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The liberal arts advantage

Alumna and business owner Catherine Crago Blanton used her liberal arts education to get in on the ’90s technology revolution.

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As a history graduate, Catherine Crago Blanton immediately understood the high-tech revolution of the 1990s and the role she could play in it.

Crago Blanton spent her time at The University of Texas at Austin studying revolution, social change and foreign cultures, learning about the Middle East, for instance, from Professor Hafez Farmayan and modern Europe from Professor Carolyn Boyd. Those lessons immediately resonated when Crago Blanton who began working at SEMATECH, the semiconductor consortium, after graduation.

“That knowledge is what helped me get into the semiconductor industry,” Crago Blanton, a 1995 graduate, said. “You could see the anatomy of revolution happening on the shop floor.

“I knew how to ask questions like, ‘how is this innovation going to change the way people think and work, how will it change the market and what’s fueling this?'” she said. “All of that is history.”

Today, Crago Blanton owns Austin-based Diversity Interactive. The 4-year-old company advises businesses on how population changes will impact the economy and create new opportunities. Her firm also helps global technology companies overcome cultural barriers after mergers, acquisitions or while doing business overseas.

She spends weeks at a time in Asia advising clients and works with organizations such as Dell, Samsung, USAA Insurance, SEMATECH’s ISMI (International SEMATECH Manufacturing Iniative) unit and the Texas Department of Insurance.

Naturally inquisitive, intelligent and persuasive, Crago Blanton credits her success with technology companies to her liberal arts education, which also included a heavy load of Russian language courses. The humanities, she said, taught her how to approach problems and understand their implications.

“With a great liberal arts education, you can do anything,” she said. “You learn how to learn.”

A Wisconsin native, Crago Blanton has always displayed a passion for learning. She attended high school in Belgium and earned an International Baccalaureate degree there while studying English, French, German and Dutch.  After enrolling at The University of Texas at Austin, she collected degree requirement brochures from various colleges and laid them out on a table to decide which path to pursue.

Liberal Arts was so scholarly. You weren’t just learning skills that could fade away or become obsolete,” said Crago Blanton. “You were learning the questions you need to ask in order to build knowledge.”

Crago Blanton has since built her career by asking such questions — questions that others don’t think of — and using the answers to effect change.

At Andersen Consulting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, her analysis and foreign language skills helped her sell projects globally.

At her own firm, she helps clients understand how cultural differences can get in the way of product development. For example, many words and phrases — “probably,” “almost certainly” — have different meanings in different cultures, which can affect a global team of engineers’ ability to measure risk. And Americans routinely use double negatives while Koreans do not; increasing the potential for bugs in the software code they develop together.

When working with technology firms, Crago Blanton said that understanding systems from the perspective of a history student, can lead to serious applied models that impact the economy. At SEMATECH, for instance, she created the first site selection model for the semiconductor industry. It relied on plant-level data, but also political and economic data. That model was used to make $1 billion to $2 billion decisions on where a high-end plant should be located.

“We’ve used the same model globally,” she said, “but incorporating more details about knowledge, workers and other kinds of data and forecasts that leverage the skills I developed studying history.”

Crago Blanton’s goal is to teach people to transfer technology more quickly and accurately between groups.

She likens that to teaching someone from a different country to make oatmeal. Providing the recipe may not yield the right results if the milk is different overseas or the altitude is higher. The key, she explains, is to be clear in descriptions about how the oatmeal should look and feel. Not only what the recipe is, but how it can be applied — what the big picture is.

“Few others can see that big picture like liberal arts graduates,” she said. “Few others understand systems and see competing goals in the same way.”