12 Business Founders Who Succeeded Without a College Degree
As the cost of college education rises, it leaves many young people (and their parents) with a hard question: Is college really worth it?
I myself almost dropped out halfway through my junior year, but after a chat with my father and a semester break, I managed to eventually squeak by with a degree. It certainly didn't keep me from asking myself what I would have done with those five extra years of my life. Seth Godin made waves last year by providing an opportunity for an "Alternative MBA" program. Seth designed this because most colleges have a system for students built on life avoidance and racking up debt (to quote Chris Guillebeau).
Here are a few incredibly successful business founders who decided to take the leap and start a business without going to college. Not only did they succeed — many have some of the most successful businesses in the world. Some never went to college, others dropped out. Others on the list failed miserably by society's standards. (One student was even expelled from an Ivy League school!) Yet these moneymaking juggernauts have proven that you don't need an advanced degree to succeed as a business owner.
David Geffen has a long and distinguished career in the music industry, most notably as a founder of Geffen Records and Dreamworks SKG. Geffen attended three separate colleges, never to finish his degree. Instead of taking the scholarly approach, Geffen started his career in the music industry in the mail room of the William Morris Agency. As he moved up the ranks as an agent, he needed to prove that he actually graduated from a university. So, like any savvy businessperson would do, Geffen forged a college diploma.
David Ogilvy is known to many as the "Father of Advertising." During his lifetime, he appeared in Time as the "the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry." Yet Ogilvy never received a college degree. In fact, the young Ogilvy managed to get into Oxford on scholarship but was later expelled from the school because of his dismal grades. Ogilvy would later go on to work with successful companies like Dove, Rolls-Royce, and Shell. He also became a best-selling author with his book Confessions of An Advertising Man, which is still one of the most famous books on advertising.
Who doesn't have a stack of Reader's Digest magazines on their coffee table or in their bathroom? The tiny magazine boasts a readership of over 17 million worldwide and was the best-selling consumer magazine in the US for years. DeWitt Wallace co-founded Reader's Digest with his wife in 1922 and attempted to get his college degree at two different colleges.
David Oreck started the Oreck Corporation, which sold vacuum cleaners by mail. The company would later sell air purifiers, with Oreck as the popular spokesman in commercials and infomercials. Before Oreck became an entrepreneur, he skipped the typical college experience and instead enlisted in the Air Force in World War II and flew B-29 bombers.
Frederick Henry Royce
While most of the founders in this article had at least most of a high school education, Frederick Henry Royce is quite the exception to the rule. Royce only had a single year of formal elementary education during his lifetime. Royce accumulated vast amounts of money and success with the Rolls-Royce car and other mechanical products.
Ingvar Kamprad is known as the founder of IKEA and one of the 11 wealthiest people in the world. Kamprad started IKEA when he was 17 years old with a reward for good school grades from his father.
Phillip Ruffin is an American businessman, who has ties in casinos, greyhound racing, oil, and real estate. He's most notably known for selling his Las Vegas casino New Frontier for $1.2 billion in 2007. He also made headlines for marrying 2004 Miss Ukraine Oleksandra Nikolayenko. (Ruffin was 72 years old when they married in 2008; Noklayenko was 26.) While he had enrolled in both Wichita State and Washburn University, Ruffin never graduated with a degree. He was famously quoted as saying "you get the most experience from the business of life."
John Mackey is the founder of Whole Foods, a highly-successful retailer of natural and organic foods. Mackey has an interesting past when it comes to higher education: He dropped out of college twice and never took a business course. Mackey eventually received an honorary degree from Bentley College in 2008.
Rachel Ray is one of the most popular cooking show stars in television and a food industry entrepreneur. Not only did Ray never finish college, she had no formal culinary arts training, either. Instead, Ray worked extensively in the food industry as a restaurant and pub manager, a buyer for a gourmet market, and taught cooking classes for beginners. Today, the Rachel Ray empire includes three cooking show segments, best-selling cookbooks, and a syndicated talk show.
Bill Gates is easily one of the most famous college dropouts of all time. While enrolled at Harvard, Gates actually had a scientific paper published, and one of his sorting algorithms was developed as a solution to a professor's unsolved problem. The algorithm remained the fastest solution for 30 years. Gates dropped out of college in 1975 (with the blessing from his parents), and started Microsoft.
Walt Disney is one of the most influential entertainers of the 20th century. Disney did just about everything under the sun inside the entertainment industry. He was a film producer, director, screenwriter, voice actor, animator, entertainer, and eventually an international icon. He was also one of the most prolific motion-picture producers in the world, and a pioneer in theme park design. Disney did all of these things without earning a college or high school diploma. Today, the Walt Disney Company boasts annual revenues of about $35 billion.
Michael Dell is the founder of Dell, Inc. and one of the richest men in the world. Michael started the computer company in his dorm room as a pre-med student at the University of Texas and eventually dropped out at the age of 19. His company is currently the most profitable PC maker in the world, and his personal wealth is estimated somewhere around $19 billion. In 2006, Dell gave $50 million to his alma matter to build three research centers.