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Coke Exec Tells Students Liberal Arts Is Best Preparation for Business Careers

Undergraduate degrees in German and economics plus a master’s of divinity from Yale isn’t an obvious route to the corporate leadership of the world’s largest soft drink company. But Clyde Tuggle, Coca-Cola senior vice president and chief public affairs officer, told a recent gathering of Washington and Lee students that it is “the perfect education for the business world.”

“I never had finance or accounting, yet I help run a huge business,” the visiting Woodrow Wilson Fellow said. “I learned communications, research and critical thinking” in liberal arts and religious studies at Hamilton College and Yale, respectively. At Coke, “I blew right by the .”

Tuggle’s words offer encouragement to a generation of liberal arts college students who might not know in which industry they want to work, after being advised since high school to adopt a laser focus on a career interest.

Washington and Lee participates annually in The Woodrow Wilson Fellowships Program, which enables the university to select from a list of world-renowned leaders, political figures and intellectuals to come to campus for 3-5 days. On their visits, fellows meet with students and faculty, participate in classes and discussions, give a public lecture and enjoy significant interaction with the campus community.

Last year, the Provost’s Office selected Tuggle, partly because his unique combination of a liberal arts education and noteworthy success in international business matches W&L’s mission and programs.

“Succeeding in business is all about bringing good judgment to bear. When I need data, I bring in a team to crunch the numbers, but then I go negotiate the deal,” he said during his public lecture. “And a liberal arts university like Washington and Lee offers all the learning needed to succeed in any business today.”

To serve an organization like Coca-Cola, “you need to speak a minimum of two foreign languages,” he said, “and have international experience. You need to see yourself as a citizen of the world — think like a Moroccan and see the world from that point of view — or you are behind the curve. You need the cultural skill to walk into any space and be comfortable, to blend into the environment.”

Tuggle said that being tapped for Coke’s team to plan how the company will double its business in 10 years required every member to apply his or her ability to envision the future.

“You can’t have a successful business, life or institution without that vision,” at the same time observing how the world is changing, he said. For Coke, the big challenges will be delivering what society wants and needs: “We will crack the code on a natural, non-nutrative sweetener that will replace artificial sweeteners. In packaging, we will create plastic made from plants, not fossil fuel.” Leading such huge change calls on abilities learned in a liberal arts environment.

“If you are going to lead something, you must imagine not only what it is, but what it can be in the future. Doing so requires process, rigor and discipline … it requires creativity, courage and breaking rules, but especially creativity” — thinking skills, Tuggle said, that are taught by the liberal arts. “You are so privileged to be here.”

During his visit, Tuggle met with a group of students, staff and faculty to discuss religious life at the university.  Sophomore Anna Russell Thornton, who participated in that discussion, said Tuggle showed how majoring in German to attending divinity school to taking a speechwriting job at Coca-Cola prepared him for his current success.

“He told us that the most valuable commodity we possess is our time and that if we dedicate our time to those things we love, we will be infinitely better prepared for our lives.” Thornton said.

Tuggle met with journalism, business and law classes, as well as students in the Advertising in the Liberal Arts program and Williams Investment Society.

“He really is the ideal leader to come speak to our campus,” said Associate Provost Marc Conner, who along with John Jensen, director of career development, coordinated Tuggle’s visit. “Mr. Tuggle embraces and advocates for the liberal arts education, along with a powerful commitment to internationalism and a belief in the entrepreneurial and daring spirit of our Williams School.”