What You Can Do With An Anthropology Degree

This is a transcript of the talk I gave on November 9, 2016 at Grand Valley State University.

Hi, good afternoon everyone.  I’m Veronica Kirin.  I’m a graduate of GVSU class 2009 from the Anthropology department – my focus was Cultural Anthropology.

I’m here today because I wish someone like me had spoken to my class.  Anthropology is regularly rated as one of the top ten useless degrees — which is silly and untrue.

I want to start by asking you why you are here.  What drove you to get a degree in Anthropology?  Also, what do you plan to do with it at this point?  All answers are valid.  Please state your name, too.

*students answer*

Wow.  You guys are so cool.  Can I be your friend?

I think you know by now that Anthropologists are really good at a few specific things, so I’ll be preaching to the choir, but hear me out.  Typically those who are drawn to the degree path are already open minded, but the course of study opens our minds even further.  We get really good at research *laughs* and are trained in critical thinking.  Of course, we’re usually pretty good at people as well — if not in front of people, then in understanding them.  We’re taught to remove ourselves from our own perspective in order to remain unbiased.  That’s not something most other disciplines get.

A typical career course for us is academia.  Become an Anthropologist, choose a field of study, choose a group in which you’re passionate about, and stick with that.  Write papers, books, etc.  Preserve history, and, in may respects, translate it to others.  That may look like university work, but it also could be work at a museum.

Another path is through Applied Anthropology — using our knowledge and abilities (dare I say superpowers?) to translate between two cultures.  The best worst example is the military, especially in Iraq.  This, as you know, is frowned upon since we have a ‘do no harm’ mentality.  We’re not meant to disrupt or exact change, only observe.  This is a bit hard these days with a Global Society, but we do our best.

Finally, many of us recognize corporate opportunities, but probably aren’t very interested in them (yet).  GM is the best example.  They make products for international use, which need to work within the cultures they sell to.  I believe (Dr. Weibel will correct me if I’m wrong) they were, at one time, the largest employer of Anthropologists in the United States.  Someone in this department told me that so I know I didn’t make it up!

Anyway, that’s not a lot to chose from, and it sells our degree short.

Here’s an example of an experience I had shortly after starting my career.  I was discussing work at a networking event with an owner of a PR firm and happened to mention that I’m an Anthropologist.  He stopped and told me that he would rather hire an Anthropologist over a Marketer any day of the week – for a marketing job, mind you.  I was really proud of my degree at that moment.

But he’s right.  Anthropologists are kickass at anything that involves thinking about humans — which is pretty much everything!  We’re really good at understanding others and translating to them.  Within our own culture there are subcultures, and businesses need help speaking to those groups.

Even more, we really can do anything we set our minds to.  We’re excellent chameleons because we have learned to remove our own priorities in order to better understand others.  With our researching prowess, we really can learn our way to anything.

So here’s my experience doing just that.  I started in the disaster relief world as a case worker.  Immediately my degree was at use, not just with how to do a good ethnographic interview and truly listen, but also to empathize with what was happening without getting caught up and making their stress my own.

When I completed my term of service, I wanted to do more.  Here’s where the research comes in.  I decided to start a tax exempt nonprofit organization all by myself.  I didn’t have a board to support me or cofounders, just an idea and the drive to make it work.  I researched my way into the Articles of Incorporation with the State of Michigan, researched how to complete the 40 page 501(c) IRS paperwork, and (finally) researched how to build a board, including bylaws and code of conducts.  I lead two volunteer teams, researching how to create expectations and volunteer forms in the process.

Today I’m a serial entrepreneur.  My first and main business is website design, development, and maintenance.  I had no clue how to code — but I researched my way into it.  I researched how to build contracts, handle employees, and guide clients through the development process.

In doing all this (and much more… it’s addicting) I learned an important fact.  Anthropologists are being hailed as the new Design wave because of how we can think about users.  WIRED Magazine wrote an article all about this.  Instead of approaching a user interface or product from the point of view of the function already developed, we approach it with the humans in mind.  This makes us way better at Design Thinking and Human Centered Design.  As tech fields grow, we’re going to be in high demand.

Finally, I want to leave you thinking about the two side projects I have going.  The first is a book (hopefully to become more of a main thing).  I used my research and interviewing skills to interview elders born before 1940 about how technology is changing us.  It’s a blend of ethnography and nonfiction writing, and it is not sanctioned by a university.  I just decided to do it, figured out how to fundraise on Kickstarter, and am doing it.  The lens with which we begin to see the world due to this degree allows us to truly explore other perspectives — and, again, bring them to others.

My other side project is a temporary one.  I am managing a crowdfunding campaign for a woman named Zahra, an Afghan refugee here in Grand Rapids.  Her mother and sister are still in Afghanistan and, with no male guardian, are in real danger.  They were all child brides, and have various levels of disability due to the beatings they’ve received.

Not only was I able to research how to develop this project, I am able to represent it in a way that donors can resonate with while still remaining culturally and historically accurate.  I’m sure there are a lot of people who can strive toward this, but I know that my background in Anthropology makes me all the better at it.

Now let’s talk about you.  Have I gotten any wheels turning?  Any new ideas popping up?

Balancing Entrepreneurial Life and Travel

It can be dangerous to own a business.  That’s right, I said it.  Those of you who know me may be confused.  Indeed, I love owning a business, including its ups and downs.  But it takes a lot of time and effort to keep things rolling, and distractions like travel or big hobbies often have larger consequences than when working for someone else.  Many of us started our businesses with freedom in mind.  The question is, how to balance it all?

Start Planning

The most important thing is to plan.  Plan plan plan.  If you can’t plan, you’re going to have a hard time running a business, no?  Start small — plan your daily life.  When do you start work?  When do you end?  I’ve discussed the importance of balancing the work / life divide before, and I stand by every word.  Knowing where your line is drawn in the day-to-day is the first step to knowing when you can ‘get away’.

Once you have a rhythm, start adding and taking away from it.  This will give you a better idea of what you can manage.  If things get overwhelming or out of hand, pull back or hire someone.  Make some changes.  And don’t stop experimenting while maintaining your foundation.


The most important important part of untethering yourself from the day-to-day is finding a system.  That system may be a person — either a manager, assistant, or trusted employee.

Virtual Assistants

Many small businesses, startups, and entrepreneurs take advantage of a Virtual Assistant to manage the day-to-day.  It is worth finding this person long before a trip so you trust them completely during your absence.  My personal favorite VA program is Fancy Hands, but a lot of entrepreneurs I know found theirs on Fiverr.


Simply working ahead once you have a trip / event in view may be all your business needs.  This includes alerting your clients that you’ll be less responsive for a period of time.  By telling them in advance how their accounts will be managed before you leave, they don’t worry.  Nearly everything in your day-to-day can be automated, including social media posts through the likes of Hootsuite.  For example, this post went live without me using WordPress’ post automation, as I am currently in Croatia.

Update Your Followers

My clients really appreciate knowing where I am so they can feel a part of the journey.  When I tell them I’ll be gone, I also offer to send a few photos of the trip.  That way they know they were considered the entire way.


Networking while on vacation is probably a bad idea unless you can compartmentalize and spend only one day per week away doing work / networking.  But if you’re like me and prefer to take long trips and work away from home, this is a wonderful opportunity to experience CoWorking Spaces and meet colleagues abroad.  Start asking your local network for connections where you’ll be at least three months ahead of time.  Reach out to those people or locations to introduce yourself and explain your intent.  Why do you want to network abroad?  Why do you want to work at a coworking space for a day?  Not only will you get valuable experience, you also may build connections that will grow your international referral network — and it makes your trip a tax write off!

Traveling takes your body away, but what about your mind?

I once heard a story about an entrepreneur who was checking his email in the lobby of a Caribbean Hotel while on vacation.  A couple walked by, and the woman said to her husband, “What a shame that he can’t let go of work while on vacation.”  Yes, it would be a shame if the entrepreneur was working for someone else and was forced to work during his vacation.  Luckily, the foundation of being an entrepreneur is passion for what you do.  The entrepreneur in this story felt very differently about his situation than the couple.  He was proud to be checking his email while away, to see how things were going, and maintain contact with clients and employees in spite of his travels.  Most importantly, he had a choice in doing so.  Likely, his level of commitment is indicative of a successful venture.

There is no harm in thinking about your business when you’re not there.  In fact, vacation can be the most generative time for ideas and growth.  As Inc. Magazine put it, some of the best places to come up with next steps for your business are way outside of your normal environment.  The most important thing is to make sure you document these ideas in a way that allows you to save them for when you get back, so you can relax while you’re away.  Draw a mind map, throw down some bullet points in a notebook, or record your voice on your phone.  Then set everything down and soak up some rays (or ski that alpine slope, if that’s more your style).

How do you manage work while you’re away?