Millionaire Entrepreneurs Who Didn’t Need a College Degree

This is the story of an stereotypical college dropout’s day. To save time and my sanity, I’m giving you the highlights.

This morning on his way into work, he listened to a CD by Aerosmith or Counting Crows. He pulled his car into a parking space in front of his office building, grabbed the now-empty Wendy’s bag that once held his drive-thru breakfast, and went inside.

At his desk he booted his Mac or PC (from Dell or Gateway), sent a quick text message to a friend using his BlackBerry (letting him know that it’s about time he upgraded to some kind of smart phone or PDA), and then spent the day goofing off on Facebook.

Tonight, he’ll probably flop down into his IKEA sofa and watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on TBS, before firing up Wolfenstein. Which he’ll play until he falls asleep on his IKEA sofa at about 2:00 a.m.

In this short narrative, our dropout’s life has been touched by 17 other college dropouts who went on to much much bigger things. So what’s our guy’s excuse? And who were these mysterious dropouts?

For some of the guys on this list, it was a matter of building up enough money to start their own business. For others, success looks easy because they were … and I can’t stress this enough … insanely smart. Like if they didn’t go into business they’d be Bond-villains or President, right now. And there are a couple who caught a lucky break or had the right idea at the right time.

However they found their success, the entrepreneurs on this list are the exceptions — most dropouts end up in lower-paying employment, and the lack of a college degree is often a barrier to even getting a job interview. Please pay attention to the fact that more than half of these guys quit school because they were already making money — the others all started their businesses before MTV went on air. So if you’re in school, contemplating leaving to start your own company, we officially advise you to try doing both. And if you don’t have the energy or time management skills to do both, even for a little while to see if the business can be successful, it’s probably a sign you should be concentrating on getting your degree.

Richard Branson (Virgin Records) and David Geffen (Geffen Records) founded record labels which released CDs by Aerosmith and Counting Crows respectively. Branson left high school at 16, and by the time he was 20 has a mail-order business for audio records. In 1972, aged 22, Branson opened a chain of record stores, Virgin Records. In the 1980s, Branson built Virgin Atlantic Airlines and Virgin Records (the record label), and became known for trying to break the transAtlantic water-speed record, and for hot-air-ballooning around the world. 
Geffen dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin after his freshman year, though he forged graduation papers to get a job with the William Morris Agency, who manage entertainers. After leaving William Morris, Geffen managed Crosby, Stills and Nash, and began his own record label while trying to find a label for Jackson Browne. Asylum Records signed artists like The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell before it was acquired by Warner Brothers. In 1980, Geffen launched his own label, signing breakthrough acts like Guns n Roses, Nirvana, Sonic Youth and The Stone Roses.

Henry Ford. If you drive a car, you’re in a machine which is, for the most part, much the same as the vehicles that Ford rolled off his assembly line in 1903. Ford didn’t have much opportunity for formal schooling, but still managed to work his way up to Chief Engineer at the Edison Illumination Company before starting the Ford Motor Company.

Dave Thomas dropped out of high school when he was 15, and moved in with a local family who ran the Hobby House restaurant in Ft. Wayne, Ind., working as a full-time busboy. After a a short spell in the military during the Korean War, Thomas went back to Ft. Wayne. Hobby House franchised with KFC, and Thomas became instrumental in the growth of the KFC brand. In 1969, he opened Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers. There are now over 6,000 Wendy’s restaurants.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak both dropped out of college to found AppleComputer, Inc. in 1976. Jobs dropped out of Reed College in Portland, Ore., in 1973, while Wozniak left University of California, Berkeley, in 1975, without a degree. When Apple went public in 1980, they both became multi-millionaires. Wozniak finally returned to college and earned his degree in 1986. 

Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard after a year, to work with his friend, Paul Allen, at Honeywell in Boston. Allen had dropped out of Washington State University in 1973. In 1975, Gates and Allen founded Microsoft. You know the rest.

Michael Dell dropped out of the University of Texas after starting Dell Computers in his dorm room. In 1992, Dell became the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation. Ted Wait dropped out of the University of Iowa after one semester to start a company called Gateway Computers with his brother.

Mike Lazaridis was two months away from graduating from the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, when he responded to a request for proposal from General Motors. The pitch earned Lazaridis a half-million dollar contract, and allowed him to found Research in Motion, which introduced the BlackBerry smartphone to the cellular market in 2002.

One of the most startling success stories about college dropouts belongs to Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Muskovitz, students at Harvard who created a social networking site for students in 2004. It was called TheFaceBook (then, it’s just now). When Yahoo! realized its potential, they offered Zuckerberg a check for a billion dollars. Which he turned down. Facebook currently has about a half-billion registered users, and Zuckerberg’s personal wealth is estimated to be about $4 billion. 

If you’re dyslexic and Swedish, you’ need to have some unearthly drive and ambition to succeed in business and become one of the richest people in the world. Which is what you’d expect from Ingvar Kamprad, the guy who founded furniture retailer, IKEA.

You know this next guy’s name, right? Steven Spielberg was turned down by the big-name film schools, and went to California State University Long Beach. Spielberg interned at Universal studios where he made a 24-minute short movie, Amblin’. After being offered the chance to direct TV shows for Universal, Spielberg dropped out of school. In 2002, the veteran movie director completed his degree at USCLB.

Ted Turner‘s start in business ownership came when his father committed suicide and, aged only 24, Ted took over his father’s billboard business. Turner attended Brown University, from which he was suspended twice, before being asked to leave in his fourth year. By the late 60s, the Turner Advertising Company was the largest outdoor advertising company in the Southeast United States, and generated enough money for Turner to purchase a TV station in Atlanta (TBS), which he followed up by buying the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the Atlanta Hawks basketball franchise. In 1980, Turner created CNN. 

After spend a year in a juvenile home for stealing Apple II computers from a local school when he was 14, John Carmack attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City for two semesters and then dropped out to work as a freelance computer programmer. In 1991, Carmack founded Id Games which revolutionized the video gaming industry by creating the 3D graphics engine used in games like Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein, and imitated by countless others.

So those are the millionaire dropouts who routinely have a hand in what we do, almost all of us, whether we have Ph.Ds or HSE Certifications. Some can thank a little luck, others can thank their giant brains, but all of them have a determination and a desire to make a difference, do something that will change the world, and spend all day doing something they love. Sure, they’re all rich. But the important thing is that, for all of them, it was their passion that drove their business.

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