We’ve all heard of modern figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who famously found success despite dropping out of school, but not a lot has been said about business figures from history that left school behind for a better life. Famed inventors, business magnates, and some of the richest men in the world made their fortunes as college (and even grade school) dropouts. Read on to learn about some of the biggest names in business history who all decided they could do better without school.
American business magnate Howard Hughes was one of the wealthiest people in the world in his time. As a film producer, influential aviator, and investor, he left his mark on the world, but he didn’t have a whole lot to do with education. Hughes was reported to be an “indifferent student,” and never graduated from high school. He did have a love of mathematics and engineering, auditing a few classes at Caltech. He was also a student at Rice University, thanks to an arrangement by his father, but after his father’s death, he dropped out and subsequently bought out his family to become the sole owner of his father’s tool company, thus launching his career as the businessman we know. Despite limited higher education of his own, Hughes founded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1953, one of the largest private biological and medical research institutes in the United States, and the second-wealthiest philanthropic organization in the U.S.
Andrew Carnegie was a great man who came from modest beginnings. We remember him as an industrialist leader of the 19th century American steel industry, as well as a major philanthropist, but his early life tells a different story. A Scottish immigrant, Carnegie’s family moved to Pennsylvania, where his first job at age 13 was that of a bobbin boy in a cotton factory. Carnegie had no education to speak of, but was a major educational philanthropist, donating money to create libraries, the Carnegie Institute of Technology, the Carnegie Institution, and Carnegie Mellon University. Although Carnegie was a major supporter of education, he did not believe in it, at least not in the traditional sense. Carnegie believed that there was a “magic formula” for success that should be put in the reach of regular people, taught in public schools and colleges. He even shared the opinion that if this magic formula were properly taught, students could cut their time spent in school to less than half.
Famed American businesswoman Mary Kay Ash is recognized as one of the greatest female entrepreneurs in American history and has left behind a legacy of makeup and money, but she did it all with no more than a public high school education. Although Ash excelled in school, she came from a poor family that was not able to send her to college. She married young and had three children, building her cosmetic empire as an uneducated working mother. Ash did spend a year at the University of Houston studying to become a doctor, but she gave it up and returned to her passion of sales instead of pursuing a medical career.
Homeschoolers can point to Thomas Edison as a shining example of the genius that can be produced by home education. The young Edison had trouble in school thanks to his wandering mind, and only spent a short three months in official schooling. As a grade school dropout, his mother taught him at home, with much of his education coming from the scientific textbook School of Natural Philosophy and texts from The Cooper Union. This education undoubtedly sparked his lifelong love of scientific exploration and innovation, which he paired with a background in entrepreneurship, a skill that began as a boy selling candy and newspaper on trains.
Edison’s protege, Nikola Tesla, excelled without much in the way of education as well. Tesla studied at the Higher Real Gymnasium in Croatia, and did so well that his teachers thought he was cheating when he was able to perform calculus in his head. He only took three years to finish his four-year term, and went on to study engineering at the Australian Polytechnic. Although he excelled at his studies on the uses of alternating current, he dropped out and never received a degree. According to the university, he simply stopped attending lectures after the first semester of his third year. At the pleading of his father, Tesla attended the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague for one summer semester, but once again, dropped out after the death of his father. Although he did not seem to appreciate higher education for an extended period of time, Tesla was an avid reader and enjoyed memorizing complete books with his photographic memory, a skill that undoubtedly served him as an inventor and futurist.
Responsible for creating the Disney empire and changing the world of motion pictures forever, Walt Disney was one of the most creative and ambitious high school dropouts in history. While in high school, Disney took night courses at the Chicago Art Institute, even becoming the political cartoonist for the school newspaper. But at the age of 16, Disney dropped out of school to join the Army. The joke was on Disney: he was rejected from the Army for being underage. Still, he didn’t go back to school. Instead, he joined the Red Cross to drive an ambulance during World War I and worked several odd jobs before starting a commercial company in 1920 and launching the beginnings of Disney as we know it.
George Eastman was the founder of Eastman Kodak Company and the man responsible for bringing photography into the mainstream, but he was a school dropout. Family life interfered with Eastman’s completion of school, as his father died and his mother took in boarders to afford his schooling. After the death of his sister, Eastman left school early to start working. Less than 15 years later, Eastman had patented the first film in roll form. Later in life, his philanthropy allowed him to establish the Eastman School of Music, schools of dentistry and medicine at the University of Rochester, as well as provide donations to MIT, Tuskeegee, and Hampton.
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