10 Famous Founders Who Didn't Graduate From College

Who says a college degree is the only path to success? These famous industry leaders all have one thing in common: They dropped out.

It’s cap and gown season, and colleges across the country are sending new graduates out into the workforce. The Class of 2014 was born into a world that has always been a digital, and among the newly degreed students might be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg--ironic because Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg never walked down the aisle to accept a diploma.

While a college degree is an important resume builder, here are 10 more successful entrepreneurs and CEOs who prove that it doesn’t guarantee success:

Image: Flickr user TechCrunch

1. Evan Williams

Co-founder and former CEO of Twitter

Evan Williams attended the University of Nebraska for a year and a half before leaving school to pursue a freelance career in information systems. He did work for Hewlett-Packard and Intel before he and partner Meg Hourihan launched the blogging platform Blogger, which was acquired by Google in 2003. He and Noah Glass founded the podcast company Odeo where he hired Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey. The four men--none of whom hold college degrees--eventually brainstormed the micro-blogging platform Twitter in 2006. The company went public in November 2013.

2. Jan Koum

Co-founder and CEO of the mobile messaging service WhatsApp

Jan Koum grew up in a rural area outside Kiev, Ukraine, and immigrated to California with his mother when he was 16. Koum dropped out of San Jose State University, where he was studying math and computer science, and took a job at Yahoo where he worked for nine years in systems security and infrastructure engineering. He got the idea for WhatsApp in 2009 as a way to display status messages next to friends in your address book. It eventually became a mobile messaging system with 450 million monthly users. In February 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a reported $19 billion.

Image: Flickr user Jarle Naustvik

3. Sir Richard Branson

Founder of the Virgin Group

Richard Branson not only didn’t attend college; he was a high school dropout. A born entrepreneur, he launched his first business, Student magazine, at the age of 16. At 19, he started a mail-order record shop called Virgin. Its success led Branson to launch the recording studio, Virgin Records. In 1980, Branson added travel businesses to his holdings, including Voyager Group and Virgin Atlantic airlines. In 1999, Branson was knighted by Prince Charles of Wales to honor his contribution to entrepreneurship. Today, Virgin Group has more than 200 companies in 30 countries.

Image: Flickr user Coco Curranski

4. Russell Simmons

Co-founder of the record label Def Jam

Russell Simmons attended City College of New York studying sociology and dropped out to promote hip hop parties in Harlem and Queens. In 1979, Simmons became manager to his rapper friend Kurtis Blow. He eventually met producer Rick Rubin, and the pair launched Def Jam in 1984, signing LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. In 1999, Simmons sold his share of Def Jam to Universal Music Group for a reported $100 million.

5. Michael Dell

Founder of Dell Computers

A former pre-med student, Michael Dell dropped out of the University of Texas during his sophomore year to found Dell Computers. He formed an interest in computers in the early 1980s when the personal computer industry was still in its infancy. Building and selling PCs directly to customers, he dropped out of school to focus on his business. During its first year, Dell Computers had $6 million in sales. In 1992, Dell was named the youngest CEO on the Fortune 500 list of the top corporations. Today, Dell Computers is one of the world’s largest PC makers.

6. Stacey Ferreira

Co-founder of MySocialCloud.com

While in high school, Stacey Ferreira launched MySocialCloud.com, an online bookmark and password vault, with her brother, Scott Ferreira, and friend Shiv Prakash. In 2012, Ferreira saw a tweet sent out by Richard Branson inviting his followers to cocktail party with the admission being a $2,000-per-person donation to charity. She and her brother borrowed the money from their parents and attended the event, scoring time with Branson. Two months later they secured a $1 million investment from Branson and his business partner Jerry Murdock. Ferreira attended NYU, but dropped out and moved to Los Angeles to focus on MySocialCloud.

7. Ralph Lauren

CEO and Chairman of Ralph Lauren Corp.

Ralph Lauren attended Baruch College in New York but dropped out after two years to join the Army. Upon his return, he worked for Brooks Brothers selling clothing. He started designing ties in 1967, using the brand name Polo. His products were sold in stores such as Bloomingdales. Lauren later expanded into a full menswear line, and released a line of women’s suits two years later. Today the publicly traded company also sells home goods, and fragrances.

Image: Flickr user Aaron Fulkerson

8. Sean Parker

Co-founder of Napster, CEO of Brigade Media

Sean Parker is best known for being the co-founder of Napster and founding president of Facebook. While in high school, Parker started writing code for companies and interned at Mark Pincus’s startup FreeLoader. He won the Virginia state computer science fair for developing a web crawler and earned an internship with the CIA. Bringing in more than $80,000 a year through his computer work, Parker convinced his parents to let him postpone college. He and friend Shawn Fanning founded Napster, which Parker calls “Napster University,” because it taught him the entrepreneurial skills he used to later invest in tech companies including Facebook, Spotify, Airtime, and WillCall. Parker’s net worth has been estimated at more than $2 billion.

9. John Mackey

Co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market

John Mackey was a student of philosophy and religion at University of Texas in Austin when he dropped out of school to open a health-food store with then-girlfriend Renee Lawson Hardy in 1978. Called SaferWay, two years later the partners merged with Clarksville Natural Grocery, owned by Mark Skiles and Craig Weller, and renamed the business Whole Foods Market. Starting with a single Austin location, Whole Foods has grown into an $11 billion company, with more than 340 stores. Mackey is co-CEO with Walter Robb IV.

10. Dov Charney

Founder and CEO of American Apparel

Dov Charney started selling clothing while a high school student in Montreal, importing Hanes and Fruit of the Loom T-shirts from the United States and selling them to Canadians. He enrolled in Tufts University, but dropped out in 1990 to launch American Apparel, borrowing $10,000 from his father and moving to South Carolina to manufacture clothing. Originally selling his garments wholesale, Charney opened his first retail locations in 2003 in New York, Los Angeles, and Montreal. In 2006, he sold American Apparel for $360 million, but remained on as CEO.

[Image: Flickr user drewsaunders]

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4 Comments

  • Shimon Shmueli

    Cool people and the fact that they succeeded says a lot of good things about them and the specific environments in which they worked their ways to success. Possibly about the larger environment (I humbly don't know).

    But I would like to see more than hype that potentially distorts reality and creates the equivalent of the Michael Jordan effect on kids. How about some stats that show how entrepreneurial success rates correlate with education?

  • Frank Daley

    Dear Fascist B, I agree with you in principle, but it never hurts to show how some exceptional things get done by exceptional people in exceptional circumstances.

    It can give hope or inspiration to some people.

  • Articles that continue to trumpet successful leaders without a degree are disingenuous and misleading.

    For those that are entrepreneurial and are starting their own business or intending to be self-employed, a degree may or may not be useful. But for the vast majority of people that are going to be employed by someone else, suggesting a "college degree is an important resume builder" and not an actual requirement is almost dangerous.

    I don't think it's wise to highlight exceptions to the norm as the norm.