One of the most exciting things about business is that there’s no one way to go about it. Each entrepreneur has a unique story and set of qualifications, whether they earned them through schooling or directly on the job.
Of course, many famous entrepreneurs and successful businesspeople never went to college at all—and there’s so much we can learn from them. Here’s what nine of them have to say about education, success, and what it takes to make it big.
For Karp, who was a millionaire by his early 20s, his own curiosity, drive, and supportive environment made his decision to drop out of high school and forgo college a relatively easy one. Though he doesn’t argue that it’s for everyone:
“For what I wanted to be doing, I was able to learn a lot of that stuff on my own and in the field, where the programs weren’t really set up in school for that just yet. It’s different today. If you want to learn how to build websites, build technology, build apps, they have terrific programs and some incredibly talented professors who are able to teach you that stuff in school today.”
Winfrey is worth an estimated $2.8 billion, according to Forbes, and ranked No. 3 on the magazine’s recent list of richest self-made women. She didn’t go to college at all but had this excellent advice for Smith graduates in 2017:
“Ask the question: How can I be used? Life, use me. Show me through my talents and my gifts, show me through what I know, what I need to know, what I have yet to learn, how to be used in the greater service to life. You ask that question and I guarantee you, Smithies, the answer will be returned and rewarded to you with fulfillment, which is really the major definition of success for me. When you can create your work and your life based on an intention to serve with purpose—make it your intention to serve through your life with purpose—you will have a blessed life.”
The famous tech innovator says financial circumstances led him to drop out of school, and he wouldn’t have it any other way:
“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.”
Branson is a staunch disbeliever in the education system for entrepreneurs. Here’s why:
“Nobody … develop[s] their unique and compelling approaches to disruptive innovation and leadership by reading a textbook but by living through the thrill, dread, and sleepless nights that come with being an entrepreneur. No matter how much you study the art of business or analyze famous entrepreneurs’ strategies, nothing can prepare you for the journey that is running a business.”
Famous TV and movie actress Jessica Alba got the idea for her ethical consumer goods company while she was pregnant with her first child. Though she had Hollywood connections, she still felt insecure about her educational experience at first:
“I thought I was dumb because I didn’t go to college. I felt if you didn’t have a degree you’d never be respected or considered intelligent. Now I realize I’m perfectly capable of doing lots of things.”
This billionaire businessman had his doubts about dropping out of school, but hindsight appears to be 20/20. Here’s how he came to his decision anyway:
“At the time I thought I lacked discipline and that I was selfish. Maybe so. But whatever the underlying reasons, I was unable to make myself into the person that I thought I should be. So I decided to stop trying.”
Even though he never finished college, he certainly told people he did in order to land his first job as a Hollywood agent:
“Look, I’m not setting an example.… But it’s an idiotic thing that you have to be a college graduate to be an agent.… Did I have a problem with lying to get the job? None whatsoever.”
On his winding path to success:
“My first job was selling Christmas cards door to door when I was 9. When I was 11, I was delivering the Los Angeles Examiner before school. I graduated high school at 17 and went into the Navy. When I got out of the service in 1964, I didn’t have the money to go to college, so I worked as a salesman for Collier’s Encyclopedia. I had 10 jobs for the next several years until John Capra, a friend who was an employment counselor, said I should try the beauty industry. He said it didn’t pay much at first, but there was no end to where you could go with it.”
As a teenager, Wintour dropped out of her fancy finishing school and opted for 1960s fast London life. She eventually landed a job in the fashion department at Harper’s, and the rest is history. Though she doesn’t have much to say about her “lack” of education, she is always reliable for some cutting advice that may benefit any starry-eyed potential drop out:
“People respond well to people who are sure of what they want.”
If there’s one common thread between all these people beyond the lack of college degrees on their wall, it’s certainly that they all took chances. And that’s something you’ll never learn in a classroom.