By Gary Shapiro
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Entrepreneurs don’t need a particular pedigree to get their start or leave their mark on the world. While many successful entrepreneurs attended top business schools to learn about starting and running a company, some of today’s most successful entrepreneurs studied at less well-known colleges or state universities, or never went to college at all. And skyrocketing prices at many colleges and universities are prompting some young entrepreneurs to seek other avenues to success.
Earning a degree at a top-ranked school can be a huge financial burden. Many Ivy League graduates today are seeking jobs in higher-paying fields like finance and investment, instead of launching into the startup space. Often they are forced to make this choice because they have massive student loans and are afraid they can’t afford to venture out on their own. Top business schools are continually improving their entrepreneurial classes and workshops to attract would-be entrepreneurs and encourage students to launch startups – yet tuition at the leading business programs in the U.S. can cost more than $55,000 per year.
Meanwhile, several of today’s most successful entrepreneurs graduated from state universities and smaller colleges. One recent study found that the three public universities in Michigan turn out double the national average of entrepreneurs.
Many college dropouts also have found incredible success in launching startups. There are headline-making examples like Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to launch his Facebook empire, and Richard Branson, who never graduated from high school but went on to found Virgin Group. But less well-known innovators have successfully followed a similar track.
Andrew Perlman left Washington University in St. Louis to devote his time and energy to enterprise. He launched five successful technology startups after that before founding Great Point Energy in 2005.
Kevin Rose dropped out of the University of Nevada to focus on coding software. In 2004, he launched Digg. He now works as a general partner with Google Ventures and has made many highly successful investments in the social media space.
Daniel Ek dropped out of college and went on to launch Spotify. Matt Mullenweg dropped out of the University of Houston to work for CNET, before launching WordPress – which is now responsible for powering 16 percent of theWeb. Ben Kaufman, the founder and CEO of Quirky, attended Chaplain College in Burlington, Vt., for one semester before dropping out to pursue his tech ideas.
When it comes to innovation, there are no limits or rules. Some incredibly successful people have made a big mark in the world before ever going to college. Just look at David Karp, who founded online blogging forum Tumblr and sold it to Yahoo for $1.1 billion. Karp, now 27, never went to college. In fact, he never received a high school diploma (though he doesn’t recommend that most people follow his example there). He has a passion and a talent and decided to pursue it, with great success.
Another “boy wonder” in the tech startup space is Summly founder Nick D’Aloisio, 18, who sold his app to Yahoo for $30 million. He was recently named WSJ Magazine’s 2013 Innovator of the Year – all before graduating from high school.
Quite simply, great ideas don’t belong in one simple category. Innovators can be any age, come from any background, with any level of education. What they share in common isn’t a prestigious degree but a passion for innovation, a great idea, and the strength of purpose and business savvy to make people listen. This focus on talent over pedigree is what makes the American dream so great.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.