Academically speaking, we’re a bit at war with ourselves, disparaging the cultural “elitists” in their ivory towers and watching politicians cut funding for public schools and federal college grant programs, even as we tell our children that they have to go to college if they want to make something of themselves.
In this economic environment, even people with advanced degrees aren’t finding jobs. Well-known college dropouts such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and billionaire Kirk Kerkorian used to be the exception, but the internet age has opened up new paths to success for many seeking entrepreneurial startups and other creative outlets without a degree.
The following successful individuals show that at least for some, it’s more than possible to find a satisfying and lucrative career without that coveted piece of paper.
David Karp, Tumblr
David Karp is richer than you, and probably younger, as well. He was born in 1986 and never finished high school, let alone college. The boy wonder of the Web left Bronx Science High School at 15 to be home-schooled. At 17, he was pursuing a full-time career as chief technology officer of UrbanBaby, a New York parenting message board and e-mail list, and moved alone to Toyko for five months. He cashed out of UrbanBaby in 2006 and founded Tumblr, the micro-blogging platform, the following year.
Kevin Rose: Digg.com
Kevin Rose grew up in Las Vegas with an accountant dad and a stay-at-home mom, who were probably appalled when he dropped out of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1999. He started coding for dotcom start-ups, which led to a gig at TechTV, interviewing people like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
This inspired Rose, who says his idea for a social news site came about from his habit of scouring the Web for news and gossip that most mainstream sites ignored. In 2004 he founded Digg.com, a social news aggregator site where the users vote news items up or down depending on their interest in the story.
Digg’s popularity is on the wane, and Rose is now known as much for his many love affairs and his podcasting sideline as his initial success, but smart investments and new ventures in sites like Twitter, Zynga, and Foursquare guarantee he’ll be a big name in the increasingly profitable social networking side of the Web for a long time.
John Mackey, Whole Foods
John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, is often credited with opening up the market for organic and natural foods to the public at large. He dropped out of the University of Texas and joined a vegetarian co-op because, he admits, he thought it would be a good place to meet girls. He did meet his girlfriend there, and developed a passion for healthy, organic eating as well.
He opened a natural foods store called “Safer Way,” a play on the Safeway grocery chain, out of his garage in 1978, and later merged with a competitor to form Whole Foods, Inc., which now has over 300 locations in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. Despite having dropped out of two different colleges a grand total of six times, Mackey has done pretty well for himself.
Russell Simmons, Def Jam
Russell Simmons was pursuing a degree in sociology at City College in Harlem in the early 1980s when he began working as a party promoter in the then-underground rap music scene. In 1983 he left school and, with only a couple thousand dollars, co-founded Def Jam Records to release music shunned by the major labels at the time. Simmons turned out to be a genius at promotion, giving Run-D.M.C. their big start, negotiating the deal that got them on MTV in 1984 when rap was still sidelined, and later signing the Beastie Boys. After mainstreaming rap and hip-hop culture, Simmons went on to found the Phat Farm clothing line, produce movies and tv shows, and bring all his varied interests in under the umbrella company Rush Communications.
8 More Ridiculously Successful People Who Don’t Have a Degree
- Dean Kamen, inventor
- Ellen DeGeneres, comedian
- Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta), singer
- Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder
- Michael Dell, Dell Computers
- Rachael Ray, tv host & celebrity chef
- Steven Spielberg, director
- Wolfgang Puck, chef
Why Dropping Out Works Out — For Some People
Traditionally, people who achieve success without a conventional education are of two types — entertainers and entrepreneurs. The entertainment industry doesn’t focus much on academic achievement, and starting your own business is the most obvious way to do an end-run around careers requiring a bachelor’s degree to even get your foot in the door. Of course, being extremely smart, driven, and talented doesn’t hurt, either. With the growing prominence of the tech world, where the market changes overnight and opportunities can appear and disappear in moments, leaving school might just be the smartest thing some people can do.