Liberal Arts Grads: You Can Turn that Degree into a Thriving Career

Last Updated Nov 9, 2010 11:16 AM EST

The perennial career advice is to do what you love. That makes a lot of sense If you have a lifelong love of, say, petroleum engineering, statistics or a similarly practical field that offers many stable, well-paying jobs.

But what about those of us who followed our hearts and spent our college years immersed in musical theater, Greek philosophy or 17th century poetry? Yes, a fortunate few may be able to earn a livable wage at these passions, but most will need to find a way to transition into more practical, business-oriented vocation.

How do you turn a liberal arts degree into a thriving career? If anyone can provide guidance, it's Amanda Pekoe, the founder and president of The Pekoe Group, a theatrical marketing company. A lifelong Broadway fanatic, Pekoe studied performing arts as an undergraduate, and then spent time acting, producing and directing before moving into theatrical marketing. Here she reveals to Entry-Level Rebel how she made the transition from starry-eyed actor to successful entrepreneur.

How did you break into the business side of theatre?

I did the masters program in performing arts management at Brooklyn College. I was very fortunate because its a really intensive professional development program where we were taught by theater professionals who were actually working in the industry. We had classes in people's offices and conference rooms and were taught by marketing directors of large companies and general managers of huge non-profits organizations. We were able to learn from experts who are currently working in our field rather than just from a text book.

If you don't want to or can't go to grad school, is there another way to get the necessary skills to move into a new field?

Yes. I recommend a cocktail sampling approach. I did internships, residencies and jobs in lots of different areas. People don't have to think, 'I want to go into marketing' and only do a marketing internship. They can sample different aspects of an industry and get to learn a little bit about each of those aspects because actually it all ties in together. The things I learned doing fund-raising or general management have greatly helped me in my career doing marketing and promotions.

It's really important for people to do internships in different aspects of the industry they're interested in. It's an important way of getting a holistic view of the industry rather than pigeonholing themselves, focusing on one aspect and not having an awareness of how all the moving parts are working together.

In your experience, what makes for a good internship versus a mediocre one? How can you get the most out of the experience? Because not all internships are created equal, right?

My recommendation for people looking for internships, and I know it probably sounds crazy, is generally to try and find an internship at a smaller company. When you work for a small company you can really get your hands on a project. You won't just be faxing, or just be proofreading. You'll be proofreading, but you'll also be writing copy and pitches, making cold calls, sitting in meetings, reviewing the marketing strategy. I'm relating this to the marketing business, but when you work for a small company, there's more opportunity for you to learn that company's business than if you're in a larger company and get stuck in one little area with one job to do day in and day out.

So was your undergraduate education a wash, or do you think anything from your theater training gives you an edge in your current career?

I think that it's important for people to realize when they're getting a degree in the arts, in any form of the arts, they're not just studying a certain form of art and that skill set that comes along with the craft of the art itself. They're also learning how to communicate with people in different professions and industries, all sorts of different people from all walks of life, as well as how to sell yourself and sell product.

You learn how to sell yourself when you go to school to get an arts degree and that can transfer over into any form of business. If I hadn't gone into the business side of theater, if I had gone into a different industry, I still would have been able to connect with people, build relationships and sell whatever product I was working on.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice, what would you say? What do you know now that you'd wish you'd known when you were starting out?
I wish I had known how important relationship building is, because when I first started out in the marketing industry, I was very keyed in to proving the skills that I had in marketing. I was proving that I could create a really great promotion or a really great marketing campaign, and not as focused on relationship building.

Now, after years of experience, I have a lot of promotional partners and am always looking to create a win-win situation for both of us. I'm not doing cookie cutter campaigns where I'm doing the same promotions over and over. I have brainstorming sessions and come up with new people to reach out to every day, so that every day I'm cultivating new relationships. Now I'm not just going to people asking them for a favor. I'm looking for things that will be mutually beneficial for both of our businesses.

Any other tips for young people looking to find ways to use their artsy background in a business setting?
Stay plugged in to the grass roots of your community because they can help you. When I was a performer I was always doing grassroots marketing to get people into the show, so I would go out and hand out flyers on the street corner, for example. Or I would work with another show and ask them if they would help promote the show I was in to their audience, and I would then in turn promote their show to my audience. And now grass roots marketing is a huge part of our marketing campaigns for every production we work on, and I am able to hire actors that I know from the past to do those grass roots marketing efforts. And they're so used to doing them and huge experts on how to do them.

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.