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A college graduation is one of the most awaited and important milestones in someone’s life, and it almost seems like this is the standard formula for success – academic excellence followed by putting your skills and knowledge to good use.
There are people who have walked down this path, and then there are the ones who have strayed far away from it, choosing to opt out of formal education at various stages. Yes, a college degree is undoubtedly a pathway to employment, but is that the only possible way of achieving knowledge, expertise and skills?
For the last few decades, the world of successful people has seen a mix of those that took the typical route to success, and those that took the risk of taking the road less traveled. Both kinds have seen success and fame, and there’s nothing to say one route is better than the other. Taking the college route has its own challenges, rewards and benefits, and so does the dropout route.
How does one make the journey from dropping out of college to success? Here are the very inspiring stories of the most successful college dropouts, who are currently making waves in the world. How has their journey been, and what are the lessons they’ve learned on their way from being college dropouts to making a mark on the world?
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This list couldn’t possibly begin with a name other than the legendary Bill Gates. Founder of Microsoft, the world’s largest software business, and one of the richest men in the world, Gates is an inspiration for techies and entrepreneurs all over the world. His success wasn’t defined solely by his innumerous contributions to Microsoft and its technological innovations, and successful business strategies – in 2014, he stepped down as Microsoft’s chairman to focus on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – a philanthropic organization that has had a far-reaching impact in some of the most remote, underdeveloped corners of the world.
Gate’s interest in computers began when he was just in school, where on an old terminal bought by the school from garage sale proceeds, he coded his first program – a game of tic-tac-toe using BASIC, to get the computer to play against him.
From there to now, Bill Gates’ net worth today is a whopping $90.8 billion, but when he decided to begin Microsoft, he had chosen to drop out of university in 1975, and that too Harvard. In his freshman year at the university, he spent most of his time in the computer lab rather than in class, continuing his interest in computers from his schooldays.
Eventually, Gates would go on to found Microsoft with his partner Paul Allen, who he had met during his school years at Lakeside school, and go on to become an inspiration for entrepreneurs for decades to come. In an interview, Gates recalled that he and Allen had once had their school computer privileges canceled for a while because they used software glitches to get free computer time from the company that had given the computers. Around the same time in 1970, these two young men, both around the age of 15, earned $20,000 for their first business project, when they developed ‘Traf-o-Data’ – a computer program monitoring the traffic patterns in Seattle.
Gates has addressed millions of people in his life, at university addresses, conferences and conventions. The most memorable of these is probably his return to his alma mater in 2007, when Harvard University, the same place he dropped out of, gave him an honorary degree. When asked about his own experiences as a student, he revealed that he always loved learning, even though he rarely attended his own classes. He attributes much of his success to his love for learning and for looking for knowledge in places beyond university walls.
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There’s quite no way one can miss this leading lady of daytime television. A popular face on TV, a prominent social figure and a media mogul in her own right – these are only some of the names that best describe Oprah Winfrey – one of America’s highest-paid female celebrities and an icon in the entertainment world.
After a rough and particularly tumultuous early childhood where her family faced extreme poverty, Oprah’s life took a turn for the better when she went to live with her dad, who enrolled her at East Nashville High School. It was here that she thrived and excelled, discovering her love for media as a part of the speech team and a stint at the local radio station. By her senior year at this school, Oprah had secured a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. While still a sophomore there, she got a job offer from CBS, which she first rejected twice and then took up on a teacher’s advice, dropping out of university.
Today, in her sixties, she has created a name and identity for herself across the world, as both, a woman, and a woman of color. Starting her long and promising career when there were gender disparity and racism to battle, Oprah went on to become the face of American daytime television, with The Oprah Winfrey show running for 25 years, in addition to publishing her own magazine and owning a television network. She’s a multi-billionaire in America and is a hugely significant philanthropist.
Oprah’s success transcends her professional achievements and her 3-billion dollar net worth – she has also become a voice of inspiration for millions, and also one of the most powerful and influential people in the US. Think about this – in the 2008 elections, it was Oprah who was responsible for bringing Barack Obama over a million votes by supporting him publicly. She continues to use her influence as a significant philanthropist, also inspiring millions with her lessons on life and success.
When most children of his age were playing with toys, seven-year old Michael Dell was investing in stocks. When he enrolled in a pre-medical program at the University of Texas at Austin, he found it extremely unchallenging and dropped out.
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These are only some of the things that will leave you spellbound when you take a peek into the incredibly inspiring life of Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of Dell Computer Corp – the world’s leading computer systems company. He began his business while still in pre-medical college, where during his first semester, Dell spent all of his time putting together upgraded computers and selling them, right from his dorm room. He would purchase outdated machines from local retailers and upgrade them to become the earliest models of what would eventually be sold at Dell Corporation.
His success with his dorm room venture sparked off the idea that his real success lay in computers, not medicine, but Dell’s parents refused to let him drop out of medical school. Eventually, he reached a bargain with his parents, promising to return for the next semester if he could not achieve his sales targets over the summer he’d taken a break. In his very first month of putting together remodeled PC’s, Michael Dell earned $180,000.
Today, in his position as the longest-tenured CEO in the computer industry, and with a net worth of $24.3 billion Michael Dell’s principles and unwavering dedication to perfection are as firm as they were in his college days. He continues to inspire, and motivate millions of tech professionals and entrepreneurs, sharing his hard-earned knowledge and lessons on perfection, innovation and hard work.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary personalities to have made their mark in the world of technology, product design and innovation, is Apple Inc’s founder Steve Jobs. His vision of a computer “for all of us” was the spark that led to the American computer revolution. Jobs re-thought the very idea of a personal computer, proving himself to be a visionary and a revered genius.
Unlike many other entrepreneurs, Jobs didn’t drop out because he had the option to, or because a chance of luck brought him a better opportunity. He was forced to choose between family struggles and his own education at Reed College. Jobs didn’t give up, and spent the next few months gathering the knowledge he needed from various sources. Eventually, he would put all of this to good use when he set up Apple.
When he was young, Jobs showed an early interest in electronics and gadgetry. In his high school days, he actually reached out to Hewlett-Packard’s co-founder and president William Hewlett to ask for parts for a school project. This led to Hewlett being extremely impressed by Jobs, offering him a summer internship at Hewlett-Packard. This was where Jobs met befriended Steve Wozniak, a young engineer five years his senior who shared his passion for tinkering with gadgets.
In 1975, Jobs and Wozniak teamed up and started off in the former’s parent’s garage. This was the birth of the Apple I prototype. Remember, this was the 1970’s, and venture capitalists weren’t waiting to come out of the woodwork to help entrepreneurs. In order to fund the investment for their first ever prototype, Jobs actually sold his Volkswagen microbus and Wozniak sold his Hewlett-Packard calculator.
Over the next decade, Apple’s success skyrocketed, as it brought to the market, one revolutionary product after another, including the iPod portable digital audio player, the Apple iTunes Store in 2003, the iPhone handsets and iPad tablet computers in 2010. Jobs’ vision is what led to Apple’s products becoming what they are – simple, clean designs, optimum utility and constant innovation.
Jobs may not have completed college, but he left the world a very important message – that there is more than one place one can learn from, and that learning is a lifelong process.
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One of the richest people in the world, and hailed as one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs, Mark Zuckerberg is the CEO of Facebook, and an inspiration to many. With a current net worth of over $71 billion, Zuckerberg started Facebook as a means to help his classmates at Harvard match names to faces, when he was all of 19 years old. He then dropped out of Harvard in 2004, moving to Silicon Valley and working on Facebook full time, launching Facebook in the very same year.
From then to now, Facebook has 2.2 billion active users, and has acquired other companies such as Whatsapp and Instagram, taking Zuckerberg’s net worth to new heights. In 2012, Facebook went public, with Zuckerberg still owning an estimated 17% of the stock. In addition to founding the world’s most successful social network, he has also taken it upon himself to motivate and inspire millions of young entrepreneurs and students, as well as to create an impact in the social sector. Together, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Can aim to give away 99% of their Facebook wealth to philanthropy, over their lifetime.
If you’ve heard of Twitter and Blogger, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Evan Williams too. Williams founded these companies after dropping out of the University of Nebraska, which he attended for a year and a half.
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After dropping out, Williams worked with various companies in the tech sector before returning to his family farm. In 2007, he founded Twitter, which would go on to become the most popular social media platform out there, with more than 300 million unique visitors and more than five billion people in traffic a month. Despite his success as an entrepreneur, his focus has remained on his ventures, and on knowing what’s best for them. His ability to do this led to him stepping down as Twitter’s CEO, to focus exclusively on product strategy.
Ellen Degeneres has become synonymous with many things on television – her wit, cutting sarcasm and fearless voice among them. From being a successful comedian to an iconic talk show host, Ellen has captured millions of hearts all over the world.
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One would have never thought that this lady, who in her countless episodes, public appearances and media interviews, has dazzled the world, could actually be a college dropout. The truth is, Ellen dropped out of the University of New Orleans after just one semester to pursue her dreams. After leaving school, she worked odd jobs, mainly waitressing at restaurants while continuing to perform at stand-up gigs at local venues which paid nothing or very little. Her first break came nearly four years later, on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
From there, Ellen has come a long way, having two television sitcoms of her own – Ellen from 1994 to 1998, and The Ellen Show from 2001 to 2002. Then, in 2003 came The Ellen DeGeneres Show which has been her biggest success and still runs till date. After she came out as a lesbian, she has gone on to become a powerful voice for sexual minorities and women.
Along with her net worth of $360 million, DeGeneres achieved so much more – she has hosted the Academy Awards, Grammy Awards, and the Primetime Emmys. She is the author of four books and founder of her own record company, Eleveneleven, as well as a production company, A Very Good Production. In 2016, this college dropout went on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, possibly the biggest testament to her success.
Dropping out of university did not come in the way of Tom Hanks’ journey to success. The actor, whose acting skills have wowed the world and gathered him millions of fans was studying theater at Chabot College, which he attended for a little over two years before dropping out, giving up formal education for an internship with a theater company in Ohio.
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His next few years in the company were all about learning the trade of theater production, until he landed his role in the film Splash – his first big commercial break. From then to now, Hanks is one of Hollywood’s most loved and respected actors, having done critically-acclaimed, award-winning films like Forrest Gump, which won him the Oscars in 1995.
While Tom Hanks may have dropped out from Chabot, he attributes much of his success to his the alma mater, and never misses an opportunity to reminisce about the lessons he learnt there.
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If you have marveled at the ease and convenience that WhatsApp has brought to your life, there is one man you most definitely need to read up about. Jan Koum is famous as the founder of WhatsApp, the messaging app used by over 1.5 billion people, particularly in developing nations, but the story of how he got to that place is more than inspiring.
The child of immigrants, Koum was born and raised in a small village outside Kiev, Ukraine. At 16, Koum and his mother immigrated to the US, and his life was one full of hardships. From surviving on food stamps to dealing with his mother battling cancer, life threw Koum the sourest of lemons, but he persisted, supporting his education working odd jobs.
By 18, Koum was a self-taught techie, relying on used books and manuals for his education, good enough to join a hacker group and finding his way among the servers of other tech companies. While he was enrolled at San Jose University, he also worked with Ernst & Young as a security tester. After an interview with Yahoo in 1997, he secured a job with them but was still studying, until he dropped out when Yahoo summoned him into office when a company server broke down.
In the next few years Koum’s messaging app would go on to take on Blackberry’s BBM, which was the only free texting service at the time. In 2014, Facebook acquired Whatsapp for $19 billion, almost doubling Koum’s net worth which today stands at $9.1 billion, making his story truly one of those from rags to riches.
Behind WordPress, the content company that powers 25% of the internet is 34- year old Matt Mullenweg. While the internet and the world looks up to him and his company for the platform they have created for millions of organizations online, not many know that Mullenweg is also a college dropout.
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Matt Mullenweg was a student at the University of Houston, when he and Mike Little started WordPress in 2003. Next year, he dropped out, accepting an offer from CNET to work in San Francisco. The promising prospects of a job with CNET, however, didn’t stop him from continuing to pursue his dreams – his acceptance of CNET’s offer was on the very condition that he could devote 15% of his time to his side project, which would eventually take the form of WordPress and the many other organizations he co-founded.
Eventually, Mullenweg founded Automattic – the company behind WordPress. Today, WordPress alone rakes in 140 million visits per year, contributing to Automattic’s total of nearly half a billion visitors.
Matt Mullenweg’s journey from being a dropout to a highly successful entrepreneur is inspiring, not just because of his net worth or his company’s success. He is one of the youngest dropouts-turned-millionaires today, and one who has managed to make WordPress a success story of its own. At 34, Mullenweg has amassed more than just wealth, and is one of the most sought-after inspirations for young entrepreneurs.
There is a lot to be learned from the stories of these people – not just about becoming rich, or establishing yourself as a successful entrepreneur, but also when it comes to learning from all the places one can learn from – from the world, from conversations with people, from those who admire us and those who don’t. There’s no doubt that dropping out of college to become a success is not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are those who did it, albeit working just as hard or even more than they would if they had stuck to the same path as others.