Do entrepreneurs need to attend college? As a successful entrepreneur, I often get asked if it would be beneficial for a teenager who shows a strong interest in starting a business to attend college. I have asked this question often of other successful entrepreneurs, as well, and the answer tends to go like this: “College can open up doors for young people, and it provides great networking opportunities.” In other words, a vague, unsubstantiated “yes”.
My answer is totally different: I don’t think college is beneficial for teenagers who already have a good idea of what they want to do with their lives, especially if they want to start a business.
Here’s my story…and some tips on whether college will be right for you:
My parents both have Master’s degrees. My father runs a law firm and my mom is a former school teacher. She raised me as a stay-at-home mom and then opened a title company when I was in grade school.
My mom was mortified when I slacked off in school, but school bored me. I am an extreme visual/hands-on learner; I have difficulty picking up information when it’s delivered in auditory format. I was often bored in school because I couldn’t pick up the information when someone spoke it to me, but I could read faster than everyone else, so while most people were sounding out words, I was already finishing the book.
I hated authority and constantly challenged my teachers. In first grade, I asked my teacher at lunch, “If the universe contains everything we know, and it’s constantly expanding, what is it expanding into?” She looked at me helplessly and tried her best to explain.
It was around that time that they seriously considered advancing me a grade. Persuaded by my mom, the principal put me in the third-grade reading class. I was testing at an eighth-grade reading level, but my social skills were woefully underdeveloped. I was not well-liked by the other kids.
Mom was constantly searching for other school options. We lived in a rural part of Indiana, with only one high school for the entire county, so my local options were limited. My parents considered sending me off to boarding school.
Attending a Different School
In the meantime, the state of Indiana was using its gifted-and-talented funding to start up a residential high school for juniors and seniors: the Indiana Academy. After touring it, I decided to go.
Living with other kids was a challenge, but I identified with many of them. I found more deep friendships there than I have in any other environment. It was there that I got introduced to computers and networking. (When I first got there, I tried to plug my dial-up modem into the Ethernet jack on the wall–I had never been exposed to networks before!)
I quickly became the de facto female computer geek. I managed 14 computers on the girls’ side of the school. I set up a web hosting company by colocating my old 486 desktop computer at an ISP; one of the teachers paid me to host his personal website. I ran several websites, one of which was a shareware ranking site that received a good deal of publicity.
When summer of my junior year came up, many of my classmates got jobs at local retail stores. I did something different: I went on Yahoo! and found the listings for local web design companies in Cincinnati, Ohio. I sent all of them (I think there were 20 or 30 at the time) an email asking if they needed a web person, and showing them several websites that I had coded myself. I landed two interviews and got a paying summer job at a web design company coding HTML and Perl.
By the time I was ready to graduate high school, I knew three things:
- I wanted to go to Silicon Valley and seek my fortune.
- I wanted to run a web hosting company and design/develop websites–the opportunity for “passive” income (I can confirm that’s a myth after 6 years of running one, but I didn’t know that then!) was hugely appealing to me.
- I wasn’t going to graduate from college.
Of course, I wasn’t afraid to tell everyone who would listen about these three things. I remember most clearly telling the female computer science instructor that I would go to college because my parents wanted me to, but I wouldn’t graduate.
She was devastated. Then she started yelling. “You don’t understand the opportunities you have been given!” she said. “You’re throwing it all away. The women of my generation had to work so hard to even be in college, and you just want to give it up?”
I shrugged. It was pretty normal for teachers to be upset with me.
I mostly didn’t talk about it with my parents. My mom would get angry, which would cause my dad to leave the room. It was not a pleasant experience. I would go to college, and that was that.
No one could really tell me why college would be great for me. They all assumed I had to go. That there wouldn’t be any questions. That it was necessary to “open doors” for my future.
But was it necessary for someone who wanted to start her own business and who didn’t want a job? No one could answer that question.
Applying to College
I applied to only two colleges: San Jose State and Santa Clara University. Santa Clara University required an entrance essay. My dad encouraged me to write an essay that said I would donate to their alumni association when I became a millionaire CEO. (I didn’t quite put it that way, but I dropped some broad hints about how going to SCU would help me become more successful.)
Santa Clara sent me an acceptance letter. So did San Jose State.
My parents were willing to pay for Santa Clara, but I decided I wouldn’t go there because they didn’t let freshmen choose the hours for their classes. I wanted a part-time job while I was there (this was Silicon Valley in 1999, after all!), so I opted for San Jose State. I took a small class load and applied for a job.
Finding A Job
I scored a job without going in for an interview. I cattily left out the fact that I was 18 years old in the phone interviews, and was hired as a part-time Marketing Director for a small web company. When they found out I was 18, had no marketing experience, and was a college student, they were not amused. They fired me.
I found another job “being the helpdesk” and fixing computers for a small company, Cobalt Networks, that later became one of the largest IPOs in history. Sun Microsystems bought us out in 2000 for $2 billion, then killed the product line.
In the meantime, one of my college professors told me I should drop out of school and “seek my fortune” in Silicon Valley. It took me a year to follow his advice, but after 3 semesters of college, I dropped out.
My mom said it was the worst decision I had ever made. My boss at Cobalt, who treated me like one of his kids (his oldest was only a couple years younger than me), said I would regret it.
My boyfriend at the time, a well-paid techie “whiz kid” who was a high school dropout, congratulated me. (Interesting side note: The vast majority of the guys I have dated have not graduated from college. Several were high school dropouts. This wasn’t intentional; it’s just what happened.)
You probably know the rest of my story (if not, you can read it here, where I go into details of how I created a million-dollar business at a young age.)
How Can You Tell Whether You Should Go To College?
Let’s look at some facts:
- I knew what I wanted from a young age. I knew I wanted to start a web hosting company and do Web development. I went out and got summer jobs in that area to gain experience.
- I wasn’t waiting to be taught by classes. I was a self-taught computer whiz; infinitely curious, a voracious reader, and not afraid to ask questions. I didn’t seek permission to take over those 14 computers in my high school; I simply did it.
- School didn’t suit me well. I didn’t learn well from lectures, and I didn’t enjoy school. I did most of my learning from books and the Web. The Web, being 100% visual, was a miracle for me.
When I look at most high school kids, I understand why college is necessary. They don’t know what they want. They have a vague idea of the future, and college helps them clarify what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
I was totally different. I was goal-oriented, and more importantly, I had a goal (starting a business) that didn’t require a degree.
I will concede that I was different from most teenagers, but by no means do I think I am unique. I think there’s a good percentage of teenagers out there who want to start a business but who, like me, are pressured into going to college by their parents and teachers.
And really, what is that pressure but simple fear?
My Mom Concedes
After several years of not speaking to my mom much (but before I sold my business and would be considered a success), I finally called her and told her I was really upset with her. I mentioned the comment she had made about dropping out of college being the worst decision I had ever made.
She started crying, and told me that she was proud of me for taking the path she never had the courage to take. That conversation meant a lot to me, and it helped heal our relationship. And that’s honestly when I should have written this post, but I didn’t have the courage until now.
Going on a different path takes courage, but the rewards can be huge. Whatever you think you don’t have enough of–money, time, college degrees?–to start your own business, let me tell you right now: You have everything you need to succeed.
Was It Worth It?
I started my web hosting company when I was 20 years old. I had no clue what I was doing. I made huge mistakes. I underbilled my customers, overworked my employees, and pissed off a whole lotta people.
But I also made close friends, learned a whole heck of a lot, and oh yeah, made well over a million dollars.
I had the worst day of my life and the best day of my life in my office, with my employees. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
The people who tell you you need to go to college–they want the best for you. They want you to have the best chance of success. But sometimes, the real path to success lies in doing what no one else is doing. While everyone else is in school, you’re out there knocking down doors and closing deals, signing contracts, and trying to figure out who’s screwing you over and who’s investing in your success.
There’s nothing like it. And if you read this post and, like me as a teenager, are a self-starter, motivated to succeed, and ready to start your business, don’t let college stand in your way. Go out there and get your hands dirty. Yep, you’ll probably fail; most businesses do. But it will all be worth it, and you’ll have learned dramatically more in the process than you ever will sitting in a lecture hall waiting for class to end.
- Hiring is Obsolete by Paul Graham. “While I stand by our responsible advice to finish college and then go work for a while before starting a startup, I have to admit it’s one of those things the old tell the young, but don’t expect them to listen to.”
- 15 Successful Entrepreneurs Who Didn’t Need College. Includes Michael Dell, Richard Branson, and Mary Kay Ash.
- One Thing You Don’t Need to Be An Entrepreneur: A College Degree by Fred Wilson (a venture capitalist.) His point of view: “I have learned that where someone went to college (or even if they didn’t go to college) has absolutely no correlation to whether they will be a good entrepreneur or not.”