20 Dropouts Who Are Changing The World

Read up on any new millionaire or billionaire and it seems they have the same story: come up with a good idea, drop out of school to develop it, cash in. It seems that innovators all have had to drop out of college (or high school) in order to have the time to make their dreams a reality.

Why is that? Isn’t school supposed to be a nurturing atmosphere that allows for innovative people to flourish? While there have been many world-changers who have indeed graduated, there seem to be an inordinate amount of leading figures who have simply passed on school.

Without further ado, here are 20 big names that have dropped out of school and are changing or have changed the world.

1. Matt Mullenweg

As the importance of social media expands, so does the influence of WordPress, the blogging service that most serious bloggers turn to. And though blogging might seem well established, WordPress just keeps on growing. Open source software is part of the reason for WordPress’ success.

When Mullenweg started blogging in 2001, he used open source software to develop his own Web tools, which became WordPress. Traffic to WordPress’ service more than doubled during the last year to 103 million global visitors, compared with main rival Typepad’s 20 million.

2. Steve Jobs

Having brought Apple back from the brink of a premature death following his return to the CEO’s office in 1996, Jobs has revolutionized how we consume media of all kinds, whether music, TV shows, and movies.

iTunes is now the biggest retailer of music, be it digital or tangible—in the U.S., having sold 5 billion songs as of June. Since 2007 he’s turned his attention to the wireless world, challenging entrenched players like Motorola and Research In Motion with the iPhone.

3. Paul Allen

In 1975 Paul Allen dropped out of Washington State to start up Microsoft with Bill Gates, which grew into one of the great success stories of the personal computer era. Allen left the company in 1983 after a bout with Hodgkin’s disease; he remains a member of Microsoft’s board of directors and his company stock has made him one of the world’s richest men.

On his own he has made a name for himself as a founder of and shrewd investor in hi-tech firms like Starwave, America Online and Ticketmaster, and as the enthusiastic owner of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.

4. Roman Abramovich

The richest man in Russia also dropped out of college. He studied at the Moscow State Auto Transport Institute before taking a leave of absence from academics to go into business. He later earned a correspondence degree from the Moscow State Law Academy.

He lost more than half his fortune in the past year, mostly due to disastrous performance of Russia’s second biggest steel company, Evraz, in which he has a large stake. Russian government had to loan Evraz money so it could pay a tax bill in the fourth quarter of 2008; its stock has dropped almost 90% in the past year.

5. Steve Ballmer

Billionaire chief of Microsoft. Graduated from college, but dropped out of the Stanford MBA program to join Microsoft. During the past 20 years, Ballmer has headed several Microsoft divisions, including operations, operating systems development, and sales and support. In July 1998, he was promoted to President, a role that gave him day-to-day responsibility for running Microsoft.

He was named CEO in January 2000, assuming full management responsibility for the company, which includes delivering on the company’s mission of enabling people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential. Together with Gates and the company’s other business and technical leaders, Ballmer is focused on continuing Microsoft’s innovation and leadership across the company’s seven businesses. Microsoft’s goal is to provide an integrated platform to enable a seamless experience across a wide range of computing and non-PC devices and services.

6. Sergey Brin

Billionaire co-founder of Google. Dropped out of Stanford Ph.D. program in computer science to start Google in 1998 working out of a friend’s garage. He did earn a masters degree. He is currently on leave from the Ph.D. program in computer science at Stanford University, where he received his master’s degree.

Sergey is a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship as well as an honorary MBA from Instituto de Empresa. It was at Stanford where he met Larry Page and worked on the project that became Google. Together they founded Google Inc. in 1998, and Sergey continues to share responsibility for day-to-day operations with Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.

7. Warren Buffett

Billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after two years. But later he did get his bachelor’s degree and MBA. Warren Buffett approached graduate studies with the same resistance he displayed a few years earlier.

He was finally persuaded to apply to Harvard Business School, which, in the worst admission decision in history, rejected him as “too young”. Slighted, Warren applied to Columbia where famed investors Ben Graham and David Dodd taught – an experience that would forever change his life.

8. Sean Combs

The man of many names (Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy, Diddy) and many careers (producer, rapper, actor, designer) was simply Sean Combs when he studied business at Howard University.

A very successful A&R executive at Uptown Records during the early ’90s responsible for sizeable hit records by Father MC, Mary J. Blige, and Jodeci, Combs formed his own Bad Boy label, signed B.I.G., Evans, and Mack, and earned enough hits to cement an alliance with Arista Records. A highly publicized feud with Death Row Records (in which Tupac Shakur and label head Suge Knight served as West Coast/Dark Side equivalents to the Notorious B.I.G. and Combs) was summarily ended in late 1996, when Shakur was murdered and Knight jailed. Six months later, the Notorious B.I.G. was dead as well, and after Combs mourned his friend’s death, he hit the pop charts in a big way during his biggest year, 1997.

9. Andrew Carnegie

Industrialist and philanthropist. Elementary school dropout. Started work at the age of 13 as a bobbin boy in a textile mill. One of the first mega-billionaires in the U.S. Carnegie set up a trust fund “for the improvement of mankind.” This included the building of 3,000 public libraries (380 in Britain), the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Carnegie Institution of Washington for research into the natural and physical sciences. Carnegie also established the Endowment for International Peace in an effort to prevent future wars.By the time Andrew Carnegie died in August, 1919, he had given away $350,000,000. A further $125 million was placed with the Carnegie Corporation to carry on his good works.

10. Simon Cowell

Simon Cowell is best known as the acid-tongued anchor of the American Idol judging panel, spouting criticisms that often, more or less, amount to nothing more than blatant insults. Only very rarely is the quick-witted Cowell sufficiently put in his place. Simon Cowell was born in October of 1959, in the city of Brighton, England. From the outset, his school life was tumultuous. Cowell had been ejected from 16 schools by the age of 16 – either for rebuking teachers with his now-legendry acerbic wit, or for rocking v-necks with deeper plunges than British school standards would allow.

The 16th dismissal, it seems, was the straw that broke the camel’s back: Cowell dropped out of school to take a mailroom job with his father’s employer, music giant EMI. After only a few years sorting letters, Cowell was able to snag a job as a producer for EMI. In the early 80s, he decided to launch his own label, E&S, which was unfortunately about as successful as Paula Abdul’s attempts at coherent speech. Cowell wasn’t discouraged, however – he just plunged the V ever further, got a five-dollar 80s haircut, and started yet another label, Fanfare. Unlike his first foray into business, Fanfare became a success, and paved the way for Cowell’s successful future.

11. Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons is without a doubt one of the biggest mac daddies of the hip-hop scene. Simmons dropped out of City College in New York at 20-years-old to pursue a career in producing after hearing Eddie Cheeba laying out some rhymes in an NYC club. Not only did he go on to co-found Def Jam records with Rick Rubin, but Simmons was instrumental in getting Run-DMC their big start. He negotiated a deal with MTV that saw the group becoming the first rap act to be seen on the channel — imagine life without ‘Tricky’. Yeah, didn’t think so. Simmons eventually supplemented his already hefty producing income by founding the clothing lines Phat Farm, Argyleculture, and American Classics. He is now reputedly the fourth-richest man in hip hop, with an estimated net worth of around $340 million. To put that in perspective: You know someone’s got their stuff together when an interviewer simply asks them, ‘what is cool?’

12. Sir Alan Michael Sugar

Sir Alan Michael Sugar is living the dream. He went from selling second-hand audio components to make ends meet to having the opportunity to assert that he is not Mary Poppins on national television. Sugar came from a relatively poor London family and early on took to entrepreneurship, dropping out of high school at age 16 to sell fruit out of the back of a truck he had purchased with his savings. As time passed, and after some very successful business ventures and investments, the fruit lined up cherry, cherry, cherry. Sugar hit the jackpot and became one of the wealthiest men in England. In recent years, the businessman has been very much in the public eye, starring in the British version of The Apprentice. He currently has a net worth of over $1.5 billion, which is enough to buy a nice island or a really crappy country.

13. James Cameron

Who would have ever thought the (self-proclaimed) ‘King of the World’ would hail from a small town in Canada? James Francis Cameron was born in 1952 in Kapuskasing, Ontario, and vowed to break free of the confines of his milquetoast middle name at an early age. From the moment he saw Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, Cameron knew he wanted to be a director. Not only did the film inspire Cameron’s filmmaking career – he modelled his personality after the oh-so-affable HAL 9000. Years later, when his father’s job forced his family to relocate to LA, Cameron’s desire to be a director reached fever pitch. He was so close to Hollywood, yet, without a licence to drive, he was still so far away. He began studying Physics at Fullerton College because of his interest in science, then, unhappy with his choice, changed to English. Finally, realizing that his true passions lay in neither of these two fields, he dropped out of college altogether. Today, Cameron is known as one of the most successful directors in the world, having directed the two highest grossing films of the modern era. His films have almost always played out in the science fiction genre with which he was originally so enamored, having directed films with android heroes and villains, , and blue cat-people having weird tail-sex.

14. Mark Zuckerberg

At 26, Mark Zuckerburg is one of the youngest billionaires in the world, and maybe he deserves it — it takes guts to decide Harvard University just isn’t the place for you and your talents would be better suited elsewhere. Remember when Facebook was called The Facebook? One could only join the network after asking a set of questions specific to his or her college. Though Zuckerburg is currently taking a lot of flack for using his creation to ‘spy’ on people, isn’t that what we’ve all used it for since it’s inception into mainstream culture?

15. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks was studying theatre at Sacramento State, but dropped out when he got the opportunity to take a more practical approach to the acting biz with a full-time internship at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival. Hanks’ film acting career certainly started quite strong; the young, Shakespearean-trained actor landed roles in films with such compelling subject matter as hot mermaids and coke-snorting donkeys. But, for some strange reason, this wasn’t enough for Hanks – if twitter existed in the early 90s, Hanks’ only post would have been, ‘brb – winning Oscars, lol.’ Tom Hanks became only the second actor in history to win back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor, for Philadelphia in 1993 and Forrest Gump in 1994. Hanks was never guaranteed success, but he followed his instincts and dropped out. You know what mama always said: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’

16. Tiger Woods

We’ve all heard about Tiger Wood’s mistresses; he’s definitely a pro at adultery. But did you know the guy can also play golf? Even before the recent media blow-up over his personal life, Woods was a pretty well known fellow. He is widely considered the greatest golfer of all time, and the fact that he is half Thai has all but eradicated the stereotype of Asians being bad drivers. Because he was readily beating the guys more than four times his age when he was only three years old, it was no surprise when the college scholarship offers came rolling in. Woods accepted an offer from Stanford and settled in a major in Economics, but it was only two short years before the child prodigy dropped out and went back to what he does best: kicking ass at golf, and breaking records like it was going out of fashion.

17. Nikola Tesla

Don’t let the girly-sounding first name mislead you; Nikola Tesla didn’t mess around. The haircut, the tweed suit, the intense stare — you know he meant business. Tesla attended the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz but cut off ties with everyone, left town, and completely disappeared, leaving friends to think he drowned in some river. Not satisfied, Tesla later attended the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague and dropped out of there as well, effectively sticking it to everyone else on this list before they were even born. Tesla went on to become one of the most important electrical scientists in the world and is one of the main reasons that the only candles in your house are the ones you light when you have horizontal company. Hey, remember the Tesla Coils in Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2? Yep, all thanks to Nikola Tesla.

18. Norah Jones

The daughter of Indian sitar player and Beatles’ friend Ravi Shankar was studying jazz piano at the University of North Texas when she returned to New York the summer after her sophomore year.

Jones waited tables and spent her nights singing jazz standards at local clubs. After that summer, she stayed in New York to pursue music. She told Time magazine “It was pretty much everything I wanted.”

19. Matt Damon

Damon entered Harvard in 1988, but acting work kept interrupting his studies. He took time off to film a TNT movie the second semester of his sophomore year.

After that, “School Ties” and “Geronimo” kept the future star of “Good Will Hunting” and the Bourne films away from Harvard Square. Damon remembers his time at Harvard fondly. He told the Harvard Crimson in 1997, “Let me tell you, I loved Harvard. It was a huge, huge part of my life.”

20. Ben Cohen

The man who would help create such memorable ice cream flavors as “Chunky Monkey” and “Cherry Garcia” started his education at Colgate College in 1969. Cohen lasted three semesters before returning home to New York. While he later took classes at University Without Walls at Skidmore College, he never finished a degree program. Instead, after completing a correspondence course in ice cream through Penn State with longtime friend Jerry Greenfield, he opened the first Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor in 1978.

-Excerpts from Wikipedia, Boston.com, Forbes.com, About.com

Know of another person who should be added to this list? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter over at @edudemic. Thanks!


  1. Idealist

    April 6, 2011 at 7:37 am

    To make the picture more colorful, one should do research on the financial background/familial support system of the individuals who dropped out. Someone who comes from humble upbringings is probably more unlikely to feel confident enough to drop out of a place like Harvard/leave without obtaining the degree, if only for the principal of the thing.

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