Many of our country’s most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders excelled in college, and many of them went on to pursue additional schooling and degrees.
But not all of them.
Some of America’s most renowned innovators and entrepreneurs from the past few decades started but never finished their undergraduate degrees – a pattern that has left some to question the importance of education in the realm of entrepreneurship. But here’s the thing: Those very entrepreneurs, the ones who dropped out of college, have made it awfully clear with their philanthropic efforts that they recognize the immense value of a strong education.
That’s because many of them have chosen to invest in improving early education and making college more accessible, particularly for low-income students. Here are a few of the successful entrepreneurs who – despite the face or perhaps because they dropped out of school – have made great contributions to improving education for the next generation of Americans.
Michael Dell dropped out of the University of Texas in 1984 at the age of 19 to pursue his passion project—a computer company called PC’s Limited, which would later become Dell. Fifteen years later, he and his wife, Susan Dell, launched the Dell Scholars Program, which funds college tuition, textbook fees and some living costs for deserving American students. The program believes in considering factors beyond grades and test scores when deciding which students should receives scholarships, and boasts that the only GPA requirement to receive the scholarship is “Grit, Potential and Ambition.” The program awards 300 scholarships a year and has donated more than $60 million to students in need since 2004.
He may well have helped create the device on which you are reading this story, and if you haven’t seen one or both of the film adaptations of his life story, you probably know the basic details. Including this one: Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, dropped out of Reed College at the age of 19.
Jobs gave some clues about his decision to leave college in a commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005: “The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.”
The quote shows that despite abandoning his pursuit of a formal, Jobs was a big believer in learning, and his passion lives on through his widow, Laurene Powell Jobs. Since 2015, she has donated $50 million to create XQ: The Super School Project. The project aims to renew the American school system by inviting educators and innovators across the country to submit their ideas on how to improve high schools and teaching curriculums. Each year, five ideas are chosen, and the applicant receives $10 million to fund the implementation of their proposals.
One of the most successful entrepreneurs of the past century, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University at the age of 20 to focus on Microsoft. These days, however, he’s just as well known for his generosity as he is for his entrepreneurial success. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to end poverty and create equal opportunities for people all over the world – a goal that includes improving access to higher education.
Since its founding in 2000, the foundation has donated $29.6 million in grants to schools across the United States as part of the Early College High School Initiative, a program that allows students to gain two years of college credits while still in high school. The goal of the program is to increase high school graduation rates and college attendance among low-income students.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg isn’t one to back away from high-risk, high-reward propositions. He told CBS in 2011 that “in a world that changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
Zuckerberg certainly took a risk by dropping out of Harvard at 20 to devote all of his time to his fledgling social network, “the Facebook.” Now that Facebook has become a social media juggernaut, Zuckerberg has consistently given back to public schools. In 2010, he donated $100 million to the Newark Public School System, with the hope of boosting graduation numbers and improving the overall quality of education in one of New Jersey’s most troubled districts.
In 2014, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced a $120 million donation to support high-quality public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area by providing resources to help low-income and minority students.
Larry Ellison attended two colleges, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1962 to 1964 and the University of Chicago from 1964 to 66, but he dropped out of school at the age of 20 without a formal degree. Not deterred, Ellison went on to co-found the billion-dollar computer software company Oracle.
In 2016, Ellison donated $200 million to the University of Southern California for a new cancer research center, the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC in Los Angeles. The institute intends to use interdisciplinary research to find a cure for cancer, inviting physicists and mathematicians to work alongside doctors and biologists.