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In a short TED video watched by 4m people, an elegant blonde woman makes a passionate plea for the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep, away from your smartphone. The woman is Arianna Huffington and her emergence as a writer and campaigner on sleep is the latest reincarnation in a career that has shown remarkable adaptability.
Huffington’s name is inextricably linked to the Huffington Post, the journalistic venture she created. But she is also an author, a media figure, a wellness entrepreneur and a politician.
Born Arianna Stasinopoulou in Greece, she was educated at the University of Cambridge and moved to the US in her early thirties. There she married politician Michael Huffington and became involved in politics, running for governor of California in 2003. Although the campaign was not a success, it was during this time that she learnt about the power of the internet.
Huffington’s life and work tell a story of the possibility of reinvention. First of all, the reinvention of industries. In 2005, while traditional newspapers were figuring out what to make of the internet, she created the Huffington Post, rewriting the rules of print media for a digital world. The business model was not based on the idea that a newspaper should tightly control its content through the editorial staff. Rather, the concept was for it to function as a curator, bringing together material from other channels as well as bloggers and opinion-makers who submitted their material in return for the exposure. (Controversially, it does not usually pay external contributors.)
It quickly became one of the most visited sites on the internet, providing an alternative news source with free content. The ad-driven business model meant that the Huffington Post had to be really good at drawing traffic to the site. The idea, though, was not to have readers consume a daily diet of articles brought together by an editor. Rather, it was to steer readers to single articles categorised in a seemingly endless number of sections. It worked, and while most newspapers were struggling with declining readership and adapting to a digital world, the Huffington Post flourished. In 2011 it was sold to AOL (since bought by Verizon) for $315m and is now renamed HuffPost.
At Uber, where Huffington is a board member, a similar story unfolds of an outsider disrupting an existing industry. The stories of both the Huffington Post and Uber offer rich case studies of inertia versus innovation and incumbents versus newcomers. They should inspire us to think about the plethora of opportunities that are possible if one dares to rethink standard recipes and question our own industry’s model.
Huffington’s story is not just one of industry reinvention — it is also about personal reinvention. She created the Huffington Post at the age of 55. She is an anomaly in an entrepreneurial tech world dominated by young male engineers.
Disruptive digital business models are not supposed to be created by middle-aged women. Clearly, this is a woman who defies expectations and is unbothered by convention.
The twists and turns of Huffington’s working life show that building a career is not only about moving forward. It is also about developing your capacity for professional change. This should be an inspiration for ourselves but also for the role of business schools.
It is our task to educate students about personal transformation as much as industry transformation. As the world around us changes, and existing industries and companies are disrupted, careers will be disrupted as well. Straight-line careers to the top may become a rare phenomenon and certainly not the only way to success.
Business schools must ask how well this aligns with what we teach our students. The changing nature of careers may be the exact reason why students turn to business education. The MBA is a pause in their career that serves not only to make a jump forward, but also to make a change. From one industry to another; from a corporate job to an entrepreneurial one; from a staff role to business responsibility.
The effect we as business schools stimulate is not only about advancement but also about career reinvention. We should value the sideways steps just as much as the steps forward.
Huffington’s life is a powerful reminder that you do not have to follow the beaten path and that it is possible to craft your own journey. That is an important lesson to give to our students. It is certainly an inspiration for me.
Marion Debruyne is dean of Vlerick Business School
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