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Six successful CEOs who dropped out of university or school

4 min read

13 November 2015

Whether it was because they came up with a great idea for a business while they were studying, or just felt the process wasn't for them, some of the most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders of recent times never got the chance to don a cap and gown at graduation.

As Steve Jobs, the movie, hits the big screen, new audiences will hear about the extraordinary life of the Apple co-founder. 

One well-known fact about Jobs is that he dropped out of college. “After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out,” he said in his famous address to students at Stanford University. 

“And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK.” And it did, of course.

Jobs’ arch rival Bill Gates did the same thing and there will certainly be students right about now, half way through their first term at college, who are wondering if they’re in the right place. If they do decide to drop out, they’ll be in good company.

(1) Daniel Ek

In 2005, Ek left his engineering studies at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden after just eight weeks – and became a millionaire just a few years later. Ek is co-founder of Spotify. The online music company that now has more than 32m paying subscribers worldwide.

(2) John Mackey

As the founder of organic and health chain Whole Foods, which has branches across the US and in London, Mackey didn’t just drop out once. He did it a number of times from various colleges in Texas. Having joined a vegan cooperative, he borrowed some money to open his first shop. The company now turns over more than $12bn.

(3) Roman Abramovich

The Russian billionaire and Chelsea Football Club owner enrolled at the Moscow State Auto Transport Institute, but took a leave of absence to go into business. While studying, he’d already set up a small company producing plastic toys, and its success helped him to fund an oil business in the Omsk region of Russia. He later earned a correspondence degree from the Moscow State Law Academy.

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(4) Mark Zuckerberg 

Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his room at Harvard University in February 2004. Later that year he dropped out of the university and moved to Silicon Valley so that he could devote himself to Facebook full time. Zuckerberg’s classmate, Dustin Moskovitz, also dropped out to work at the company.

(5) Richard Branson 

This serial entrepreneur never even reached university, having dropped out of school as soon as he was legally able to do so – at the age of 16. Dyslexia had put him at a disadvantage in the classroom, but ironically the billionaire’s first project was a magazine called Student. It wasn’t a great commercial success, but it paved the way for Virgin Records.

(6) Arash Ferdowsi 

Ferdowsi left the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2007 after three years. Once away from academe he co-founded Dropbox, which quickly grew from a tiny startup to a service used by hundreds of millions of people with an estimated value of $4bn.

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