9 Business Lessons From The World’s Top College Dropouts

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that you’ve got to have a college degree to achieve success in business and in life. But there are other ways around it. If you didn’t find the answer to the mystery of market success in college, take heart. Some of today’s top industry and thought leaders have made it big after forgoing higher education in search of success in the real world. And we’ve learned some of their secrets. Consider these nine business lessons from the world’s top college dropouts, and don’t be surprised if you learn something that you’d never find in the classroom.

  1. Be Good and Be First

    “First!” The annoying cry of Internet commenters is actually a commonly successful tech strategy. If you’ve got a knack for tinkering with gadgets and the intestinal fortitude to learn several programming languages early in your life, going to college to refine your craft may prove too slow of a pace for those who wish to be at the top of the technorati. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard halfway through their college careers, and Steve Jobs dropped out of Portland’s Reed College after just six months. If you’ve got your eye on being a tech mogul, consider forgoing a formal education. If the tech world values one thing, it’s being the person who gets there “First!”

  2. People Will Listen To You Anyway

    Whether you agree with him or not, shock-jock conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh proves that you don’t need a college degree to get the world’s ear. The long-time stalwart of political media dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University after just over a year, claiming that his only passion was radio. And 40 years later, Limbaugh remains one of radio’s most passionate (and extremely controversial) practitioners. If you’re worried about falling into oblivion because of your lack of academic credentials, worry not. If you talk loud enough and long enough, the people will listen.

  3. Real World Experience Can Win The Day

    Master of his craft and the granddaddy of organic architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright dropped out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison to find work in Chicago. After working for Joseph Lyman Silsbee as a draftsman for just under a year, Wright scored an official apprenticeship under Louis Sullivan, the father of modernism. He obtained a loan from Sullivan to buy and build his first private home, and secured an office next to the industry giant when their offices were relocated to a building Wright had worked on.The master architect’s corpus of work includes more than 500 works, most famously New York’s Guggenheim Museum. He also penned 20 books, and has been aptly named “the greatest American architect of all time.”

  4. Defy All Odds

    “Don’t listen to the haters,” is another way to say it. There will always be detractors on your road to success, but you’re better off putting on blinders and keeping your nose to the grindstone. Larry Ellison, founder and CEO of Oracle, created a database for the CIA after dropping out of two different colleges, and parlayed that project into the second largest software enterprise company in the world. After a few false starts and enduring many legal battles, the software giant became the third richest person in America (just after his friend and wedding photographer, Steve Jobs). He made some unpopular choices and believed he would succeed, and Ellison didn’t get started until his 30s. So much for taking the road most traveled!

  5. Stand On The Shoulders Of Giants

    Had he not dropped out of Fullerton College to see Star Wars and follow his dream, James Cameron would probably be a pretty bad physicist or English major today. After dropping out of college, he took a job as a truck driver and studied special effects, ultimately quitting his job to make movies after seeing George Lucas’ first masterpiece in theaters. While Lucas’ career path itself is an inspirational business story, James Cameron knew epic filmmaking when he saw it. And he rode this wave straight into movie legend, heading up the two top grossing films of all time (Avatar and Titanic). Cameron saw something great in Star Wars, and truly used the work product of an elder contemporary to catapult his own work into cinematic history.

  6. Start Early. Really Early.

    Native Texan Michael Dell thinks outside the box. And he started young. The billionaire computer giant made more money in a year than his economics teacher by creatively targeting potential customers for Houston Post subscriptions during high school. Years later, Dell dropped out of the University of Texas, as he was making plenty of money building computers when he wasn’t in class. During this time, Dell applied for a vendor license and was able to win bids for computing contracts for the State of Texas. At the age of 27, Dell became the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500company. And he’s been growing his hardware and computing empire ever since.If you don’t want to waste your time on college, take a page from the diligence of Michael Dell, and, besides your business, don’t waste your time on anything else.

  7. Be Better At The Basics

    His designs and life are the stuff of every American prep’s dream. Studying business at Baruch College, fashion emperor Ralph Lauren dropped out after only two years. He’d already been selling neckties to students in high school, and his career path seemed clear cut from there. He scored some early investors and a memorable brand (Polo), and the rest is history. Lauren’s net worth is estimated at more than $6 billion dollars, and there’s a good chance that you’re wearing a shirt or tie either designed or inspired by the mogul himself.By focusing on what he believed in, the designer cut his own path to notoriety by providing solid, basic products, and capitalizing on the youthful hope of Americana style.

  8. Be Careful Who You Work For

    NYU dropout and entrepreneurial commodities trader Marc Rich has made and lost several fortunes, and yet still ranks as a bona fide billionaire. Working as a trader at Philipp Brothers (now called Phibro, LLC), Rich dealt metals and raw materials, and eventually formed his own company, called Glencore. In the business world, Rich is known for revolutionizing commodities trading, but he did so in a way that directly defied United States embargo laws on Iranian oil in the ’70s — he worked with Ayatollah Khomeini, and struck other deals with Middle Eastern dictators. Indicted by then-U.S. Federal Prosecutor Rudy Giuliani, the billionaire trader remained abroad (and on the list of the FBI’s Most Wanted List) for many years.Although he was officially pardoned for alleged tax crimes on President Clinton’s last day in office in 2001, Rich’s life choices remind us of this: there are things worth more than money. When a country is holding hostages from your country of citizenship, striking a lucrative oil deal is not the best policy. Unless you want to retire as a billionaire art collector and live in Spain. Wait. What were we supposed to learn again?

  9. Diversify

    She’s the most influential woman in the world, and the richest African-American of the 20th century. And that’s just the beginning. The talk show host turned market leader has her hands in lots of pies: talk shows, radio, her OWN network, a magazine, acting credits, a production company, and more. She’s one of the world’s greatest success stories, and one of the most inspirational people to ever walk the planet. And she dropped out of Tennessee State University in 1976 to begin her own career path and create her own life trajectory.Oprah went from rags to riches by utilizing her emotive style and focusing on helping people, no matter their plight. Of the many lessons we can learn from her, one great one is this: diversify, diversify, diversify. The influential guru and cultural icon has so many things going at once, that she’s not only the recipient of millions in residual and passive incomes, she’s also got the means to invest wherever her heart takes her next. And if one thing fails, there’s always something else. In this way, Oprah can never be dethroned.

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