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Alumni Essay: Dodge White, '87 (international studies)
Several months after leaving Whitworth in the summer of 1987 I found myself very frustrated with my education. I had spent tens of thousands of dollars on this notion of a liberal arts education only to feel like I wasn't trained to do anything in particular. I felt I didn't have any specific training that I could use to get any specific type of job. And now, 23 years later looking back, I see I couldn't have been more wrong.
While assessing my educational experience in the summer of 1987, I didn't have the perspective to factor in many things I can see more clearly now. I had just returned from four months in Central America. The experience had pretty well devastated the rational construct through which I had made sense of the world. I was looking for something that I could just slide into and a place to belong. Had I been trained for a specific job, then all I'd have had to do was just start working. I didn't want to think. I wanted to escape my thoughts. And so what did I do? I took a job as a welder's helper with a mechanical and industrial fabrication company based in Spokane. I got an apartment and got as far away from academia as I could. Working with my hands was just what the doctor ordered.
I remember, while I was in the religion department, one of my professors telling me that if my Whitworth experience taught me to analyze information, ask questions and think for myself, then my time there had been successful. Little did I know the value of what was being suggested. Though I had come from a white-collar world and thought I was aimed at a white-collar job, I found myself covered in the steel filings and welding grime of as profoundly a blue-collar world as I could have imagined. And my education continued where it had left off with graduation and a diploma in international studies for which a possible use was completely unknown to me. Even in the blue-collar world asking good questions and being able to think well had advantages. I learned quickly, becoming a welder, and in under a year I was a superintendent, managing crews, working with our clients in a field in which I had absolutely no training. Whitworth had prepared me to learn and adapt. Within another year I was the senior superintendent, managing millions of dollars of construction each year, multiple job sites at once, and several large crews of personnel. At this point the owners of the company approached me with an offer of a one-third equity position in the company. The entrepreneurial seed was planted, but ultimately I still had a restless spirit and wasn't ready to take on the long-term responsibilities of ownership.
After having worked for several years averaging 70 plus hours a week, I decided to do my first semi-retirement at the age of 23 (I was an early starter, having graduated from Whitworth just after my 21st birthday). I took six months off and played, relaxed and reflected. My reflections brought me to the realization that I had been raised with the prejudice that blue-collar people were blue-collar because they were uneducated and lacked ambition. I learned that this couldn't be further from the truth. I worked with people who had master's degrees in art and literature, and my time spent in the literature department gave us common ground. My primary mentor in welding wanted to get a Ph.D. in history and since my degree was a mix of history and political science we had a lot in common and became great friends. Most of the people I worked with were ambitious. Most were as smart and educated as anybody I met at Whitworth. Most, like me, just wanted a break from the white-collar world for one reason or another. Some didn't quite know how to get back to their dreams; some didn't want to go back and changed their dreams. While I learned to work steel I also started exploring my creative side and started sculpting steel and writing poetry. During my short retirement from the working world, I sculpted a lot and that brought me to my next adventure.
One of my father's professors from the Virginia Military Institute had started a manufacturing company making hospital bed prototypes to explore a patent they held on some innovative research on healing patients and how hospital beds often interfered with healing. I was recruited to help with the manufacturing and design of these beds. One of the job perks was that I would be provided space and resources to continue sculpting. Being involved in a startup appealed to me. The entrepreneurial seed started to sprout. So, I packed up in Spokane, threw everything I could into my Toyota pickup, and off to Lexington, Va., I went.
As I left Spokane a woman entered my life; another Whitworth graduate. As I worked on the hospital beds and sculpted we struck up a torrid correspondence and soon she moved to Virginia and we married. As the entrepreneurial sprout grew I began to note that I wasn't satisfied being a deckhand on somebody else's ship, I wanted to sail my own. After some philosophical differences I quit the hospital bed company and went to work for a wholesale landscape nursery as a handyman. It paid the bills and freed up my time to sculpt more. As the idea of family grew in my mind I decided that I wanted to build my own house someday. I contacted an old friend in Seattle in construction and found a job as an apprentice carpenter. Once again I packed the Toyota and crossed the continent again, but with a mate this time.
I started at the bottom again in a new trade working for a residential general contractor. We built a few new homes, but mostly remodeled homes. Once again I moved up quickly with my Whitworth education aiding me. (As you may guess, I was no longer frustrated with my lack of training. I was having too much fun exploring all the things that I was interested in doing and learning!) The ability to ask questions, to think on my feet, to adapt quickly to a new field of work were all foundations set at Whitworth. They were helping me excel in the new field of home-building. One of the other benefits of my Whitworth education, I was beginning to realize, was that it had facilitated my ability and confidence to explore my curiosity. While at Whitworth I did three study tours: Israel, Washington, D.C., and Central America. I had a lot of confidence in my ability to move and adapt to new and unfamiliar territory. While working for this contractor, I wanted to learn other trades and was granted permission to work along with the subcontractors in other trades to gain a bigger picture of home-building. After starting as a laborer in residential construction, within a year I was successfully managing projects and excelling in areas where I had never imagined I'd be working. As is often the case in construction, after a few years I was laid off due to work a slowdown in the housing market and perhaps poor planning on my employer's part.
I quickly found another job with another contractor. I noticed early on how this contractor did business as compared to the previous contractor and I began to formulate my own thoughts regarding business practices. I also began to do "side work" for various people. The entrepreneurial sprout started to spread its roots. During this time I was doing volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity, and through my contacts there I met some people who owned a construction cost-consulting business. They recruited me to work for them. I was trying to buy a house, and this new line of work proved to be more stable and attractive to mortgage lenders, so I took it.
At this new position I was exposed to commercial construction and design. I learned about larger and more complex construction practices. I learned the nuts and bolts of estimating and costing jobs. I also was introduced to the idea of value engineering and it had a lot of appeal to me. This new company was having some struggles with corporate culture, and I got involved with helping to solve these issues. Here I was exposed to business philosophy and many of the ideas around business excellence and quality business practices. I ended up taking on the role of quality control manager and employee advocate. My interest in business and entrepreneurship grew. After a year of cost estimating I realized I had little interest in sitting at a desk and was having a hard time staying awake. After so many years working in the field, I couldn't sit still easily. So when the marketing position became available in our company, I applied for it, thinking that having a technically competent marketer would be more advantageous with our client base of architects and engineers. I correctly assumed my construction background would give me more credibility with our clients, and I found myself now in a whole new line of work as a business-development specialist for a professional services company. Who could have predicted?
This last position rounded out my education in the world of business as far as I could get without going back to school. It became clear at this point that I really wanted to be captain of my own ship. I told my employers of my intention. I asked to join the company as a partner and was denied. It was time to move on, but I didn't know where to go, or what to do. So, I took my second short retirement. I spent time remodeling my home and planning my next move. During this time, an old friend and mentor approached me about working with him at the company where he was currently working. They were building a very complex and expensive home that was more of a "live-in" sculpture. The job appealed to me because it had some very bright and talented craftsmen involved and it would be a new challenge in utilizing my skills. The unique challenges of this job involved the need to design and fabricate special tools. My design, welding and manufacturing skills came in handy, and through this job I built 17 custom tools. I had a lot of fun, but once again I noted how the business was run, and my philosophical differences left me longing for my own business.
During lunch with an engineer who had owned and started one of Seattle's largest and most successful engineering firms I was told his startup story. As he reflected upon starting his business, he told me that while he was in startup mode it looked as if he was trying to climb a 40-foot brick wall without a rope or a ladder, but as he looked back he realized that it was nothing more than a small concrete curb to step over. I decided to trust him and go on faith that in the end this huge wall I faced of starting my own business would be just a small step. I left the last employer I've had 14 years ago, at the age of 27, and started my own construction company. It is one of the best decisions I've ever made. The engineer was right about what it would look like in retrospect. I've been running my own small high-end residential remodeling company for 14 years now and have enjoyed great success. One might wonder how an education in international studies at Whitworth would be useful in my line of work. I work with successful people with expensive homes. Many people in construction don't have a college education or a liberal arts perspective. Contractors as a whole don't have a reputation of being much better regarding quality business performance than used-car salespeople. Having a college education that encompassed a broad perspective of subjects (I toured the pre-med, accounting, religion, literature, history and political science majors) gives me a lot I can discuss with my clients. The fact that I'm able to converse with them and have an educated and experienced perspective on the world helps my clients trust me with one of their most precious possessions, their home. My clients often leave me alone in their home all day, so trust is a big deal. My being college-educated means a lot to them. It sets me apart in my industry. And I get all my work by referral. You can't find my business in the phone book. I've never spent a penny on advertising.
But it didn't stop there. My study tours away from campus were supported and facilitated by Whitworth, and they helped develop and fuel my fascination with the world at large. Hence, I travel a lot. In my travels I met an Australian fellow who became a dear friend. He and I recently started a new corporation manufacturing and installing large permanent commercial shade structures. It is funny to me that now I am technically the CEO of a small corporation, but since we are in startup mode it doesn't mean a whole lot to me. I am currently running both businesses, and, since they are small businesses, I am still the guy pounding the nails, setting the tile, organizing and supervising manufacturing and installation by my subcontractors, doing my own bookkeeping, etc.
My Whitworth connection doesn't stop there, either. Having nourished and maintained friendships with former Whitworth students has provided other business opportunities. A very close friend from the drama department struggled for years with an acting career. Now that it is blossoming for him, he has also moved into the writing, producing and directing of motion pictures. I now find myself being a financial backer and investor in his projects. My Whitworth experience has been invaluable to me not only in the experiences it gave me, the talents if fostered in me, the confidence it instilled in me, but also in the friendships I created there, friendships that will last a lifetime.
Whitworth shaped the values that I still hold today. My Central America experience made me more aware of the world at large, and due to this my new company has built into its corporate charter that 30 percent of all profits will go to helping others. Ten percent goes to children's causes, as my partner has an autistic daughter and we are both involved in the autism field. Ten percent goes to Third-World women's education because we believe informed Third-World women will make choices more helpful to creating the world we both want to live in. The final 10 percent goes to environmental causes because we both love the outdoors and want to see wild spaces protected and a pure and clean environment is necessary if our planet is to support future generations of human beings and other creatures.
Finally, my specific education in the history and political science departments has helped me understand the global context in ways that help me make more effective business decisions and have helped me feel comfortable partnering with a foreign national in my latest business adventure. I don't think I would have got this type of education had I just taken business classes. One can never be certain what lies ahead, but I strongly believe that a balanced liberal arts education that gives greater breadth and awareness of the human condition and the global context will be a distinct competitive advantage in the future marketplace as a whole. It has sure been a blessing to me.