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Below is an ironic infographic that so nicely illustrates how some of our most iconic (and wealthiest) entrepreneurs never graduated college. This is an attractive meme based largely on casual evidence. Apparently this evidence is enough to power the belief, or implication, that college is irrelevant or even detrimental to entrepreneurial success. So powerful and attractive is this belief that even Stanford-educated-billionaire-Paypal-founder-Facebook-investor Peter Thiel established the Thiel Fellows aka “20 under 20”:

Thiel Fellows are given a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.

While I don’t want to be the one to challenge or question anything Peter Thiel thinks will be successful, I do question the underlying logic. If the top Billionaire/Entrepreneurs all skipped college – then does this necessarily mean skipping college made them entrepreneurs? I’ll also point out that, the iconic entrepreneurs below all are men. By that same logic we should be encouraging only men to drop out of college and become entrepreneurs.

I called the infographic ironic because it was created by and forwarded to me by an organization whose purpose is to get people to enroll in college. Then again, they offered a coda many might miss:

But not so fast!
These outliers were driven by passion and became incredibly successful, while most of the 1.2 million people who drop out of college every year will just end up being dropouts.

 
 

Success Without College
Created by: AccreditedOnlineColleges.net

Written by CJ Cornell

CJ Cornell

Serial Entrepreneur. University Professor. Software Engineer. Media Executive. Venture Capitalist. Researcher. Marketer. Advisor. Mentor. Author and Speaker. Founded or co-founded nearly a dozen companies in software, digital media and television.

For the past few years I’ve been Co-Director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship and Professor of Digital Media & Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, and the university’s first full time Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Currently Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at New York Institute of Technology and Managing Director at Propel Ventures LLC.

 

3 Responses to Entrepreneurial Success Without College

  1. Eric says:

    Great post, CJ.

    This is myth-building, creating the “American entrepreneurial heritage.” It’s very, very consistent with what the 19th-century American mechanics did when they lost ground to the new class of civil/mechanical engineers that arose after the Civil War. For example, James Watt was the mechanics’ patron saint: He never went to college, perfected the steam engine through personal industry and sheer brilliance, couldn’t raise funds for eight years from “those stupid capitalists,” and then changed the world. The “Mechanics Mirror” (1846) makes the point: “Watt, whose monument towers far above the most famous of philosophers—that man, along with the majority of the great men, sprang from a working class. He was a mechanic and the son of a mechanic.”

    Get the drift?

    Eli Whitney is another of the conventional myths–he overheard a conversation and two months later had built the cotton gin, the other machine that changed the world. One bio says he came from “the best school of all mechanics, the New England hill farm.”

    This conveniently leaves out the fact that Whitney put himself through Yale.

    Andrew Carnegie would be the trifecta here, a poor Scottish boy who came up through the ranks in telegraph and railroad before creating his steel giant and, yes, changing the world. In a 1885 essay (from “Empire of Business”) he says, “Look out for the boy who has to plunge into work direct from common school and who begins by sweeping out the office. He is the probable dark horse that you had better watch.” In 1890 he listed the great industrial companies of his day—Baldwin Works for locomotives, Disston’s Works for saws; Pullman of Chicago for cars; Westinghouse for electrical apparatus, Harper Brothers, publishers; Colt’s Works in Hartford for firearms; Singer Company for sewing machines, Ames Works for shovels: “Every one of these great works was founded and managed by mechanics, men who served their apprenticeship.” Then he explained, they got ahead “Because leaders entered business in their teens, while the college student has been learning a little about the barbarous and petty squabbles of a far-distant past, or trying to master languages which are dead, such knowledge as seems adapted for life upon another planet than this.'”

    Needless to say, Carnegie dominated steel by adapting the Bessemer process–Henry Bessemer being an engineer. And, Carnegie changed the industrial world by establishing R&D (“overhead” that the mechanics wouldn’t tolerate) and hiring chemists and engineers and all kinds of college grads. And as time went on, he even admitted it, shifting gears and speaking of engineers: “Such young educated men have one important advantage over the apprenticed mechanic—they are open-minded and without prejudice. . .Great and invaluable as the working mechanic has been, and is, and will always be, yet he is disposed to adopt narrow views of affairs. . .It is different with the scientifically trained boy; he has no prejudices, and goes in for the latest invention or newest method, no matter if another has discovered it. He adopts the plans that will beat the record and discards his own devices or ideas, which the working mechanic superintendent can rarely e induces to do.”

    For every graphic like you have shown we could do one with 10, 20, maybe 100 young folk who skipped college, started a business, and couldn’t make a go of it. Or who “entrepreneured” the 14th “paypal” or “instagram” because that’s all they knew. It’s good to get a little fuel in the tank, and college does that. Plus, go to the right place and you begin to build a global network; that alone is worth the price of admission.

    The graphics are pretty, but doing graphics on outliers yields lots of heat but hardly any light!

  2. CJ Cornell says:

    I definitely agree that the college-dropout turned billionaire-entrepreneur is part of the American mythology. It’s hard to counter such a compelling rags-to-riches (or “against all odds”) type of story. As a serial entrepreneur who has been creating and teaching university entrepreneurship programs, I actually interpret this anecdotal infographic a little differently. Most interpret it as “you see, education has little to do with success!” or worse, imply a correlation or causation: “if you don’t go to college you have a better chance of becoming a Zuckerberg, Gates or Jobs.”

    The fact is that, with the exception of Steve Jobs, all the other entrepreneurial success icons had *significant* college educations. They dropped out because 1) they were all were working on something that demanded 110% of their time, and 2) staying within the confines of an undergraduate program forced required them to devote attention, time and focus to subjects that were not of immediate relevance to their new venture. In short – college (particularly Ivy League), requires 80-100+ hours of work per week – and the time requirements are at odds with anything else that requires 100% of your energy.

    But, you know what else is true? All of those entrepreneurs were also unmarried and childless when they built their ventures. Does this mean that being married with children makes you a bad entrepreneur? No. Just like college, being married with children is also something that requires significant time, attention and focus, and is at odds with becoming a great entrepreneur.

    All this anecdotal data means is that (notwithstanding the innate talents, AND other unique contributing circumstances) these entrepreneurs also had the time to devote to their new ventures. There are so many implications, lessons and other interesting discussion points beyond a comment-reply. One day one of us might dive into this more deeply for the benefit of readers and future entrepreneurs.

    CJ

  3. […] is in stark contrast to the meme that the young, college dropout is the model for the modern day successful entrepreneur. … […]

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