Entrepreneurs

7 college dropouts who made millions

Paul Maidment, special to CNBC.com
Shortcuts to the entrepreneurial dream
Westend61 | Getty Images

Some of the world's biggest entrepreneurs share an unlikely path to success. These bold leaders abandoned their educational careers to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams — the path trod most famously before them by Bill Gates, who left Harvard to start what would become Microsoft.

From Ryan Seacrest and Elon Musk to Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, see what catapulted these visionaries — all members of CNBC's NEXT list — to phenomenal success.

— By Paul Maidment, special to CNBC.com
Updated 15 March 2016 by CNBC.com staff

Ryan Seacrest/University of Georgia
Ryan Seacrest speaks during Ryan Seacrest On-Air Live From Macy's Herald Square
Kris Connor | Getty Images

As a high school student, Seacrest interned at WSTR, an FM radio station in Atlanta. He later enrolled in the University of Georgia to study journalism. The following year, he landed the host's role for a weekend TV sports game show for ESPN, Radical Outdoor Challenge. In his junior year, he quit school to move for L.A., where he got his breakthrough fronting KYSR-FM's afternoon drive-time show (reportedly for $15 an hour) and hosting three TV shows for kids.

Elon Musk/Stanford
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX.
Getty Images

Musk is a bit of a cheat in this list of dropouts because he does hold two bachelor's degrees.

He began the first in physics at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, after he moved to Canada from his native South Africa. He completed it at the University of Pennsylvania, where he transferred after two years to earn his second bachelor's degree, in economics, at the Wharton School. He completed it the following year.

Musk then headed for Stanford to start a Ph.D. in applied physics but dropped out after two days to develop Zip2, a company owned with his brother, Kimbal, that created online city guides for newspaper publishers. Four years later, they sold the business to Compaq for $340 million.

James Murdoch/Harvard
James Murdoch Co-COO 21st Century Fox.
Tony Barson | FilmMagic | Getty Images

The fourth child and younger son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch went to Harvard to study film and history after graduating in 1991 from Horace Mann, an elite New York City private prep school.

At Harvard, James drew a comic strip for the satirical magazine Harvard Lampoon and edited student newspapers.

He dropped out of the university in 1995 to join friends, including former Uproxx CEO Jarret Myer, in forming Rawkus Records, an independent hip-hop label that his father's News Corp. would buy in 1998.

Travis Kalanick/UCLA
Travis Kalanick, chief executive officer at Uber Technologies Inc
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Kalanick enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, to study computer engineering but dropped out to start Scour — an ill-fated multimedia search engine that had morphed into a peer-to-peer file-exchange service — with six of his classmates.

Scour filed for bankruptcy protection to save itself from a $250 billion copyright-infringement lawsuit brought by the three big film and music industry trade groups. The Scour team reformed as Red Swoosh, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service Akamai Technologies later bought for $19 million before founding Uber, ride-for-hire sharing service, with Garrett Camp, co-founder of StumbleUpon, and himself a graduate school dropout.

Kat Cole/University of North Florida
Kat Cole
David A. Grogan | CNBC

Cole, one of three daughters of a single mother, was the first in her family to attend college. She studied engineering at the University of North Florida, but a high school job serving wings and burgers at casual dining chain Hooters turned into management duties and then an offer of a corporate job. Frequently dispatched to open Hooters franchises around the world, she dropped out of college and rose to an executive vice president roll by 26.

Only then did she go back to college to Georgia State for a master's in business administration, making Cole the only member of CNBC's Next List to have an MBA while having failed to finish a bachelor's degree. She is now group president of FOCUS Brands.

Sophia Amoruso/Community College
Nasty Gal Founder Sophia Amoruso
John Sciulli | Getty Images | Nasty Gal

Amoruso was born in San Diego, and raised in Sacramento, California. She moved out with roommates after her parents divorced, relocating afterward to Portland and Seattle, and then back to California in 2005. She took a number of courses at a local community college but opted against completing a degree. She pursued work instead.

During her spare time, she started to sell vintage designer clothing on eBay under the moniker Nasty Gal Vintage. She caught the overlap of eBay and social media at an optimal moment and harnessed her photography and styling skills to start Nasty Gal, a now multi-million dollar fashion retail business.

Correction: This slideshow has been updated to reflect Sophia Amoruso's career details before beginning Nasty Gal.

Daniel Ek/Sweden’s Royal Institute of Tech
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek
Getty Images

Ek, while still a music-obsessed teenager, albeit one already running a successful Web design and hosting business, was famously told by Google to come back when he had a degree.

Turns out the decision was Google's loss.

After completing high school in his hometown of Stockholm, the future founder of the Spotify music-sharing service enrolled in Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology to study engineering.

Eight weeks in, he dropped out after he realized his first year would be devoted to nothing but theoretical math. He then wrote a program for a local ad network, TradeDoubler, from which he made his first million selling it the rights and the second from the associated patents.

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