As a biology major at the University of Texas, Michael Dell began upgrading computers in a dorm, in a bid to make some money. In 1984, he registered his company as "PCs Limited." As for that biology degree? Well, he never got around to it. Dell dropped out in 1984 and became a computer magnate who's now worth an estimated $13.5 billion.
And he's not alone. Apple's Steve Jobs, Microsoft's Bill Gates and Virgin's Sir Richard Branson (a member of the AOL Small Business Board of Directors) all have billions of their own to boast of. But there's one thing they don't have: College diplomas. They didn't need syllabi or textbooks to learn business, and like many successful entrepreneurs, they learned that just getting "out there" was the best way to launch their startups, which became some of the best-known companies on the planet.
"I suppose I was born an entrepreneur," Branson says. "I've always loved creating things I could be proud of."
At the tender age of 16, the future knight launched his first successful venture -- a magazine called Student. A few years later, he launched Virgin as a mail-order record retailer, and later opened a record store in London. Today, he oversees an empire of hundreds of companies, in industries ranging from air travel, telecommunications and entertainment, and is worth an estimated $4 billion. He never even made it to college.
Dell, Jobs, Gates and Branson are already household names, but what about the next generation of millionaire dropouts? Meet a few of the diploma-less entrepreneurs who also may be destined to climb the world's richest rankings one day -- even without a degree to their names.
When Cameron Johnson was nine years old, he made invitations for a party his parents were throwing. He put his name and logo on the back of the invitations -- yes, he "branded" himself -- and soon new orders were streaming in from neighbors who wanted his services. But looking back, Johnson says that was just "a small thing" in his career. At 11, he acquired his sister's Beanie Baby collection for $100 and sold it on eBay, raking in $1,000 in four days. He soon became the second-largest Beanie Baby retailer on the Internet, making $50,000 a year before becoming a teenager. He went on to launch myEZmail.com, an e-mail forwarding company (hey, it was a novel concept in the '90s), and Surfing Prizes, a company that provided scrolling advertisements on Web browsers. Johnson, 25, is now unaffiliated with the 15 websites he started in his earlier early years, but he has transitioned into a speaking career, focusing on entrepreneurship, technology and the economy -- and is reportedly worth more than $3 million.
Johnson had always looked up to Dell, Gates and Branson, and he recognized the one thing they had in common: They all dropped out of school. Would he need a degree to be successful? His gut said no -- college would remove him from the business world for four years, and he was already making more than many of his professors. But Johnson's parents disagreed, so he enrolled at Virginia Tech and decided to use his undergraduate years as a way to meet other smart people and potential business partners. But college didn't last long. Johnson dropped out after seeing his own name and photo in an entrepreneurship chapter of a business textbook.
"An education is something that can never be taken away from you -- I believe that," Johnson says. "But the traditional path of education wasn't for me."
Johnson credits his business skills to his parents -- his mom took over her dad's distribution company (what is now U.S. Food), and his dad owns a Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealership. "They taught me the value of a dollar," he says.
And while Johnson remains lukewarm toward entrepreneurship programs, he thinks entrepreneurship boils down to whether or not somebody is willing to take that first risk.
"I don't think it's necessarily a 'taught or made' thing," Johnson says. "It's about courage."
Networks, Not Homework
Courage is something Portland, Ore.-based chip designer Jeri Ellsworth knows about. Bored of sitting in class repeating the same exercises 50 times and being chided for exploring the backside of her electronics, Ellsworth decided to drop out of high school. She went on to get her GED, then dropped out of Walla Walla College -- she was only there to get access to chipmaking equipment anyway. Once microchips became cheap enough, Ellsworth indulged her curiosity at home with $500 microchip kits and a stack of books. She taught herself how to design chips without any formal computer-science training.
"Schools can only target 80 to 90 percent of average folks," leaving outliers to fend for themselves, says Ellsworth, 36. "I knew if I wanted to get into this field, I had to show people I could do it." Which wasn't easy -- she was rejected by many a Silicon Valley HR department simply for being diploma-less, until she stepped up her game and became a schmoozer.
"I knew I had to keep networking, shaking hands and sharing my story at trade shows," she says. Eventually one person took a risk on her. The client was happy with her work and referred Ellsworth to a colleague, who referred her to someone else -- and so on. It seemed she didn't need a degree after all, and when Ellsworth's Commodore 64 landed her some press in The New York Times in 2004, no one cared about her B.S., or lack thereof. Now she has the luxury to take on numerous projects at a time, developing intricate and elegant machines out of circuit boards and LEDs. Some freelance projects are more research-based, others are artsy, and the breadth allows her frenetic personality to run wild.
"In tech, it's like the Wild Wild West, where if you're good at something, they don't really care if you have a degree," she says. Plus, fresh graduates might not have the experience to make it in the big leagues. "You gotta get your teeth kicked in a few times and make some really bad mistakes and know what not to do."
While Ellsworth doesn't regret forgoing her degree, she has words of caution for entrepreneurs like herself. "You have to have passion if you want to bypass school," she says, "because you have to work twice as hard to get where you want to be."
Big Blog Off Campus
Matt Mullenweg, 26, knows about passion -- he's passionate about blogging, and he left the University of Houston in 2004 after two years to start Automattic, the site behind the blog platform WordPress and survey site PollDaddy. He's certainly done well for himself -- he's worth an estimated $40 million -- and while he didn't need a college education to be successful, Mullenweg laments the days when his only job was learning about political movements and philosophy, with a few hours of hobby-blogging here and there.
"The idea of having no responsibilities except general edification seems like such a luxury now," he has blogged. "When I had it, all I wanted to do was hack around on the Web. Now the vast majority of my hours are hacking around on the Web."
Even the Ivy League isn't immune to dropouts. Tom Szaky -- a Canadian who didn't know that Princeton was in New Jersey until he got to campus -- left college after two years. Szaky was on fall break during freshman year in Montreal when he saw a bountiful weed (yes, that kind of weed) harvest that owed its success to worm and organic waste. The light bulb went off, and he began packaging worm waste in used soda bottles that later ended up on the shelves of Home Depot and Walmart. Over the next year, he would head home after class and work on his business, the way college basketball players head to the gym to work on their free throws. He didn't solicit help from professors and says the faculty was "hands-off" in that respect. By his sophomore year, TerraCycle was taking off -- he had a logo, a name and a diversified body of products -- and it was now or never.
"I would have loved to stay in school, but TerraCycle was starting to grow and I was putting more time into it," says Szaky, 28, also a member of the AOL Small Business Board of Directors. "I took a semester off, which turned into a permanent leave."
The business has evolved since 2003 -- kites made of Oreo wrappers and picture frames wrapped in bicycle chains, part of the company's "upcycling" line of products, helped catapult revenues to $7.5 million in 2009 -- but he still spends time on campus as a guest lecturer and thinks teaching could be a fun career down the road. For now, he's focused on waste, and he's able to indulge his inner dork with the science of composting. Looks like he didn't need that behavioral economics degree after all, much like other dropouts who felt the need to quit school and carpe diem.
"I have nothing against school," says Szaky, author of Revolution in a Bottle. "TerraCycle was happening, and that was the decision at the moment."
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 2/9/11.