35 CEOs who never finished college

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October 18, 2019

35 CEOs who never finished college

Facebook. Apple. Microsoft. Twitter. What do they all have in common? Well, besides being tech behemoths all four companies were started by individuals with no college degrees on their resume. Their founders left school early—many of them abandoning the nation's top universities—to pursue their business ideas somewhere they could land the right financial backing and technical help for their entrepreneurship to flourish.

Of course, these entrepreneurs' results are not typical—most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies do hold bachelor's degrees or higher. In fact, 39 CEOs of the list's top 100 companies went so far as to get their MBAs. Yet the stories of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jack Dorsey have inspired many an entrepreneur to go after their dreams and chase business success regardless of their educational background or lack thereof—and perhaps inspired many a college student to consider dropping out.

At Stacker, we researched CEOs that chose not to get their college degrees—either by calling it quits before finishing their programs or by shunning higher education altogether. We compiled our list by studying news stories and profiles from Forbes, Inc, Fast Company and other business publications. Our final list has 35 CEOs, all of whom run or formerly headed influential companies, many of which are household names.

Thinking about skipping college to start your own company, or just curious to read about how others did it? Enjoy our short profiles of CEOs who forged their own unique career paths, from fashion leaders to tech magnates.

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#35. Jack Dorsey

- Company: Twitter

In 1999, Jack Dorsey left New York University one semester shy of graduating because he had an idea.  Dorsey moved to the Bay Area and began developing a few different business ideas when his concept for a web-based taxi-dispatch service morphed into an open messaging platform—what we know as Twitter. Dorsey didn't stop there. Ten years later he co-founded Square, a mobile payment platform. As of 2019, he serves as CEO of both companies.

#34. Jake Nickell

- Company: Threadless

Crowdsourcing T-shirts became a thing when Jake Nickell cofounded Threadless with Jacob DeHart in 2000. Their unique business model involved inviting artists to submit original designs for a vote, and then producing and selling shirts and other products that boasted the winning images. Two years after its inception, Nickell decided to focus on Threadless full-time and dropped out of the Illinois Institute of Art, where he’d been studying graphic design.

#33. Micky Arison

- Company: Carnival Corporation

When the cruise line Carnival Corporation was cofounded by Micky Arison’s dad, Ted Arison, back in 1972, Micky dropped out of University of Miami to help out as a sales rep. He eventually advanced from there to become the company’s CEO for 34 years—today, he serves as Carnival’s chairman, and the company has grown to become the world’s largest cruise ship operator.

#32. Larry Ellison

- Company: Oracle (former)

From divorced college dropout to high-tech billionaire. That’s the story Larry Ellison shared with University of Southern California students in 2016. Although the tale of foregoing a college degree might seem an odd choice for a commencement address, Ellison has shown his commitment to higher education by giving $200 million to USC.

#31. Sophia Amoruso

- Company: Nasty Gal (former)

Sophia Amoruso got her entrepreneurial start on eBay, where she sold her fashion finds until her store got kicked off the site for promoting her own websites. She then started Nasty Gal, which Inc. magazine named one of the fastest growing companies in 2012. In 2016, however, Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy.

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#30. Barry Diller

- Company: IAC/InterActiveCorp

After dropping out of UCLA, Barry Diller started working in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. He went on to get a job (and move up the ladder) at ABC, later becoming the president of Paramount Pictures before going on to serve as chairman and CEO of Fox Studios. Diller then led IAC/InterActiveCorp—which includes Match.com, the Home Shopping Network, and other properties—until 2010, when he stepped down from the CEO role. Now he serves as the company’s chairman and senior executive.

#29. Robert Pittman

- Company: iHeartMedia, Inc

Robert Pittman got his start working at a radio studio, before going on to run MTV and then serving as chief operating officer of AOL. He’s now the man in charge at iHeartMedia, the entertainment company (formerly known as Clear Channel) that is the largest broadcaster in the United States.

#28. Richard Schulze

- Company: BestBuy (former)

Richard Schulze started working at the tender age of 11 selling newspapers. After military service stalled his plans for college, Schultz sold electric components for his father before founding his own company, which later became Best Buy. He served as the CEO of the consumer electronics company until 2002; now he serves as a chairman of the board.

#27. John Tague

- Company: Hertz Global Holdings (former) 

John Tague skipped college and instead “learned everything on the job,” according to TIME. He made his way up the corporate ladder to become president of United Airlines before landing the CEO position at Hertz in 2015. Tague has since retired.

#26. Ralph Lauren

- Company: Ralph Lauren (former)

Ralph Lauren never went to fashion school, but his name is nevertheless synonymous with fashion today. He started his brand in 1967 as a line of men’s ties—the company now includes men’s, women’s, and children’s fashions, as well as fragrances, furnishings, and more.

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#25. Todd Jones

- Company: Publix

Originally hired as a store clerk, Todd Jones showed his loyalty to Publix by sticking with the supermarket chain for decades. He made his way up the ranks over the years and finally reached the CEO position in 2016.

#24. Richard A. Gonzalez

- Company: AbbVie

Back in the day, Richard Gonzalez claimed to hold a bachelor’s from University of Houston and a master’s from University of Miami—neither of which degrees he’d actually earned, according to Crain’s. That didn’t stop the man from landing the CEO position at the pharmaceutical company AbbVie; his company bio has since been revised to reflect Gonzalez’s lack of college degrees.

#23. Stacey Ferreira

- Company: Forge

Stacey Ferreira has co-founded two companies: the online bookmark and password website MySocialCloud.com, and the part-time work marketplace Forge, for which she also serves as the CEO. She made it onto the Forbes list of 30 under 30 in 2016.

#22. Sheldon Adelson

- Company: Las Vegas Sands

Another Sheldon Adelson started his working life early as a 12-year-old newspaper boy. From that humble beginning, Adelson started a number of companies—most famously Las Vegas Sands, a casino and resort company which owns Las Vegas properties like The Venetian andThe Palazzo, among many others.  

#21. Larry Young

- Company: Dr Pepper Snapple Group

After getting his start as a Pepsi truck driver and working at the company for more than 25 years, today Larry Young runs the show at a competing company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group. In 2015, CNN named Young one of the best CEOs of the year.

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#20. Michael Dell

- Company: Dell Technologies

Michael Dell founded Dell when he was just a 19 year-old pre-med student at the University of Texas. By 1992, when he was 27, he’d made his name as the youngest CEO on the Fortune 500 list. Today Dell Technologies is a multinational information technology corporation, with Michael Dell still at its helm.

#19. Pete Cashmore

- Company: Mashable

Mashable, one of the most widely-read and recognized blogs around the world, was founded by Pete Cashmore when he was 19 years old and living with his parents in Scotland. Due to health issues, Cashmore missed a lot of school and instead spent most of his time reading blogs. “It kind of became my replacement education in a way,” he told Inc

#18. Gurbaksh Chahal

- Company: RadiumOne and Gravity4 (former)

A serial entrepreneur, Gurbaksh Chahal founded not just one, but four online advertising companies: ClickAgents, BlueLithium, RadiumOne, and Gravity4. However, his professional successes have been undercut by his personal life: multiple domestic violence incidents first sentenced Chahal to probation, then a year in jail, pending appeal.

#17. Kevin Rose

- Company: Digg (former) 

A University of Nevada Las Vegas dropout, Kevin Rose is another prolific entrepreneur, having founded mobile development lab Milk, internet TV network Revision3, microblogging site Pownce, and most famously, news aggregation site Digg. Rose stepped in briefly as CEO of Digg in 2010 before relinquishing the role the same year, a decision about which he has some regrets.

#16. Evan Williams

- Company: Medium and Twitter (former)

Quitting his studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln after a year and a half didn’t stop Evan Williams from founding Twitter and then becoming its chairman and CEO. He stepped down from that role in 2010, but then founded Medium in 2012—where he currently serves as the publishing platform’s CEO.

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#15. Jan Koum

- Company: WhatsApp

The CEO and cofounder of mobile messaging app WhatsApp moved from the Ukraine to the United States with his mom when he was 16—receiving welfare while working as a janitor to make ends meet. Although he quit college, he taught himself programming and landing a job at Yahoo before leaving to develop WhatsApp. Today, over a billion people worldwide use the application, according to CNBC.

#14. Alfred Taubman

- Company: Taubman Centers (former)

Alfred Taubman’s college career got disrupted by World War II, during which he served in the military. Although he briefly returned to the University of Michigan after his service, he later  dropped out and entered the real estate business. Over multiple decades, he expanded his realty company Taubman Centers, taking it public in 1992. He passed away in 2015, and his son Robert is now the firm’s CEO.

#13. Michael G. Rubin

- Company: Kynetic

Like many other entrepreneurs on this list, Michael Rubin started working young, selling everything from stationery to vegetable seeds as an eight-year-old. Now, he’s the CEO of Kynetic, a holding company that owns sports merchandise seller Fanatics, flash-sales site Rue La La, and members-only shopping service ShopRunner.


#12. Dov Charney

- Company: American Apparel (former)

After founding American Apparel, Dov Charney dropped out of Tufts to focus on his clothing business. While he was CEO, he was known for championing sweatshop-free clothes and promoting immigration reform, but that do-gooder image was eventually tainted—in 2014, he was fired from his own company due to sexual harassment charges and other problems with the business.

#11. Ty Warner

- Company: Ty, Inc

Beanie Babies took the world by storm in the 1990s thanks to Ty Warner, founder and CEO of Ty, Inc. A Kalamazoo College dropout, Ty remains the sole owner of the company, which has since made him a billionaire.

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#10. Maverick Carter

- Company: LRMR Innovative Marketing & Branding

Maverick Carter, a friend and former high school teammate of LeBron James, quit college to become a Nike field representative. Just a couple years later, he became CEO of LRMR Innovative Marketing & Branding, which he launched with James and other partners to manage James’s career.

#9. John Paul DeJoria

- Company: John Paul Mitchell Systems

A gang member as a youth and homeless as a young adult, John Paul DeJoria finally found success when he cofounded hair care company John Paul Mitchell Systems in 1980. DeJoria is also the founder of tequila maker Patrón Spirits Co, and has hands in other businesses and properties. His net worth is now 3.4 billion, according to Forbes.

#8. Philip Green

- Company: Arcadia Group (former)

Philip Green inherited his family’s property development and retail business when he was just 12 years old, due to his father’s untimely death. Since then, he’s started a number of clothing businesses. Today, he’s best known as the chairman of Arcadia Group, a retail company (for which he briefly served as CEO) that includes brands like Topshop and Topman.

#7. Haim Saban

- Company: Saban Capital Group

Expelled from boarding school, Saban ended his education early and started his career in the music industry as a bass player and manager of a rock band. Later on, he became a television producer; he founded Saban Entertainment, the creators of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and other popular shows. Today, Saban serves as chairman and CEO of Saban Capital Group, a private investment firm that has acquired Spanish-language media company Univision Communications, among other properties.

#6. Steve Jobs

- Company: Apple (former)

Reed College dropout, Steve Jobs started working on a computer in his garage with his friend Stephen Wozniak. Those were the humble beginnings of Apple, now one of the best recognized brands in the world. An adoptee, a seeker of enlightenment, and an experimenter with LSD, the proudly unconventional Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011.

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#5. John P. Mackey

- Company: Whole Foods Market

John Mackey started an organic food store in 1980, which grew to become the largest organic supermarket chain in the United States today. Although Whole Foods’ consumer base leans liberal, Mackey is known for his outspoken conservative politics—like his anti-union stance and his opposition to public health insurance.

#4. Russell Simmons

- Company: Rush Communications (former)

Music mogul Russell Simmons until recently was best known as the cofounder of Def Jam Recordings and chair and CEO of his company Rush Communications, which oversaw his many businesses. But in late 2017, accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced, leading Simmons to step down from his leadership roles. Although Simmons never finished college, he received an honorary doctorate degree from Claremont Lincoln University in 2014.


#3. Bill Gates

- Company: Microsoft (former)

Bill Gates implemented the programming language BASIC, first designed by John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz and released at Dartmouth College in 1964, as a first-year student at Harvard. By his junior year, Gates had dropped out in order to found Microsoft with his friend Paul Allen. Gates remains a board member of Microsoft, but today focuses more of his energies chairing the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charitable foundation.

#2. Richard Branson

- Company: Virgin Group

Richard Branson is a high school dropout, quitting his formal education at 16 years. He was just 20 when he founded Virgin Group as a mail-order retailer. From there he went to start numerous business ventures, including Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Mobile. Today Branson’s businesses provide everything from mobile to health services.

#1. Mark Zuckerberg

- Company: Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg started creating what would eventually become Facebook while still a student at Harvard, then dropped out to put all his attention on the site—a story dramatized in the 2010 film The Social Network. Zuckerberg, with his wife Priscilla Chan, have pledged to eventually give 99 percent of their Facebook shares to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, with the aim to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy.” Zuckerberg’s net worth is estimated to be $74.2 billion.

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