10 Successful CEOs who were College Dropouts


Our parents would always tell us: “Treasure your education, because that is your stepping stone to success.”

For most of us, this piece of advice is undeniably useful but for these 10 highly successful Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of their own companies, a college degree apparently was not a necessity. These school dropouts proved that anyone can be rich and be successful without even having to graduate from school.

This is not to say, though, that education is useless. What these people only confirmed is that a college degree is not a primary ingredient to become rich and successful. Looking at their life stories, they may have been dropouts and probably did not earn any academic degree, but they worked hard to put up and run their businesses to ultimately reach their goals. That indeed proves to be more important than a college degree.

Top 10 Successful CEOs who Did Not Finish College

1. Bill Gates

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #2 in 2019
Estimated Net Worth: $96.5 billion
Company: Microsoft (USA)

Bill Gates scored an almost-perfect 1590 (out of 1600) on the SAT and enrolled at Harvard College in 1973.

But he did not have a definite study plan while he was studying at Harvard and spent a lot of his time using the school’s computers. In 1975, the MITS Altair 8800 computer was released to the market, paving the way for the start of the microcomputer revolution. Gates and friend Paul Allen saw this as an opportunity to start their own software company. They dropped out of Harvard and formed “Micro-Soft.”

A year later, the hyphen in the company name was dropped and the rest was history.

2. Amancio Ortega

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #6 in 2019
Estimated Net Worth: $69.1 billion
Company: Inditex Group, Zara

Son of a railway worker, Amancio Ortega actually never got to go to college because he did not finish high school.

He worked as an errand boy for various shirt stores before opening his first store in 1975. He built Inditex, known for its Zara fashion chain, with his ex-wife Rosalia Mera which would eventually grow to become the Inditex Group, owner of the world’s largest fashion distributors, operating under brand names such as Zara, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, and Stradivarius.

Forbes Magazine estimates that Ortega typically earns around $400 million just from dividends alone every year. He is Spain’s richest man and the wealthiest brick-and-mortar retailer in the world.

3. Mark Zuckerberg

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #4 in 2019
Estimated Net Worth: $73.7 billion
Company: Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg has always enjoyed developing computer programs, especially communication tools and games. In 1996, he built a software program he called “ZuckNet” which allowed all the computers between the house and his father’s dental office to communicate by pinging each other. The program was considered a “primitive” version of AOL’s Instant Messenger, which came out the following year.

He studied psychology and computer science at Harvard University but decided to drop out when his Facebook website grew in popularity. Zuckerberg was recognized by Time magazine as its “Person of the Year” in 2010.

4. Mukesh Ambani

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #13 in 2019
Estimated Net Worth: $59.1 billion
Company: Reliance Industries (India)

Mukesh is the eldest son of Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of Reliance Industries, India’s most valuable company. The company was founded by his late father Dhirubhai Ambani in 1966 which started as a small textile manufacturer but has now grown to become a multi-billion dollar oil and gas conglomerate in India. After their father’s death in 2002, Mukesh and his other sibling Anil divided the family empire.

Mukesh enrolled in the MBA program of Stanford University in 1979 but with 1 and 1/2 years to go before the end of the program, he decided to drop out and focus on the polyester business of Reliance Industries.

He is currently the Chairman and Managing Director of the company.

5. Larry Ellison

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #5 in 2019
Estimated Net Worth: $67.1 billion
Company: Oracle (USA)

Larry Ellison attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but dropped out at the end of his second year after his adoptive mother died. He moved to California and studied at the University of Chicago but stayed there for only one term. He became an employee of Ampex Corporation where he worked on a database project for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), codenamed “Oracle.”

In 1977 he founded Oracle and started marketing its now-flagship product Oracle Database. By 2007, thirty years later, Oracle is the third largest software company in the world, next to Microsoft and IBM. Oracle’s growth was partly fueled by acquisitions of software companies, including Netsuite in 2016 for $9.3 billion. He is also currently a board member of Elon Musk’s Tesla company, after purchasing 3 million shares in 2018.

6. Eike Batista

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #100 in 2013 (before his prison sentence)
Estimated Net Worth: $10.6 billion
Company: EBX group (Brazil)

Eike Batista lived in Germany from 1969 to 1980 and studied engineering there at RWTH Aachen University. He dropped out of college without completing his degree.

In 1980, he moved back to Brazil and in 1983, founded the EBX Group, a holding company primarily invested in mining, oil and natural gas. In 2010, he is the richest person in Brazil and the eighth richest worldwide.

However, by July 2013, his net worth had declined to just around $200 million because of debts and his company’s falling stock prices. At one point, Bloomberg reported that Batista “has a negative net worth.”. He is currently under arrest and in jail, serving a 30-year sentence for bribing a pubic official in Brazil to secure public contracts.

7. Michael Dell

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #18 in 2019
Estimated Net Worth: $30 billion
Company: Dell Inc.
and MSD Capital

At a young age, Michael Dell is already an entrepreneur. At the age of 15, he earned $18,000 selling subscriptions of the newspaper Houston Post. While a pre-med student at the University of Texas Austin, he started an informal business upgrading computers.

He dropped out of college to concentrate on his company “Dell Computer Corporation,” whose business model was to sell PCs directly to customers rather than indirect retail channels.

In 1992 at the age of 27, Dell became the youngest CEO to have his company ranked in the Fortune 500 list of the top corporations. At present, much of Dell’s wealth is because of his private investment firm MSD Capital (named after him: Michael Saul Dell), which has stakes in companies including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Cedar Fair, Tribune Media, Nexstar Broadcasting Group, Macquarie Infrastructure Company, StealthGas Inc., etc.

8. Steve Jobs

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #39 in 2011 (before his death on October 2011)
Estimated Net Worth: $7 billion
Company: Apple Inc.

Apple Inc. founder and CEO Steve Jobs completed high school in Cupertino, California then enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon to study physics, literature and poetry. He dropped out after only one term.

In 1976, at the age of 21, he and Steve Wozniak started their own business, the Apple Computer Company. He is credited with personally creating the Macintosh in 1976. The company became so successful such that by the age of 25, Jobs was already worth $165 million.

He was fired by Apple’s Board of Directors in 1985 after a power struggle with then Apple CEO John Sculley. He was re-hired by the company in 1996 as Chairman and CEO until his death in 2011. He succumbed to cancer at the age of 56 on October 5, 2011.

9. Ralph Lauren

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #100 in 2019
Estimated Net Worth: $6.5 billion
Company: Polo Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren is originally named Ralph Lifshitz, born in Bronx, New York to Jewish immigrants. Ralph Lauren attended MTA (now known as the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy) before eventually graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1957. In MTA Lauren was known by his classmates for selling ties to fellow students.

After high school, he went to the Baruch School of Business and Civic Administration of the City College of New York (now known as Baruch College) where he studied business, although he dropped out after two years.

He worked as a part-time stock boy at a department store during his teenage years and that was his first exposure to fashion before working for Brooks Brothers as a salesman. Even if he did not attend fashion school, in 1967, he opened a necktie store where he also sold ties of his own design, under the label “Polo.” His business took off when Neiman Marcus ordered 1,200 ties from his store.

10. Richard Branson

Rank in Forbes Magazine’s list of World’s Richest People: #478 in 2019
Estimated Net Worth: $4.0 billion
Company: Virgin Group

The son of a barrister and flight attendant, Sir Richard Branson is known for his Virgin Group of Companies which is comprised of more than 400 firms. His first successful business venture was a magazine called Student, which he published and distributed at the age of 16.

In 1972, he opened a chain of record stores, Virgin Records, later known as Virgin Megastores. The Virgin brand grew rapidly during the 1980’s as he set up Virgin Atlantic Airways and expanded the Virgin Records music label.

Branson suffered from dyslexia and due to poor academic performance as a student, he did not finish high school.

Sources: Forbes Magazine, Wikipedia, various online sources

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12 thoughts on “10 Successful CEOs who were College Dropouts”

  1. Another way to look at a situation that there is a choice that can be made. This is a good example for students who have dropped out of their college because of a valid reason that there is still hope. They can still make the choice to change their lives for the better with so many opportunities out there using the natural talents that they have.

  2. Great list. Now I am encourage to drop out as well. LOL! Kidding aside, this is list is not an inspiration but an information.

  3. Whoah! This is interesting article, the dropouts are even the richest people.

    I know someone in my business team, who is a a college drop out as well; he is now a millionaire. He use to work as sales clerk in SM.

  4. This post is very interesting. Dropping out in college is great, if we are dropping out for business and more valuable things to do. But if we only drop out college because of laziness, vices and other useless activities, then that’s awkward. Though common here in the Philippines. :)

    1. This is true. I myself is a dropout but the good thing is that I got into business and I did not let myself get stuck from being a dropout. Good thing the internet came, so many things that you can learn.

  5. We can use many tools to succeed in life. College education is one of these tools. Whatever these people luck in college education, they substituted with imagination, creativity, courage, and pure hardwork.

    Obviously, there are billionaires who finished college education.Mukesh Ambani obviously had college education, since he won’t be enrolling for MBA without it.

    Nice post. Hope to see more of this.

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