What Should You Major In If You Want To Be A Billionaire?
For this year’s Forbes 400, we asked the nation’s richest what they majored in as undergraduates and heard from about 290 of them.
There were some 80 different majors reported, with the biggest number—45— responding that they had majored in economics, followed by 42 list members with degrees in business administration (which was the top major for the U.S. population in 2015).
TD Ameritrade cofounder Joe Ricketts, who studied economics at Creighton University, describes his first economics class as a life-changing experience—one in which a light bulb went off and then everything in his life made sense. Other high-profile billionaires who were economics majors include the New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft (at Columbia), Citadel founder Ken Griffin (Harvard), and Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s CEO Meg Whitman (Princeton).
The 45 who studied economics went to 29 different schools, from Chapman University to Johns Hopkins. Thanks to its Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania conferred the most bachelor’s degrees in economics to this year’s Forbes 400 class. Nine billionaires including President Donald Trump, Laurene Powell
Jobs, and hedge fund manager Steve Cohen studied economics at UPenn. (UPenn also happens to be the school that graduated the most members—18—of The Forbes 400). Amherst College, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Stanford, and Southern Methodist University trailed UPenn, giving out economics degrees to two billionaires each.
The fact that economics majors dominate the ranks of the 400 richest Americans is not really surprising, according to Sara Ellison, a senior lecturer in the MIT Economics Department. “Students have chosen economics because they have a curiosity about the way the world works,” Ellison says, a curiosity that makes people develop new systems and contribute to existing firms. “This is often the profile of the very most successful people.”
“Students who choose to study and major in economics gain an important skillset, discipline in thinking and knowledge, which helps them become better decision makers,” says Lidija Polutnik, the chair of the economics department at Babson College, where billionaires Peter Kellogg and C. Dean Metropoulos studied business administration.
“It is not only a question on how to make money,” concurs Professor Nicholas Economides from NYU. “It is understanding the structures that create profitable opportunities.” Of course, not all Forbes 400 members chose to study the science of money. Eighteen billionaires were more interested in what came before it, choosing to major in history, the third most popular major for The Forbes 400. Among them were real estate magnate (and former L.A. Clippers owner) Donald Sterling, U-Haul heir Joe Shoen and software firm SAS cofounder John Sall.
“Past performance is nonetheless one of the best indicators we have about how the future might unfold,” says Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown University. “Business people grasp this intuitively, whether they track a price series over a decade, look at a 52-week high, or consider the different ways that human societies across time and space have enforced contracts or regulated transactions.”
Other popular choices included electrical engineering (17 Forbes 400 members), mathematics (13), and English (11). Others’ majors ranged from drama and Japanese literature to religion and recreation and leisure studies, proving that while certain majors might help, there is no one surefire course of study. FW
the concepts that he wanted to bring to life, [could be],” says the younger Zappa. “Those were the sort of possibilities, and I actually have the paperwork and the patent searches and all that stuff from that time period in his life.”
Frank Zappa passed away in 1993 without seeing those ideas to fruition, but today, Ahmet is picking up where his father left off. He has partnered with a company called Eyellusion, which specializes in creating live rock shows fronted by dead stars, with the goal of bringing to life a tour headlined by a hologram-like Frank Zappa illusion, perhaps as soon as 2018.
Being dead is no longer an impediment to touring, thanks to the advances made by companies like Eyellusion, whose first live experience—a slate of shows featuring technologically reincarnated Black Sabbath frontman Ronnie James Dio, backed by a live band—will kick off in Germany this December. And that opens up a fresh model for keeping stars relevant, and possibly even adding new fans, long after they’re gone.
“If you think about what gets an artist press, it’s albums, touring,” says Eyellusion chief Jeff Pezzuti, 44. “Somebody like Ronnie drives music that’s passed down to that next generation. And you want those fans that are about my age or older to be able to have another chance to see Ronnie, because watching on YouTube is not the same.”
Pezzuti, a former marketing executive and lifelong music fan, formed Eyellusion after being inspired by Tupac Shakur’s postmortem debut at Coachella in 2012 and Michael Jackson’s in Las Vegas shortly thereafter. Despite the buzz generated by both, the holographic touring industry hadn’t taken off, despite rumors of stars from Whitney Houston to Billie Holiday returning to the stage.
So Pezzuti launched his company with a focus not on technology, but production. He partners with estates to create tour ideas, then sells the concept to concert promoters; the tech side is outsourced to a company called Vntana, which has produced holograms for clients ranging from Lexus to the NFL Hall of Fame, and a similar outfit known as ARHT Media.
While planning Eyellusion’s debut with Dio’s estate, Pezzuti met with Ahmet Zappa, who was so blown away that he joined the company as director of global business development—and started to work on a tour concept that revolved around his late father.
“He recorded this show in the early ‘70s, he went to the sound stage, and he did a multi-camera shoot that no one had ever seen,” says Zappa. “We have lots of other content, but this particular show just felt like what would be a great basis for putting Frank back on tour.” Much of the technology used by Eyellusion and its competitors revolves not around actual holograms, but hologram-like illusions that date back to a 19th-century concept. The mechanism is fairly simple: projecting an image onto a tilted piece of glass on the floor of the stage and reflecting it up through a Mylar screen, thereby creating the illusion of a three-dimensional human. That figure is usually a video capture of an actor, with the desired face applied later.
This model allows a great deal of flexibility, especially when it comes to an act as eccentric as Frank Zappa. His son imagines Claymation versions of the rocker alternating with lifelike illusions—and perhaps even absurdities like Zappa’s snakeskin platform boots—singing his songs.
Of course, dealing with estates also means navigating family drama. In the case of Zappa, that includes ongoing squabbles between Ahmet and his brother, Dweezil, over what could and should be done in their father’s name. “Honestly, it’s been really challenging,” says Ahmet. Perhaps that sort of situation is why Eyellusion is also looking at creating hologram-esque representations of living acts. Hypothetically, if Eminem wanted to bring out Rihanna to sing the hook of “The Monster,” he could simply license an illusion of the songstress rather than playing her chorus from track or shelling out for a real-life performance.
Currently, Eyellusion’s focus is Dio and Zappa. And for Ahmet, the expectation of his father’s musical reincarnation has taken on a fittingly macabre sense of anticipation.
“People are gonna lose their minds, their brains are gonna melt out of their ears,” he says of the tour. “I can’t wait. Their eyeballs are gonna explode!” FW
Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s CEO Meg Whitman studied economics at Princeton.
Frank Zappa--and other deceased stars--will soon be returning to a stage near you