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The power of an English degree: Jim O’Connor (B.A. ’93/H&S)

“My literature classes prepared me for the business world more than anything. I draw from my English degree all the time. I’m absolutely convinced my liberal arts background has been a great point of leverage for me.”
Jim O'Connor

Alumni Jim O’Connor (B.A. ’93/H&S) likes to credit an unlikely source for his success in business—his VCU English degree. “In the business world, you’re constantly consuming information—everything from customer data, technology research, survey feedback—and you need to cull through that data and try to interpret it. As an English major, that is what you do year-in and year-out. You’re reading these poems and novels, and you’re interpreting the message and the subtext in that material,” he explains. “My literature classes prepared me for the business world more than anything. I draw from my English degree all the time. I’m absolutely convinced my liberal arts background has been a great point of leverage for me.”

Following a 20+ year career at Capital One, Jim recently became head of US operations for Allianz Travel, a division of Allianz Partners, the multinational financial services company whose core business is insurance and asset management. “Most of my time is focused on making sure we provide a great experience for our customers and associates through all our different channels, whether that’s self-service, our call center or social media,” he says. “I also spend a lot of time analyzing customer surveys and other types of data to deeply understand what’s important to customers so we can incorporate that feedback into how we design our processes.” Every day brings a new challenge. Most recently, Jim’s team assisted two customers who were hurt in the New Zealand volcanic eruption.

Of course, Jim could have never have envisioned his business career when he was a student at VCU. When he first enrolled, Jim thought he would become a teacher, however, a first full-time job answering customer letters at Capital One propelled him in another direction. “I was not only a pretty good writer, I was good at taking in information, understanding customers primary concern and crafting responses,” Jim says. That work led to a variety of roles in the operations field, and as he took on new responsibilities and excelled, he was promoted into management. It was in those bigger roles where Jim learned that how you lead people ultimately affects the bottom line. “I’m a big believer that how associates feel about their job translates into how they treat our customers. You simply cannot have a great servicing experience if you don’t have a great associate experience.”   

VCU continues to hold a special place in Jim’s heart. “I had a lot of fun, but the most meaningful experience I had at VCU was meeting so many kids from so many different backgrounds and parts of the country—and the world,” he explains. “My classes also reinforced this learning. They really taught me how to, in a really purposeful way, look at things from different angles. It certainly broadened my worldview, and certainly in the workplace today, that is super important.”

A true English major, Jim continues to write to this day. “I write mostly poetry,” he says. “I have two books that I want to write, that I’ve had in my head for 20 years. I just need to make the time to do it. I’m going to do it; I just need to figure out the time to do it.” And teaching is still not off the table. Jim thinks he might try a go at a second career after retirement.

“If I could offer any advice to VCU students, it would be this: Lean in and really enjoy having this time in your life,” says Jim. “Completely immerse yourself in learning fulltime. It’s a gift. It’s a real blessing.”

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