Lewis: Future Business Leaders Take Note — College Isn’t Your Only Classroom

Government figures show unemployment for college grads is at a 30 year high

In today's environment, it's more important to be flexible

The classroom is not the right learning environment for the restless

As the market continues to present challenges, entrepreneurs and executives alike are questioning the value of higher education.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for college grads is the highest since 1970 – more than 2.4 million of the unemployed have bachelor's degrees and higher.

This dismal data may be discouraging, but future business leaders should keep in mind: you have a lot more to offer a business than simply a college degree.

Education can be a valuable asset. I have seen it open doors and create great career opportunities for many people. My wife Harriet is a former teacher and passionate about learning. But in the current business environment, it’s important to be flexible and to understand that there are paths to success outside of the traditional classroom or college degree.

I dropped out of college in the 1970s after two years.

Thomas Barwick | Digital Vision | Getty Images

I’ve never regretted it.

The classroom was not the right learning environment for a restless young man.

After leaving school, I dabbled as a lifeguard and then got into the travel industry, first as a tour guide traveling the world, and later as an entrepreneur. In 1985, I took a huge risk and acquired Grand Circle Travel – a tour operator for older Americans (then affiliated with AARP) that was in the red, losing $2 million a year.

Would the classroom have taught me how to turn Grand Circle into a profit-generating venture? I don’t think so. It might have stifled me. I believe it was my hands-on experience in the travel industry and a youthful willingness to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them and keep on going that helped me turn Grand Circle into the profitable company it is today.

Experiential Learning – The World Is Your Classroom

It’s direct experience, industry know-how and a strong set of values that contribute to success in the job arena – not a piece of paper from an accredited college. From what I’ve observed as a CEO over three decades, it’s what people learn on the job and to what extent they are willing to take risks, react and reassess that matter more than do four years in a classroom.

Don’t get me wrong; traditional education has tangible benefits (I sit on the board at Babson College and Grand Circle’s “Next Generation Leaders” program supports inner city teens preparing for college). But far too often, people use their college degrees as their only calling card when they have much more to offer. Those who are willing to go out, take risks and learn along the way, may not even need the degree.

"From what I’ve observed as a CEO over three decades, it’s what people learn on the job and to what extent they are willing to take risks, react and reassess that matter more than do four years in a classroom."" -CEO, Grand Circle Corporation, Alan Lewis

At Grand Circle, we hire employees for values over skills, recognizing that some things can’t be taught in a traditional classroom.

You can learn skills, but you can’t teach values.

You have probably figured out that risk taking is one of our values, and so are open and courageous communication, team work, thriving in change, speed and quality. Connect with a company whose values sing to you—or start your own.

My late father told me that the window of opportunity is only open for a short time and that you should push as much through as you can while you can. In business and in life, I have always found that to be true. So my message to future business leaders: take risks, make mistakes and seize the day.

Alan Lewis is the chairman and CEO of Grand Circle Corporation, a highly profitable international travel company with annual sales of $500 million and more than 100,000 travelers. He bought Grand Circle Travel when the company was hemorrhaging $2 million a year and within two years had turned a profit, generating $27 million in sales by 1987.