Yuri Cataldo went to school to study theatrical set design. Naturally, he went on to start a bottled water company. And Cataldo has a friend from Chicago who supplements his income as a set designer by working for a deck construction company, drafting backyard "experiences" for homeowners.
That's the kind of entrepreneurship — using creative thinking to make a living with an education in the arts — that Cataldo hopes to instill in students at Emerson College.
Formerly a professor at Indiana University, he has been hired to direct Emerson's new Business of Creative Enterprises undergraduate program, which will be launched for the 2016-17 academic year. The school says the major will take steps beyond existing arts business programs at Emerson and other colleges by teaching students to think creatively about practical applications for their skills.
In a rapidly changing workplace where careers are fluid and workers must be adept at self-marketing and social media, Cataldo says that it's critical for students of the arts and humanities to develop some sense of how to leverage their expertise into paying jobs.
"The ultimate goal is to turn out students who are flexible and creative problem-solvers," says Cataldo, 35.
As he designs the curriculum with the help of faculty from various departments, Cataldo is thinking creatively. Courses will define the creative economy and teach community-building, freelance survival skills, even mindfulness techniques — how to stay in the moment and cope with failure.
"The thing about art is it's subjective," he says. "There is no right answer."
Other schools, among them Bucknell University, the University of Texas, and Arizona State University, offer courses in arts entrepreneurship. In Boston, Berklee College of Music students can major in Music Business/Management.
But Emerson's president, Lee Pelton, believes the new Emerson program is unique.
"We do think we are breaking ground here," he says. "In this post-recession era, we have what can be described as a do-it-yourself economy. We're in a remarkable period in the history of American commerce, when young entrepreneurship is very prominent. We're meeting a need, and also leading the way by leveraging this do-it-yourself economy."
Pelton points to a recent Forbes magazine study that listed Emerson among the top 20 entrepreneurial schools in the country, alongside Bennington and Middlebury. The Business of Creative Enterprises major, he says, is a natural progression from the school's Entrepreneurial Studies minor and its two-year-old Accelerator program, which gives teams of students opportunities to turn their business concepts into real-world ventures before they graduate.
"We take pride in being innovators," Pelton says. The school recently established a BFA in the comedic arts, billed as the first in the nation. "This is another example of that."
Helena Fruscio, director of the state's Creative Industries initiative, has already met with Cataldo. "Colleges are one of the key parts of our economic ecosystem," she says.
Emerson students who graduate from the new major will be better prepared to enter the job market, she says.
"It's what we're hearing from employers as well. They need creative, self-motivated, entrepreneurial employees, not just, 'I know how to do this one task.' "
Cataldo, who studied at Juilliard and earned a master's degree from the Yale School of Drama, says he's approaching the creation of the new program with the shortcomings of his own education in mind.
"I was the student who kept asking the 'why?' questions," he says. "The only business advice I ever got, when we asked how we were going to make money, was, 'Don't worry. Hire an agent.' "
With a laugh, he admits his background in set design had nothing to do with his idea for a bottled water company. IndigoH2O won awards and was featured last February in the gift bags at the Academy Awards. He folded the tiny company after the Indiana State Department of Health, intrigued by the flurry of attention, informed him he'd have to make costly changes in his operations.
"Within a week, I had the greatest and worst moments of my business career," he says.
The Business of Creative Enterprises major, part of the School of Communication, will be designed to teach students to be open-minded and opportunistic about their career path.
"I don't want to call it a 'practical art degree,' " says Cataldo, though he does say that kind of terminology could be appealing to parents who worry about what their sons and daughters will do with their liberal arts degrees.
While the new Emerson program may have elements that set it apart from similar courses of study on other campuses, Cataldo acknowledges that the initiative is part of a broader trend in arts education.
"We're not reinventing the wheel," he says. But they're preparing to help students envision some new ways to put it in motion.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.