Bill Gates, the multibillionaire chairman of Microsoft, didn’t graduate, and neither did Steve Jobs, who founded Apple Computers. In fact, a surprising number of super-successful people skipped college altogether. Kelly Ripa may be the latest TV personality to hit it big without hitting the books, but high school dropout Peter Jennings made it in serious journalism long before Ripa ever met Regis. Some of our favorite writers–Maya Angelou, the poet, and Nora Roberts, mega-selling novelist–didn’t learn their craft within ivy-covered walls. And finally, not one, but two current governors–Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura and Delaware’s Ruth Ann Minner–have this gap on their resumes.
How did they do it? By using creativity, drive, and just plain guts to compensate for what they lacked in academic credentials. Interviews with other high-achieving nongraduates reveal similar personality traits. These folks aren’t shrinking violets. They rarely have regrets, thrive on bending the rules, and are relentlessly upbeat. Most important, they’ve learned how to turn missteps into valuable learning experiences that propel them forward, rather than set them back. Maybe yon could learn a few things from a dropout.
RUTH ANN MINNER
Governor of Delaware
The child of sharecroppers, Delaware’s first female governor left high school at age 16 to work the family’s fields and entered politics by way of a secretarial position she took to feed her three young sons.
Best advice “You have to ignore the naysayers. I still encounter lots of bias–people even say things to my face–because they think politics isn’t a place for women, or because I don’t have a college degree. But I have common sense and good judgment, and I know what it’s like to struggle financially, because I was a woman without the opportunities available to men. Focus on your goal–not on the people trying to keep you from it.”
Biggest motivator “Anger. When I was widowed in 1967 with three children, I needed to borrow money. But the bank wouldn’t lend me any because I needed a man to sign for me. I couldn’t understand how such a sexist practice was legal. It made me mad enough to want to change the laws, and to run for office.”
People would be surprised to know that “I had no intention to make a career out of this. I just wanted more for my kids, and I knew I couldn’t make it as a waitress!”
FLORINE MARK, President & CEO,
The WW Group
Farmington Hills, Michigan
At 26, Mark had five kids under the age of nine. Money was tight, but her weight problem was worse. A last-ditch visit to Weight Watchers saved her. Today, her $80 million diet empire–the largest franchise of Weight Watchers International–stretches across a dozen states and two foreign countries, employing more than 3,000 people.
Why she succeeded “I have a total love, lust, and passion for the Weight Watchers concept. Before I attended the meetings, I had lost 50 pounds about ten different times. I was lucky to be alive! Then I finally found something that worked, and I had to share it. I had a fire in my belly to get this message out. I adore what I do. If you don’t, you’re not going to make it.”
Biggest obstacle “Myself. Before I conducted my first-ever Weight Watchers meeting, I thought I would faint, I had never done public speaking, I didn’t know if anyone was going to attend, or if they would believe in what I had to say. But I told myself, you can do anything you want if you think you can. Maybe it’s brainwashing, but it worked!”
Any regrets? “No one has ever said anything to me about not having a college degree. I’m the only one who has made me feel bad about it, but it’s just the occasional twinge.”
LISA LING, Cohost,
ABC's The View, New York City
The summer before heading off to the University of Southern California, Ling was chosen to be an international correspondent for Channel One News, a daily news program seen by eight million students nationwide. When traveling to political hot spots around the globe and maintaining a full courseload proved an impossible combination, Ling left school. Just three years later, Barbara Walters tapped her to add 20-something attitude as a cohost on The View, a job that requires her to be up to date on a myriad of topics covered daily on the show.
Biggest obstacle “It was difficult to convince my parents that dropping out of school was a smart decision. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I was totally expected to go to college. It’s a dream for so many Asian parents, and it’s a huge slap in the face if it doesn’t happen. But when I started making decent money in television and my parents realized that this was a viable career, they were cool.”
Secret to her success “Travel gave me the best education I ever received. I went abroad at the perfect age; I didn’t have any responsibilities–no spouse or kids.”
Don’t worry about not having a degree because “The fact that someone can quote Chaucer or Shakespeare does not make them smarter. So many people go to college just to land a lucrative job. I would never undermine the importance of higher education, but it would be sad if money were a person’s sole objective in obtaining a degree. Broadening your horizons and discovering your passion isn’t something that happens only within a classroom’s walls.”
GLADYS EDMUNDS, Founder,
Edmunds Travel, USA Today
Edmunds was a 16-year-old single mother when she chartered her first bus to take customers to a local racetrack. She rented the coach for $49, charged $5 for each of the 40 seats, and within a month, she was employing other women to help run her fledgling business. Today, the company she started at her grandmother’s dining room table is worth more than $6 million.
The big break Two years into her shoestring travel operation, “some women approached me and said that instead of taking a bus, they wanted to fly to New York. I came from a working-class family and had never been on a plane before. What did I know about airlines? But I made it happen, and business really exploded after that.”
Obstacles along the way “Society said I couldn’t succeed because I was a young black female with a baby and no high school diploma. Those were handicaps, but I refused to let them cripple me. I didn’t care what other people thought. I had a baby to feed–and I couldn’t do that earning $1.25 an hour bagging groceries.”
NORA ROBERTS, Best-selling
author, Keedysville, Maryland
Roberts married at age 17 and, except for a short stint as a legal secretary, focused full-time on her two sons for three years. During that time, she never wrote a word. That changed the week a blizzard stranded her and the kids inside their rural Maryland home. Desperate for distraction, Roberts grabbed a pencil and began writing a romance novel. Irish Thoroughbred was published two years later, in 1981. Since then, she’s hit the New York Times best-seller list 69 times.
Secret to her success “When I started sending manuscripts to publishers, I didn’t know enough to be intimidated. I was just in love with the process of writing. I didn’t feel then–or now, 22 years later–that a university degree was a prerequisite for being a writer. Without question, college is a wonderful and valuable experience, and one I encouraged my sons to have. But school isn’t the answer for everything and everyone.”
Biggest obstacle “I’ve rarely encountered prejudices because I lack a diploma. None of my publishers ever asked if I had a degree. All they’re concerned about is whether I can tell a story that interests them and the reader.”
People might be surprised to know that “I believe you can’t be taught how to tell a story. College classes, workshops, and seminars can be useful, and you can learn English skills and the nuts and bolts of structuring. But you’re either a storyteller or you’re not.”
CRISTI CRISTICH, CEO of Cristek
Interconnects, Anaheim, California
The idea was to earn spending money for college. But Cristich actually liked answering phones at an electronics company, so she dropped out of school altogether. After soaking up sales experience–and then getting laid off–she started her own company, Cristek Interconnects. Today, the company’s electronic components are used in everything from cruise missiles to Vice President Dick Cheney’s pacemaker.
The importance of being earnest “I was female and young in an older, male-dominated industry. I wasn’t an engineer or a scientist. So people wouldn’t take me seriously-and there was some outright discrimination. But I tried to turn disappointments into advantages. I was hyper-prepared for meetings. I used the novelty that I was a 23-year-old woman to get my foot in the door with customers.”
What she regrets “Not having an education those first couple of years I was in business. I didn’t know how to write a business proposal or market a product. I didn’t have knowledge or confidence, and I made so many mistakes. But I learned from them and became much more self-assured and competent as a result.”