The value of a degree, biology meets business.

By Margaux Bratina

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A few weeks ago I was visiting my cousin for his graduation from the University of Virginia. I had never been to Charlottesville, but I went to school in the South so I felt more or less right at home the minute I stepped off the plane. Charlottesville is one of those picturesque southern college towns, complete with old brick buildings, lush green trees, and that East Coast humidity.

All week I reminisced, memories bouncing back as I walked by soon-to-be graduates, frat houses, girls in dresses, and guys in bowties. Of my extended family, Tyler and I have always been closest. So when everyone else came into town for the weekend, I stayed the week. Tyler had come to my college graduation so in a way it was simple reciprocity, but of course I also wanted to spend some time with him, see the campus, and meet his friends. We were out by the pool one day when I found myself talking about what I do for work with one of his roommates, a Biology major. And he was interested in what I had to say, because I was also a Biology major—except now I work in business. He explained that despite being only a year from graduating, he was seriously considering switching his major. He wasn’t sure what to do with a Biology degree and so he asked me, “Was it worth it?”

My answer came quickly, but the explanation behind it morphed into a much longer conversation. They say that most people don’t often regret the things they did, but rather the things they didn’t do. That’s certainly true for me.

I chose two majors in college. One was Biology, because my parents paid for my college tuition and my dad told me to major in a science. Biology was the most interesting to me, and on top of that my biology professor in Chile told me I had a knack for it. My second major was Spanish, because I had just lived in South America for a year. Not only was Spanish a de facto logical choice, but I also earned the highest score out of my freshman class on the placement exam. I thought it would be easy; ironically, the Spanish class I took that first semester was the hardest class I took in college.

As a 19-year old electing my majors I felt self-assured and mature, yet I followed my dad’s directive and chose the easy route. Or that’s how it felt anyway. I honestly never thought too far into what I would do with those majors after I graduated—I certainly considered several options, but none of those seemed as good as my life in the present, and I knew I would figure it out eventually. Of course, as my junior year was winding down and those around me were gearing up for graduate school and competitive internships, the pressure kicked up a few notches and what was once “eventually” turned into “next year.” Biology was my primary major and yet I recognized how uninspired I felt about pursuing a career in science. There was very little in science that I could do with a Bachelor’s degree, and yet I hadn’t found anything that I loved enough to—in my opinion—warrant the pursuit of an additional degree. In contrast, I became enamored with the start-up world. I found it edgy, intriguing, unlimited. I knew nothing about business, but I was eager to learn. I wanted to build my ideas, work with my friends, and challenge myself.

My path has been far from linear, but so few of those worth traveling are. I’ve since left Atlanta for San Francisco, and while I haven’t reached the point yet where I’m running my own company, I’m adding skills and learning lessons that will be invaluable for when I do. I’m building my ideas, but within the framework of someone else’s vision. I may not work with my friends, but I’ve become friends with several of my coworkers. I’m certainly challenged and there’s plenty more work to be done. People often ask how I jumped from biology to recruiting/business. Sure, there are a lot of details that better explain how I got there, but ultimately I don’t see it as quite the jump that others may. There are countless transferable skills out there, and I’ve found that what I learned from science has been invaluable in business.

During undergrad I had the privilege of taking several theoretically provocative courses (thank you, Emory). There were five courses that significantly affected my philosophy, three of which were Biology courses. Those three in particular taught me that:

  1. Form (nearly always) follows function,
  2. Tradeoffs are ubiquitous,
  3. Most behaviors are learned, and
  4. Adaptation enhances survival.

So, what do these mean in biology and how can they relate to business?

Form follows function.

While there are exceptions to every rule, it is widely accepted in biology that form follows function. This theme explains why fins have a similar shape across a wide range of aquatic animals, wings have a similar shape across birds, or why feet have a similar structure across land animals. Because the primary function of fins is the same (movement through water), that of wings is the same (flight), and that of feet is the same (movement over land), each group of appendages has developed a similar form.

In business, I’ve found it useful to assess function before constructing form. I learned this early in my current job, and it has since saved me a lot of time and mistakes. I was discussing survey questions with an advisor, and she told me to forget about whether the questions were the right questions, and instead focus on the function of the survey itself. –What do we want to know? Can we get this information some other way? How do we want to use this information? How are we going to measure it? How frequently will we survey? At what stage in the process will we survey? –Each of these questions contributed to the form of the survey, including not only the content questions, but the medium of delivery, the measurement, and the feedback process. Once I had figured out the function, it was very clear how to design the form.

Trade-offs are ubiquitous.

In biology, this is another hard-hitter. I doubt whoever originated the phrase “you can have it all” ever took a science class. In nature you cannot have it all, as defined by trade-offs. Trade-offs exist when one characteristic cannot increase without a decrease in another. A common trade-off occurs in animal reproduction between the number and size of eggs that can be produced. For example, some animals will produce hundreds of eggs, but the greater the number that are produced, the smaller the egg size can be. Other animals will produce only a few offspring, but those eggs have the capacity to be larger. Within a single clutch, the greater the number of eggs, the smaller the eggs must be, assuming there are constraints on energy, time, or space for reproduction. This is of course a simplified example of trade-offs, but an important base concept for understanding biological relationships.

In business, trade-offs follow slightly different rules, but they are relevant all the same. If you work long hours, you sacrifice time for other things. If you’re a start-up in need of money, you may bring in cash to solve immediate needs and give the company a better vantage point, but you dilute your ownership in the company. In a small company, individuals may have a high degree of autonomy and scope, but little structure or consistency. In a large company, individuals are likely more specialized, but follow a rigorous process that maintains consistency. Trade-offs are everywhere, and learning to recognize them has been advantageous for me to make decisions that support my values.

Most behaviors are learned.

Animal behavior is divided into two subsets: innate and learned behaviors. Innate behaviors are those that an animal does instinctively from birth. For example, sea turtle eggs are buried in the sand, left to nature and themselves to survive. The hatchling must break its shell, dig itself out from the sand, and quickly navigate toward the water in order to survive. This is an innate behavior. Learned behaviours are all the rest; they require observation, experience, or direct teaching in order to be adopted. Most animals learn how to hunt, how to eat, how to mate, and how to survive.

In business I’ve found this useful to keep in mind, especially as we consult clients and consider our own internal processes for training and career development. People come from different cultures with different experiences, they learn differently and react differently. But people also do what they have learned over time to work for them. Those learned behaviors can be modified, but they have been conditioned many times over long stretches of time—they are not easy to change. Changes in behavior require training, consistent triggers and feedback. Yes—it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but it can be done. And for most companies, it must be done. The key is consistent messaging, support, and feedback from leadership and peers. We’re not there yet, but strong change management is crucial to any business’s success.

Adaptation enhances survival.

In biology, adaptation is the process that increases the fitness of a population. For reference, fitness here means reproductive success. Those individuals best suited to their environment have a greater likelihood of survival and greater fitness. They will pass down the adaptive traits that enabled them to be best suited, and over time that adaptation enhances survival of the population. A textbook example of this is the peppered moth. The peppered moth used to be primarily white-grey in color, with darker grey and black spots. Following the Industrial Revolution in London, many of the typica variety disappeared, replaced by a black-colored peppered moth, the carbonaria. They found that due to high levels of pollution, the few darker-colored moths were better-adapted to their environment, while the light-colored moths were more conspicuous to predators. The mal-adapted typica were eaten, and the carbonaria reproduced until they were the primary variety in the city. The adaptation to the carbonaria type enabled the population to survive in the city. In business, the idea of adaptation is applicable in a wide range of contexts. If a company’s services are not well-suited to the market, it will flop. What happens when the market abruptly shifts, accelerates, or slows down? The companies best adapted to that change will likely win out. When I was a kid, we used to go to this neighbourhood video store. That was back when Blockbuster was king, but my parents have never been fans of chains or franchises. As personal computers became increasingly more prevalent (and powerful), people began downloading movies and games and music. The novelty and convenience of it was addicting. In 1997 there was a DVD startup that aimed to take advantage of that shift in behavior. When Blockbuster refused to partner with or buy them in 2000, they forged ahead with their mail-order subscription service. It wasn’t the service I know and love today, but it offered competition to Blockbuster, and the company allowed its customers to rent unlimited DVDs with no penalties for late returns. Netflix used its original mail-order service to garnish a threshold of customers, and even then it struggled. Online streaming was the adaptation that led to Netflix’s survival, and later widespread success. Blockbuster did not adapt its business quickly enough and was potentially too large at the time to do so; the business no longer exists.

In a company it is usually the CEO who is responsible for looking at the horizon and identifying the best path through the waves. Sometimes that means staying the course, and in others it means radical adaptation; either way, change is the only constant and therefore adaptation is a prerequisite for survival.

Both of my parents read a lot, and before I graduated from high school they used to turn down page corners or highlight articles and leave them out for me on the kitchen table. Once I was out of the house, they started mailing them. The best advice I got during my own graduation was in the form of an article clipping. It was a commencement address, and it read: [Your life] will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it’s going to be like, but surprises are good for you. And don't be frightened. You can always change your mind.

Did I have my doubts about majoring in Biology? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Note: Margaux Bratina manages customer success operations for MitchelLake Onsite in San Francisco. She wrangles data, navigates feedback, weaves insights and ensures our clients and embedded RPO teams outperform the market in the war for talent. Please make contact if you would like to find out more about Embedded Recruitment solutions for fast growth ventures.