10 Successful Entrepreneurs Who Didn’t Graduate College

Rethinking the necessity of a college degree for professional success

A college degree is widely perceived as an indelible part of ascending the career ladder. The academic knowledge that a degree entails, the plethora of experiences that earning a degree comes with, and the prestige associated with higher education are all seen as integral tools in making a mark and excelling in any field. 

However, history has proven time and again that a college education is not necessary for an individual to make it big. 

We’ve compiled a list of 10 individuals whose names will go down in history, regardless of their educational qualifications – or lack thereof. 

1. David Karp, Founder of Tumblr — David Karp dropped out of highschool in his freshman year to work on computers and hone his web development skills. In his times, the New York school system lacked a computer science education, prompting him to drop out. In 2007, he founded Tumblr, a microblogging website, which was acquired by Yahoo for US$1.1 billion in 2013. 

2. Larry Ellison, Founder of Oracle — Ellison was named ‘Science Student of the Year’ at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, from where he dropped out and moved to The University of Chicago. Eventually, he dropped out from there as well. Ellison and the co-founders of his company, Software Development Labs, first developed Oracle for use by the CIA. In 1981, IBM got on board with Oracle, before which it had less than 10 employees. 

3. Jan Koum, Founder of WhatsApp While a student at San Jose State University, Jan Koum was also working at Yahoo. A couple of weeks into his internship, he received a call from Yahoo Co-founder David Filo, asking him for assistance when he was in the middle of class. Eventually, Koum dropped out of his university, and founded WhatsApp. In 2014, WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for US$19 billion. 

4. Jack Dorsey, Founder of Twitter and Square Jack Dorsey dropped out of New York University just one semester short of graduating; today, his net worth is US$8.1 billion. In 2016, Dorsey gave a third of his Twitter shares to his employees, and in April 2020, he announced that he would be donating US$1 billion for COVID-19 relief. 

5. Michael Dell, Founder of Dell Technologies —Michael Dell’s parents hoped that he would pursue a career in medicine, but he borrowed the meager amount of US$1000 from them to set up a business in computer accessories. A year later, he dropped out of university to focus on his business. Today, Dell’s net worth is estimated to be US$35.6 billion, and the Dell-EMC merger of 2016 was the largest technology acquisition ever. 

6. Lucy Guo, Founder of Scale AI and Backend Capital — Lucy Guo was a recipient of the Thiel Fellowship, an award funded by Peter Thiel, a Co-founder of PayPal, for select students who drop out of university to pursue other projects. She founded two companies, and was the first female product designer at Snapchat, despite dropping out of Carnegie Mellon University. 

7. Rachael Ray, host of  the TV show ‘30 Minute Meals’, entrepreneur, author — Rachael Ray dropped out of Pace University while pursuing her Communications and Literature degree, to take up a job at a gourmet grocery store. Fast forward a few years, and she has made a name for herself as a celebrity chef by hosting her own TV show, ‘30 Minute Meals.’ She also owns a clothing store, Moxie Made, and has authored several books which have appeared in the New York Times’ bestselling list. While perhaps not an ‘entrepreneur’ as defined by contemporary Silicon Valley terms, Ray’s achievements and worldwide renown are notable.

8. Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group — Richard Branson found it difficult to keep up with others in his class owing to his dyslexia, and didn’t even complete his secondary schooling. Today, he is one of the most renowned entrepreneurs in the corporate world with a net worth of US$4.5 billion. Branson’s take on higher education is very simple: “In my opinion, entrepreneurial drive beats a fancy degree anytime.” 

9. Subhash Chandra Goel, Founder of Zee TV — Subhash Chandra Goel was forced to drop out of high school in his last year due to family financial constraints. At the age of 19, he joined his family in working to pay off a debt of INR500,000 (US$6678, a hefty amount at the time. After years of struggle and by dint of hard work and perseverance, he set up Zee TV, India’s first Hindi Satellite TV station, in 1990. 

10. Amancia Ortega, Founder of Zara — At 13, Amancia Ortega worked as a delivery boy for a shirtmaker, took up jobs as a draper’s and tailor’s assistant and ultimately never finished his high school education. Yet, he went on to found Zara, which was valued at US$18.4 billion as of 2019. For a brief period in 2015, Ortega was also the world’s richest man. 

College degrees are undeniably important in equipping an individual with tools that can assist them in their professional ventures. Yet, these success stories are living testament to the fact that with determination, creativity and just a smattering of luck, the sky’s truly the limit. 

Header image by Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz on Unsplash

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