From Dropout to Billionaire: Is Graduating Essential?

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In today’s world, it is a widely held opinion that graduating from university holds immeasurable importance – but there are many alternate methods, going as far as dropping out to focus on entrepreneurial pursuits which have led to cases of great success.

We heard from five entrepreneurs and those in positions of leadership who shed light on their view of differing educational backgrounds and their impact.


First on the topic are Simon Crowther, Director of Flood Protection Solutions Ltd. and Joseph Valente, CEO of ImpraGas, who have been both featured in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. Speaking from their different perspectives,

Simon Crowther begins:

“Over the past five years, being an entrepreneur has become fashionable, and coupled with universities having tough press with the fee increases; starting a business has never been more attractive for students.

Starting a business is an incredibly exciting time, you are your own boss and can follow your passion.

I set up my business Flood Protection Solutions Ltd in October 2012, having started a Civil Engineering degree in the month prior. I ran the business part time alongside university, and after graduation, went into the business full time. I realise that this is very unusual, but university is incredibly valuable, both for academic and personal development reasons. I am very proud that I completed my degree, and for me, dropping out was never an option. Individuals could complete their degree, and then launch their business if doing both is not viable.

Within any industry, credibility is key to success. In flood defence, credibility is essential because flooding is unpredictable and very hard to manage. As a young entrepreneur, getting the credibility and respect required is very difficult. I found that my degree was a huge help to improving my credibility and has allowed me to expand the business into other areas, including flood consultancy.

Without my degree I am sure I would not be invited to speak at as many conferences or be as well respected. My degree has certainly helped with the business growth, and as such I am a supporter of attending university.

Whilst I appreciate that university is not for everyone, it is still possible to set up a business after University, with extra credibility under your belt. According to Bloomberg, 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who set up in business fail in the first 18 months. If you are not part of the fortunate 20%, you will still be more employable with a degree than without.”


Offering a different perspective, Joseph Valente explains:

“I have spoken to a number of young people who believe that university isn’t for them: they feel trapped in a classroom, trying desperately to absorb concepts that they know they’ll never need for running a business. I also speak to business owners who wished they would have finished their degrees.

I am hesitant to recommend that anyone quit something they’ve committed to (after all, I was expelled from school, which negatively affected my forward progress). However, trajectories change. Goals and visions become clearer. And sometimes, we realise that the path we’re on isn’t leading to the desired destination. If someone is in school and feeling compelled to drop out and jump straight into the business world, I would suggest asking the following questions: A) Do you know what area of business you’d like to go into? B) Have you strategised your plan for establishing and running that business? C) Can you secure financial backing? D) Is your heart pulling you in one direction, day after day?

I would never demand that anyone spend money on university who doesn’t need a degree to pursue their intended career. To the contrary, there are people who perform well in a structured setting, and therefore, a business degree from a four-year university is probably the best path for them.

As for the rest of the people, those who know what they want to do or sell, those who have given their potential business a lot of thought and have a definitive plan of action, those who have a financial strategy for affording to start a new business, those who are motivated to keep commitments and reach or exceed goals… do not necessarily need that college degree to move forward. In fact, they will probably make more headway by skipping those four years of structured learning—which can feel more like prison to them.

Does that mean learning is unnecessary? Absolutely not. Business practices must be learnt through university, apprenticeship or independent study. There’s a lot of competition out there; no one can expect to go it alone, or without the training to survive and thrive.”


James Reed, Chairman and CEO of weighs in, elaborating on the alternate forms of education on offer:

“My father, Sir Alec Reed, founded REED in 1960. He left school at 16, studied accountancy at night school and started the company with just £75 in his hometown of Hounslow. He didn’t have a degree to help him run a company, but he did have a hunger, from a young age, to be self-employed. Interestingly, he has always placed a high value on a good education and he certainly encouraged his own children to aim high academically. But Alec Reed has always stressed the importance of vocational learning that will improve an individual’s career prospects, part of the reason I suspect that I ended up studying business and economics.

Of course, not everyone has the resources, mind set or perhaps the desire to create and manage a start-up business from scratch. But entrepreneurship is not the only alternative to higher education. The UK jobs market is seeing more and more companies investing in apprenticeships and trainee positions, as businesses are seeing the real value in hiring and nurturing potential talent through providing practical and relevant experience. There is a particular demand for entry level people in areas that are experiencing skills shortages, such as science and technology. In the time it would take someone to complete a degree and gain an entry-level position, an apprentice could have completed a trainee programme in Web Design and already be earning a salary significantly higher than their graduate contemporaries.

School leavers need to learn important skills such as how to take the initiative, how to communicate effectively, how to be self-critical and how to be truly adaptable. The workplace can be the best of teachers. Joining a team of talented people, learning from them and applying what you learn in real life scenarios can be every bit as enriching as a university education. And, best of all, you get paid for it.”


Lastly: Jamie Waller, founder of Firestarters, a £13m investment fund for early stages businesses and Carl Reader, Philanthropist, Entrepreneur and Co-founder of TaxGo shared the perspective on the benefits of starting your career early.


Jamie Waller says:

“Hard Work + Time = Success (HW+T=S).

If this formula is correct, and in my opinion, it is, then starting your career at 16 has obvious benefits over starting at 21 or 22. Five years of benefit to be precise.

I left school at 16, not because I wanted to, but because my dyslexia held me so far back that it was impossible for me to get a place at sixth form or University. In fact, I was 30 years old before I did any formal education, and that was paid for (they don’t tend to say no when you’re paying) at Cranfield School of Management and I then did another at Stanford University when I was 34. Education without doubt is a huge positive in life and the entrepreneurs who say you should not study and just get straight to work are wrong in my opinion. It might work for some like it did for me, but I know plenty of people for whom it didn’t. Some of them are stuck in jobs which just about pay the bills or unemployed. That’s not an exciting life for anyone.

Leaving school at 16 does teach you about work ethic—it means you have to start from the bottom and you have to work your way up. It can also teach you how to think outside of the box and the importance of taking risks.

Leaving school at 16 gave me huge hunger to succeed, not to mention a 5-year head-start on my competition (my peers). There was never going to be a 21-year-old who would beat me to a position that did not fundamentally require a degree when I had five years hard graft under my belt.”


Carl Reader adds:

“University education is fantastic for certain careers, and absolutely necessary for them. It’s also fantastic for certain individuals who are more academic. However, many people are, quite frankly, stifled by the education system.

In many cases, I think leaving education is a brave step, mainly because of the negativity that surrounds this area. The very wording of this question, in fact, focuses on those “dropping out” of full-time education. I feel that needs to be flipped around—further education needs to be seen as exactly that—further education, to supplement the grounding that the schooling system has given the pupils/students.

I believe that 16 – 18 year olds are potentially at the best possible place to start a business. What they lack in experience, they gain in the freedom from a blinkered view based on the way that historic businesses have done things.

By starting a business at an early age, you don’t have the commitments that you might have later. Once you’ve got debt, perhaps a partner, living costs, rent/mortgage, it becomes so much harder to make that leap—even if you know it’s the right thing for you. Security can be a powerful motivator—and indeed, demotivator (depending on your perspective!)”

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