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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