Ever wonder where the chief executives of some of the world’s most successful companies went to college? Well, don’t tell your kids, but some CEOs never graduated college—and some never even bothered to apply.
From computers to cruise lines, these 10 CEOs made it to the top without a college degree and defied the idea that to be successful you have to have a diploma.
By Kaitlyn Bigica
Posted 02 August 2011
Position: Founder, Taubman Centers
Market Cap: $3.3 billion
Alfred Taubman, the founder and former chief executive of Taubman Centers, began his career in retail at age 11 at a Sims department store, where he continued to work through high school. After Taubman graduated, he attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for less than a year, when he was called to military service during World War II. After his service was complete, Taubman returned to the University of Michigan to study art and architecture. Soon after, he proposed to his college sweetheart and transferred to night school.
Instead of finishing college and receiving a degree, Taubman saw opportunity in the real estate business. According to his book, “Threshold Resistance,” Taubman recognized the immense expansion of the middle class after the war and decided to cash in by starting Taubman Centers, a realty company.
Over a period of about 50 years, Taubman continued to expand his company and took the company public in 1992.
Today, the company’s CEO is Robert Taubman, Alfred oldest son and, yes, he did graduate college.
Position: Founder/Former CEO, Best Buy
Market Cap: $10.1 billion
Richard Schultz, the former CEO and founder of Best Buy, started working as a paperboy at age 11 and had a series of jobs throughout high school. He had planned to go to the University of St. Thomas, but military service in the Minnesota Air National Guard stopped him from fulfilling his college-bound dream.
After his service in the military, Schultz worked for his father selling electronic components. A few years later, he founded his own company, The Sound of Music, which sold audio components, sheet music, records, tapes, and instruments.
In the 1980s, Schultz realized that a small business was not going to survive in a widely evolving industry, so he changed the name of his company to Best Buy and expanded his product line. Schultz felt that consumers would be drawn to his stores if they could see the products they were buying on shelves, instead of keeping them in the back room. This technique helped create a new experience for shoppers.
Although Schultz relinquished his duties as CEO, he still serves as chairman of the board for Best Buy. Shultz may not have attended the College of St. Thomas, but he was awarded with an honorary doctorate of law degree.
Position: CEO, Polo Ralph Lauren
Market Cap: $11.9 billion
Ralph Lauren, the chief executive of Polo Ralph Lauren, established his company in 1967 as a line of men’s ties and developed the company into a global fashion empire. Lauren’s successful clothing line came from his unique, classic style that went against conventional fashion of the time.
According to the Ralph Lauren website, Lauren said, “I never went to fashion school—I was a young guy who had some style. I never imagined Polo would become what it is. I just followed my instincts.”
With only a high school diploma in hand, Lauren followed his instincts. His decision to ditch college and focus on running his business lead to a series of breakthroughs in the fashion world, including the first shop-within-a-shop designer boutique for men in Bloomingdale’s department store in 1969. Lauren continued to build his empire, expanding it to include women and children’s fashion, fragrances, and home furnishings.
Today, Polo Ralph Lauren is one of the most successful fashion companies in the world.
Position: CEO, Virgin Group
Company Worth: $18 billion
Virgin Media Market Cap: $8.1 billion
Forget graduating from college, this chief executive didn’t even finish high school. Richard Branson, the current CEO of Virgin Group, dropped out of high school at age 16 to start Student Magazine. Four years later, Branson founded Virgin Group as a mail-order retailer. He opened his first record shop in London and two years later built Virgin’s first recording studio. In 1977, Branson signed his first big name group, the Sex Pistols, and continued to sign popular artists such as the Rolling Stones and Culture Club.
In 1984, Branson developed Virgin Atlantic and the brand began to grow. Today, Virgin Group provides mobile, broadband, TV, radio, finance, health, tourism, leisure, and travel services.
Position: CEO, Carnival
Market Cap: $19.6 billion
Instead of spending four years in college, this chief executive spent time working his way up the chain of command at Carnival.
Micky Arison, the CEO of Carnival, started in the sales department and was promoted to reservations manager in 1974. He was later promoted to vice president of passenger traffic and just three years later he was named president of the company.
Arison helped acquire Holland America Line, Windstar Cruises and Westours, allowing Carnival to become one of the leading cruise lines in the industry.
In 1987, he was appointed chairman of the board and in 2003 he reached the highest position in the company as CEO.
Arison showed that it’s possible to work your way from an entry-level position to CEO without a college degree.
Position: Founder/CEO, Dell
Market Cap: $30 billion
Most 19 year olds would spend a thousand dollars on a spring break weekend, or a put it toward buying a new car, but Michael Dell spent his $1,000 founding Dell.
The founder and CEO of Dell expanded his company with the idea that “technology is about enabling human potential.” In 1992, he became the youngest chief executive to earn a ranking on Fortune magazine’s "Fortune 500" list. His staff also grew from a one-man operation to 100,000 employees in just eight years.
Today, the company provides information-technology services for global corporations, governments, health care providers, small and medium businesses, education institutions, and home computing users.
Dell is not the only company this CEO has had a hand in creating. Dell founded MSD Capital in 1998 and a year later launched the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, a philanthropic organization for global issues.
Position: Founder/CEO, Facebook
Company Value: $100 billion (Recent estimate)
Although Facebook isn’t publicly traded, we can’t leave this chief executive out of a successful college-dropout list—besides you are probably on his site everyday.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, showed an early interest in computers. As a child, he created early communication tools and games from his bedroom. In high school, he created an MP3 program and soon received offers from AOL and Microsoft, which he ignored.
After being accepted at Harvard University, Zuckerberg built a program called Facemash, which showed pictures of students and allowed their peers to vote on who was more attractive.
Eventually, word of Zuckerberg’s talent spread and fellow Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss asked him to work on an idea for a social networking site called Harvard Connection. Zuckerberg decided to drop out of the project soon after and began work on a different social networking site, which he originally named TheFacebook.com. (The Winklevoss brothers later sued Zuckerberg, claiming he stole their idea.)
Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard before graduating to put all of his focus on the social networking site, which could be worth as much as $100 billionif Zuckerberg ever takes the company public.
Position: Co-Founder, Microsoft
Market Cap: $226.2 billion
Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, his childhood friend, is another chief executive who never got a college degree.
According to Allen’s memoir, “Idea Man,” Allen was inspired to write a coding language when he saw the Altair 8800 computer on the cover of a Popular Electronics magazine. Allen knew Gates and he both had the skills to code a programming language for the Altair and after convincing his friend to collaborate, the pair ushered in a new technological era.
Today, Allen has a multibillion-dollar investment portfolio, which includes multiple technology and media companies, along with a major real estate redevelopment in Seattle.
Allen also owns the Seattle Seahawks football team, the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, and is part of the primary ownership group for the soccer team Seattle Sounders Football Club.
Allen has given away more than $1 billion toward his philanthropic efforts and has said he plans to leave the majority of his estate to charities.
Position: Co-Founder/Chairman, Microsoft
Market Cap: $226.2 billion
College dropouts such as Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz are not the only successful business founders who attended, and then left, Harvard University.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, enrolled at Harvard as a freshman in 1973. Gates, who lived down the hall from Microsoft’s current chief executive, Steve Ballmer, created BASIC, a programming language for the first microcomputer, during his first year of college.
Gates dropped out of Harvard in his junior year to concentrate all his efforts on a company he called Micro-soft with his childhood friend Paul Allen.
As if founding Microsoft wasn’t enough, Gates went on to found Corbis, one of the world largest resources of visual information. He also earned a seat on the board of directors for Berkshire Hathaway, an investment company engaged in diverse business activity.
Today, Gates serves as Microsoft's chairman and as an advisor on key development projects.
Position: Founder/CEO, Apple
Market Cap: $362.4 billion
As a young boy, this college dropout showed an early interest in computers.
When he was 12, Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, called Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett Packard, after finding his number in the phonebook. When Hewlett answered, Jobs said, “Hi I’m Steve Jobs. I’m twelve years old and I’m a student in high school. I want to make a frequency counter. I was wondering if you had any spare parts I can have?”
Hewlett gave Jobs the spare parts and hired him that summer to work on the assembly line at his company. During this time, Jobs formed a friendship with Stephen Wozniak, a soon-to-be dropout from the University of California at Berkley.
Jobs enrolled at Reed College after high school, but he later dropped out. He connected once again with Wozniak and the pair quit their jobs to start production on a computer in Jobs’ garage.
There are different versions of how the pair came up with the name for Apple. The best-known story comes from Jobs summer spent working on an apple orchard and his love for the fruit. The bite in the side of the apple is said to be a play on the computer term “byte.”
In a biography, Jobs said he was worth more than $1 million when he was 23, $10 million when he was 24, and $100 million when he was 25.
Apple went from a garage-based operation to a multibillion-dollar, worldwide corporation, and it all started with two college dropouts tinkering in a garage.