Opinion - Iconic Tour

Bad grades? I'm proof you can beat them and become a success

Ravin Gandhi, founder and CEO of GMM Nonstick Coatings
AJ Kane Photography

Recently I've been doing a lot of mentoring in schools, and this new generation is utterly obsessed with grades. I have an embarrassing secret: I was an awful student in high school. I was routinely kicked out of class for insubordination, I never studied, and my academic performance scandalized my family.

I know many colleagues and friends won't believe this or will think I'm exaggerating, but my actual high school report cards — with many C's, D's and (gasp) even a few F's — show this is no hyperbole. If you squint on the A's, you'll make out the words "physical education" and "photography."

Let's pause while my mom recovers from her flashback.

Although I shaped up in college, for years everyone thought I had no future because of my grades. In retrospect, I was doing very entrepreneurial things that would help me build and sell companies; they just weren't reflected on my report card.

Here's a list of success traits for students who feel like they aren't making the grade — you may indeed have what it takes to become an entrepreneur.

1. I monetized my hobbies.

I rarely did homework, but I always had something capitalistic going on related directly to my adolescent interests. I maintained profitable businesses selling fireworks, chinese stars, military gear, baseball cards, and pirated video games (hey, it was the 80's). I learned about sales, gross and net margins, working capital, inventory management, and bad debt collection — all skills that would later prove important as I started real companies as an adult.

2. Uncertainty didn't bother me.

As a deadbeat student, I was clueless about exam dates, so I was always surprised on the day of a big test. I'd take a deep breath, strain my brain and wing it. Though my grades don't indicate it, I learned something very important: How to solve problems using inference, with incomplete knowledge. This skill helps tremendously as an entrepreneur, because you never have all the information you need, and everything is a calculated risk.

3. I was stubborn.

In high school, I had a large problem with authority — parents or teachers threatening me with consequences didn't motivate me, it only guaranteed my nonperformance. But being stubborn has upsides as an entrepreneur because I am not afraid to think independently and ignore the consensus. When I started my business in 2007, many "experts" told me it was a foolish idea for dozens of reasons, all of which turned out to be nonsense.

4. I was addicted to risk-taking.

Like many misguided teens, I occasionally vandalized neighborhood houses with toilet paper, eggs, and shaving cream. How come? Because many times we'd get chased, and getting away successfully was the real thrill. Though I'm not proud of these choices, I still get a similar high these days, taking big risks in opening new markets. When my company closes new multimillion-dollar deals, I still feel that huge rush and it's still awesome.

5. I was always a storyteller.

My teachers were rightly disgusted by my appalling lack of effort, and would make me serve detentions and have painful dialogues about my poor choices. I learned to listen well, and to create extemporaneous stories (ahem, excuses) that would usually engender a passing grade or sympathy with a deadline extension. Years later, I found that articulate storytelling (and being able to read a room quickly and adapt) are two of the most important parts of being a great salesperson/CEO.

6. Feedback wasn't where I found motivation. 

High-performing students sometimes get addicted to good grades and positive feedback, impeding real-world success. Given my woeful track record, I became comfortable ignoring neutral and negative feedback, which is a huge advantage as an entrepreneur because starting a company is miserably hard. As the owner, you don't have a boss to say you're doing a good job —it's you who has to be a fountainhead of positivity and empathy to (in my case) hundreds of employees, which I love to do as a leader.

7. Feeling small created huge drive.

I was 16 when I graduated high school (I skipped a grade after my parents received this letter), so my peers were bigger, stronger, and faster than me for many years. While this was difficult at times, it paid dividends in my will to succeed because I got used to having to work harder to keep up. I became a ringleader and was always persuading others to join my plans. Today, I am very (my wife would say irrationally) confident that if I want something, I will do whatever it takes to achieve it.

8. I always read obsessively.

Though I never opened schoolbooks, I was a voracious reader from a very early age (comic books, detective stories, biographies, novels, you name it). For this reason, I did well on standardized tests, where questions were not designed to see if you read a specific assignment. Good SAT and AP scores allowed me to barely slide into University of Illinois, where I (thankfully) vowed to be a good student. I still read dozens of books each year; it's my greatest source of self-learning as a CEO.

9. Memorizing information isn't knowledge.

I vividly remember the first exam I properly studied for during my freshman year in college. I was stunned because the questions were on the assigned material from the textbook (duh)! I had come to see tests as macabre rituals designed to trick me. I found fast academic success regurgitating memorized information, but far more importantly I learned how to learn — to search for the essence of any problem. Today, some of my highest paid employees have weak academic credentials, but amazing practical knowledge and deep wisdom.

10. I was never satisfied.

Once I started succeeding in college, I discovered how competitive I was. If I got an A, but a friend had a higher A, it would bother me, and next time I'd study harder. I had many semesters of straight A's, passed the CPA, landed a great job, and subsequently graduated with honors from one of the best graduate business schools in the nation. When I achieved something, I instantly moved onto a bigger goal. This "constant dissatisfaction" sounds negative, but it's actually very positive as you grow a company year after year, and prevents resting on laurels and getting lazy.

11. "Brilliant underachievers" aren't brilliant at all.

Today, when I hear of someone who is "really bright, but doesn't work hard," I know that person isn't as bright as people think. Sure, I had potential in high school, but had I not paired it with super hard work in college and beyond, I would have failed in life. I believe true intelligence has an execution component, because all that matters is results. I'll hire a person who works their tail off every time over dilettantes who rely on IQ or a fancy resume.

12. Here's the catch: Eventually, grades really do matter.

I give my saintly mom credit for not taking a baseball bat to my head in high school, especially since my older sister was a star student who studied tirelessly. Good grades are extraordinarily important because they signal intelligence, discipline, focus and work ethic — all crucial character traits. And someday when my boys Grant and Pierce, or my niece Jaden or nephew Max, finds this article, I hope they learn from my mistakes and realize that track records matter and that there is only one recipe for success in life: hard work.

— By Ravin Gandhi, founder and CEO of GMM Nonstick Coatings, one of the world's largest suppliers of nonstick coatings to the $9 billion housewares industry. Gandhi is also a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network. As a VC investor, Gandhi has stakes in KeyMe, Ampsy, Tred, Lettrs, Amber Agriculture and Hester Biosciences.

About YPO

CNBC and YPO have formed an exclusive editorial partnership consisting of regional "Chief Executive Networks" in the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. These Chief Executive Networks are made up of a sample of YPO's global network of 24,000 top executives from 120 countries who are on the front lines of the economy and run companies that collectively generate $6 trillion in annual revenue.

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