How to Succeed in Business with a Degree in Geography

There are many business opportunities for people with geography degrees. I have three degrees in geography and 33 years of working experience in the business world. I’d like to share my real-life experience and hope that it will offer insights and incentives to those who contemplate a career in business. Let me present my story in a question-and-answer format:

Did you plan to have a career in business? I never thought of having a career in business. After I got my doctoral degree, I taught world regional geography and urban geography at Boston University in 1977 and then in 1978 and 1979 at the State University of New York at Cortland. Both teaching positions were short-term and non-tenured. Tenure-track positions were hard to find. I needed to think of alternatives.

How did you select a career in business? In late 1979, China opened up to doing business with the West. Many American companies were very interested in entering the Chinese market but didn’t know how. Since my specialty was China, I thought I could help them open some doors in the new Chinese market.

How did you find your first job at a company? I sent more than 500 letters to companies across the United States, telling people I could help them develop the Chinese market. I got a dozen interviews, and I landed a job as the China Area Manager at Academic Press, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of a Fortune 500 publishing company called Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ).

How much did the job pay compared to your previous academic positions? My business position paid me twice as much as my first full-time academic position. I also got to learn a business and how things work, including global expansion skills.

Why would a Fortune 500 firm hire you with no background or experience in business? The chairman of the company traveled to Beijing, China to drum up new business, but he had a hard time getting along with the Chinese and vice versa. One of the 500 letters that I had mailed out landed on his desk. He told the senior vice president to hire me. The company needed my geographic knowledge of China and my language skills to help them navigate that market.

What happened next? I succeeded in getting my first prepaid order for my company ($150,000 in 1982 – $330,000 in today’s value). Sales to Southeast Asia tripled. Two years into my job, the company wanted to relocate from New York City to Orlando, Florida. I didn’t want to go to Florida. I quit my job and started my independent consultancy in May of 1983.

Why did you start a consultancy? Since I had succeeded in opening the Chinese market for Academic Press, I sent 300 letters to publishers across the country. Within 3 months, I had 3 paying clients, including Rand McNally & Co., the map-making publisher who wanted me to sell maps and globes to China.

How much is your success in consulting related to your degrees in geography? I apply what I know about Chinese geography and cultural geography to day-to-day problems in business. I’ve worked with more than 100 U.S. manufacturers, trade associations, and service organizations. Businesses need people with geographical and cross-cultural knowledge.

Could you give an example of how you applied geography to a business problem? A company spent $1,000,000 on postage each year to mail catalogs worldwide. I looked at its bloated mailing list and found that there were many duplicate records. This means that quite a number of people received multiple copies of marketing materials. Many names on the list were misspelled and out-of-date. I surveyed our worldwide customer base and eliminated duplication and waste. Management was very happy because I reduced their costs.

Could you give another example of applying geography in business? As a cultural geographer of China, I know that there will be misunderstandings between American managers and their Asian counterparts. One time, K-Mart wanted our company to import 100,000 Santa Claus dolls. Our manager asked our Taiwan representative to send in a sample. I looked at the sample and found that the torso had a piece of wood inside. This was not good because if a doll body had a solid core, we had to pay $1 per doll in import duty. I sent the sample back to our office in Taiwan and asked them to replace the wood with fabric so that we could import the dolls duty free.

Do businesses really appreciate geography? They do. They need people with geographical knowledge and perspective to get things done. In 1996, the American Management Association (AMA) commissioned me to create and teach a three-day course titled “Business Skills for the China Market” to executives from Fortune 1000 companies who wanted a crash course on China. I became the first person in the United States after 1949 to do this. Recently, Lockheed Martin asked me to create and teach a one-day course on China. Such needs are there. Companies may not think of solutions for their needs coming from geography. It is up to people with geography degrees to create solutions and make them relevant and resonant.

What advice would you give to someone with a geography degree about succeeding in business? Start at an entry level and learn a business. Geography is not a trade. It is an academic discipline. Once you know enough of a business, you can apply your unique training as a geographer to look at things in a way that people trained in other disciplines may not come up with. This is how you differentiate yourself and become competitive. Few businesses pay us to teach them geography. They just want us to solve their problems and get things done. It’s up to us to invent ourselves.

Author’s note: I wrote this piece to commemorate my long-time friend and personal mentor, Forrest (“Woody”) R. Pitts, an accomplished geographer, who passed away on January 8th, 2014. When he was alive, Woody kept telling me that geography had benefited me professionally, even though I never conducted research as an academic. Woody was right. I was wrong. I am grateful to geography and the life journey which it inspired me to take.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the UC Santa Barbara Department of Geography website. Reprinted with permission from the author. 

DOI: 10.14433/2014.0011