12 Business Founders Who Succeeded Without a College Degree

Photo: urbancow

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

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

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.

DeWitt Wallace

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

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

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

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

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.

Rachael Ray

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

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

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

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.

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Guest's picture

I like the sentiment here -- that you can succeed without a degree (with a lot of hard work) -- but I don't think you're considering a couple important facts...

This list is anecdotal at best. The data out there largely suggest that college degrees increase earnings and probability of success over one's lifetime ( For instance: http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/censusandstatistics/a/collegepays.htm ). Clearly just getting any old college degree isn't the only factor at play, but it will increase your chances for success. And this data includes thousands of people, which is more likely to be representative than the list of 12 people above, who are likely outliers.

Also, you don't have to spend $100,000 or $200,000 at a private college or university to increase your earning potential or be successful. A degree from a local community college or state college/university (or the combination) can be a much better buy and will probably leave you with very little student loan debt. Additionally, student loan debt from the Federal Gov't isn't a horrible thing to have (private lenders are a horrible thing to have) -- often the interest rates are reasonable and it's not "bad debt" as long as you stay current with your payments.

I guess my point is that we shouldn't be too quick to discourage young people today from going to college based on how successful these 12 extraordinary people were... If not only because most of them are from a different era when college degrees were more optional. It is still possible to get a college education for cheap ( Here's more info: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/pay/add-it-up/4494.html ). And even if you do finish with ~$50,000 in student loans it's likely to pay off over a lifetime.

Guest's picture

I'm so happy to read this post! Myself, my friends, family, and colleagues (college graduates all) have been having many conversations about this topic of late. While I do agree with the other poster that the list here is anecdotal, the fact is that millions of young Americans are taking on vast amounts of debt to complete college degrees that will not pay for themselves.

For a long time, it was true that those with bachelors degrees had much better prospects for earning money in established careers. That is no longer the case. I know many, many people with degrees in finance, medicine, education, and computer science who have been unemployed for some time now. Meanwhile, I know folks with Associate degrees in physical therapy, radiologic technology, and business administration who are doing just fine! True, they went to school and earned a degree - but a much cheaper degree in a much shorter amount of time!

Guest's picture

Well, 80% of self-made millionaires were Highschool drop-outs. They found no correlation beetween the environment you are coming from, the love you had when you were a child, the money your parents made etc. and your later success.
At certain point in your life you have to realize that you are the one who is in charge of your future. So, do not blame anyone else, you are the Boss.