagement Center on Feb. 15.

“A liberal arts education teaches one to be a critical thinker. This is a highly-desired skill in business, irrespective of one’s technical training,” Gogo said.

“I was introduced to a broad array of topics in many fields of study while at Whitman. The world outside Whitman is less daunting with the versatility a liberal arts education provides.”

Noah Leavitt, assistant dean of student engagement, helped organize the event.

“The broad liberal arts education that Whitman provides, along with many of our students' excitement for ‘making things happen’ is a perfect foundation for starting organizations of all types,” Leavitt said.

“At Whitman, students become proficient in addressing complex puzzles, juggling responsibilities, having a vision for a desired outcome and throwing themselves into the process – everything that someone needs to create new solutions to social and market needs.”

Upwards of 100 students attended Gogo’s keynote address and panel discussions about such topics as the connection between liberal arts and innovation, as well as whether to start a for-profit or a non-profit organization.

“I wanted to get a sense of how to apply a liberal arts education to starting a business,” said Kangqiao Liao ’15, a biology-environmental studies major from Shenzhen, China. Studying at Whitman, he realized that "the liberal arts are fundamental to critical thinking."

Deconstructing problems and thinking up innovative solutions is one skill students learn at Whitman, said Lisa Taylor ’08, a marketing manager at Redfin, a company working to reinvent the real estate industry.

Because Taylor majored in musical performance, she might seem like the last person to sit on a panel discussing entrepreneurship. However, her experience at Whitman reveals how a liberal arts education helps mold future business leaders.

“Musical theory prepared me to talk to engineers and software people,” said Taylor. “I have learned to think in a logical way because in music theory you use structure and analytics to break down a piece of music, but you also must be able to break the rules of music to understand or compose a piece. This is similar to what engineers do.”

Many students (and parents) worry about how a liberal arts education will translate into a job. Taylor reassured students that it’s okay to look beyond the field in which they earned their degree.

“Pursue your passions, “Taylor said. “I’m not passionate about real estate, but I am passionate about helping people make one of the biggest decisions of their life.”

Vince Booth ’07 owns Booth Brine, a farm and pickle company in Walla Walla. What did he study at Whitman? Philosophy. He also believes that Whitman prepared him for life as a business owner.  

“The thing you learn at a liberal arts school like Whitman is the desire to get to the bottom of the issue in whatever field,” Booth said. “I think with farming, you want to understand life at its roots, and Whitman is an outlet for that."

Gillian Frew '11 also contributed reporting.