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French and Italian

David J. Rosenthal ’07

Associate, Madrona Venture Group

When I first arrived at Princeton I, like many of my classmates, had only vague thoughts about where I wanted to concentrate my studies. Eager to explore classes such as computer science and economics that hadn’t been offered at my high school, I also hoped to continue pursuing topics I already knew and loved, such as history and English. However, before I could get far in my explorations, fate intervened during that first semester on campus. Upon walking into my first French class, a small seminar on classical theater in the basement of Firestone Library, I never expected that the professor, Volker Schröder, would become my thesis adviser in the French department three years later.

In high school I had been lucky to have wonderful French teachers who, despite the language’s waning popularity in my school, pushed me to develop my language skills and begin studying literature in the language. As a concentrator in the French department, I was given the opportunity to continue studying a subject I already enjoyed, with many additional perks: great courses, small classes, personal relationships with professors and staff, and even a chance to perform my favorite classical plays in French with the department’s L’Avant-Scène theater troupe. Through the department, I was able to craft a highly personalized schedule of courses and independent work around my particular literary and cultural interests, and spend significant time in France three times during my undergraduate career: first with L’Avant-Scène, then as a participant in Princeton in France, and finally doing research for my thesis, a study of the myth and history surrounding France’s most famous winemaker, Dom Pérignon.

Although becoming a French concentrator was an obvious choice for me, it did perplex much of the rest of the world. My parents were always supportive of my major, but many other adults often viewed me as a curiosity. As I progressed toward graduation, the inevitable question seemed to follow me everywhere: Just what was I going to do with my French degree when I finished?

Developing real-world skills

Truthfully, although I never could have anticipated it at the time, the decision to become a French concentrator was one of the best career choices I made at Princeton. Looking back on the skills I gained through closely engaging with professors and peers in small classes—critical thinking, discussion and analysis, and perhaps most importantly, effective written and verbal communication—I don’t think I could have asked for better preparation for the business and investing world. And, thanks to the flexibility afforded by a small department, I still had the freedom to explore many of the classes across campus that I originally had hoped to discover. By graduation, I had racked up five courses in computer science, four in history, and three in economics. 

After graduation, I entered the investment banking analyst program at UBS in its technology, media, and telecommunications group. Many of the 150 analysts entering in my year had studied some combination of business, finance, or economics in their undergraduate careers, and as a French major I was concerned about starting behind the curve on the finance skills I needed to be successful. After a few months catching up on the intricacies of leveraged buyout modeling, however, I soon found that—with practice—all of the financial concepts I needed were indeed learnable. By the end of our first year out of school, I and the other liberal arts majors in my analyst class were indistinguishable in capability from our more formally trained counterparts. Moreover, as I’ve progressed through my still-young career, starting at UBS, spending a year at The Wall Street Journal, and now in venture capital at Madrona Venture Group, my liberal arts skills have proved hugely beneficial, first as a corporate adviser and now as an investor. The ability I gained at Princeton to read and process a large amount of information, distill its essential points, form a point of view, and express it clearly are the cornerstones of what I do every day in my work.

My advice to current undergraduates is simple: Follow your passions. Study what turns you on intellectually, whether that’s economics, molecular biology, French, or anything else. Job skills are learned on the job, and you’ll have the rest of your life to figure out the accounting consequences of straight line versus accelerated depreciation. Your time at Princeton grants you a rare opportunity to pursue knowledge purely because it excites you, and that is something I can guarantee you’ll miss when you exit FitzRandolph Gate.