Philosophy is often dismissed as impractical and of little relevance to everyday life. But the reality of business speaks a different story. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs come from a philosophy background. Philosophers pay attention to every minute detail of a problem, yet don’t lose sight of the bigger picture, and have a unique set of skills that enables them to drive innovation and makes them valuable assets for any business.
I caught up with five of my former students at the University of Dar es Salaam who are now up-and-coming entrepreneurs, and I asked them about philosophy and their experiences as philosophers in business.
How did you first get interested in philosophy, and why did you decide to study philosophy at university?
Mbaraka Shafii: I first heard about philosophy from one of my high school teachers. He used to talk about Plato and Karl Marx in class. Though intrigued by philosophy, my first choice was to study law, because of social expectations. Parents want their children to become lawyers, doctors, engineer, or bankers. When I wasn’t selected, I chose philosophy, and I’m glad, as I later realized that’s what I really want.
Neema Joseph: I too first heard about philosophy in high school, in general studies, and I decided that’s what I want to do at university in order to foster my ability so solve problems and enhance my communication and critical thinking skills.
Jackline Kibano: After my very first class of philosophy at university, I knew this is what I want. Philosophy is life. It deals with everything. That is why I stuck with philosophy after completing my undergraduate degree and am now working on my master’s degree in philosophy.
How did your family and friends react to your decision to study philosophy?
Nurath Abubakar: At first, they dismissed my decision, but I proved them wrong. Now they tell me that I changed for the better. They say I became wiser. It also helped that I secured a prestigious internship during my very first year at university, which showed to them that philosophers are in demand.
Michael Sessan: They were disappointed with my career choice, but I convinced them that philosophy is as practical as science and technology. Philosophers deal with globalization, artificial intelligence, democracy and human rights, and many other of the most urgent questions of our time.
Jackline: Some of my family and friends don’t understand my choice at all, until today. They think only priests and nuns study philosophy. I try to explain to them that one should not only think about the immediate availability of jobs, but follow one’s interests, in the course of which one will acquire knowledge that will also be useful.
Neema: My family was very excited, especially my dad because he knows what philosophy is. Most of my friends, however, advised me to pick another subject. I’m glad that, after thinking hard and long, I decided not to listen to their advice.
Mbaraka: “What are you going to do with that?” I’ve been asked this question more times than I care to remember. At first, that bothered me, but later-on in my studies I came to understand that philosophy prepares me for a career in almost any field.
What’s your business, and how did studying philosophy prepare you for what you do?
Mbaraka & Jackline: We sell cashew nuts, as do many others in Tanzania, so we had to work hard and be innovative to break into the market. Having studied philosophy was a real advantage, as it taught us to think outside the box and navigate uncomfortable and uncertain situations.
Nurath: I started small, making dresses for family and friends. Aesthetics, the philosophical study of beauty, broadened my mind and helped me create innovative designs. After saving for half a year, I was able to rent a small place and open my own tailor shop. Last year, I made another investment, and expanded my business by adding a home essentials store. I faced many challenges along the way and often found the answers in what I learned in philosophy.
Neema: I sell accessories, such as hand bags for women, as well as perfume for both men and women. Philosophy taught me persistence and how to manage uncertainty, which are essential for running a successful business.
Michael: I produce and distribute a variety of organic health and beauty products for face, body, and hair care. My training in philosophy helped me to do the research required to develop a tenable business model. Philosophy also taught me to put my emotions aside and make business decisions based on facts, and how to break a problem into manageable pieces.
What do you think are common misconceptions people have about philosophy, and what do you want employers in particular to know?
Michael: Many people think that studying philosophy is a waste of time, and that one can never make a living out of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Philosophers provide responsible leadership, have the ability to view issues from different perspectives, and are good communicators and writers.
Neema: They’re problem-solvers, too! Philosophers have critical skills that enable them to do any job they put their mind to.
Nurath: Employers and society at large should give philosophy graduates a chance. They will see how amazing and talented they are!
Who is your favorite philosopher and why?
Neema: Socrates. Because his contributions to philosophy still remain relevant today, particularly his approach to education.
Mbaraka: For me, it’s Peter Singer. His work changed my perspective on the way we treat nonhuman animals. Just because we think we have the right to kill animals for food doesn’t mean we do. Animals have rights, too.
Nurath: I also realized that animals have a right to life after reading work in animal ethics, and I became a vegan as a result of that.
Jackline: Make that three! Philosophy has definitely changed how I think about animals. But my favorite philosopher is Plato. His Allegory of the Cave in particular made a lasting impression on me. It taught me that perception and reality are not always one and the same. People often confuse the two. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that things are not always as they seem, especially in today’s climate of misinformation.
What advice would you give young people who are thinking about studying philosophy?
Michael: Philosophy is the best discipline you can study. It teaches you to think logically and reason critically – highly marketable skills that are needed in all careers. As Jackson Coy, one of our lecturers, used to tell us, “A philosopher can do anything if given a chance to!”
Neema: Studying philosophy gives you the opportunity to gain knowledge from various domains of the human experience, and it will help you believe in yourself.
Mbaraka: Don’t be afraid of philosophy! It will change your life as it has changed mine.
Nurath: I’ve never regretted studying philosophy because I got to learn about such a vast array of topics from all areas of life. You won’t regret it either.
Versions of this interview were published under the following titles:
- “Socrates’ lessons for the world of trade,” The Citizen (Tanzania), 13 May 2021
- “What lessons can Socrates offer to the world of business?,” Angel FM (Ghana), 13 May 2021
- “What lessons can Socrates offer to the world of business?,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh), 24 May 2021