Diploma or Dropout: The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma

Adopted from Mashable

What do Bill GatesSteve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all have in common?

Well, lots of things. The three are some of history’s greatest innovators and they’re super-rich, super-successful entrepreneurs. But perhaps most intriguing is the absence of a university degree on their impressive resumes.

All three enrolled in college (Jobs at Reed, Zuckerberg and Gates at Harvard) but ultimately chose business over books. Add Michael DellPaul Allen and the Twittercofounders to the list, and it almost looks like entrepreneurial success is the norm for college dropouts.

These unconventional career paths have led many, such as Flickr founder Caterina Fake, to speculate that dropping out belies an entrepreneurial streak. Plus, it makes sense that being young and debt-free can lead to creative risk-taking.

Of course, mega successful dropouts are one in a million. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 57% of first-time students complete a degree within six years. It goes without saying, not all of these former students make it big. However, given this uncanny trend, we took a look at the reasons creative types ditch the classroom for entrepreneurship. We spoke with three young entrepreneurs who have left school in the past six months to learn what it takes to innovate without a degree.

The Thiel Fellowship

In May, Facebook investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel launched the “20 under 20 Fellowship.” It awards $100,000 to students to pursue entrepreneurship. The motley crew of 24 fellows (20 total teams) will substitute traditional academics for two years of tutelage under Thiel’s oversight. While the benefactor has two degrees from Stanford, he’s infamously outspoken on the overhyped status of higher education. Thiel believes his fellowship will help solve the bubble of underemployed American degree holders and nourish the creative spirit in the America’s business environment.

All of the fellows are positioned to innovate in trendy topics. Three delved into biotech, two in career development, two in economics, three in education, four in energy, three in information technology, one in mobility, one in robotics and one in space.

Business Is Calling

Andrew Sutherland says leaving M.I.T. after three years of studying computer science was one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make. He has been working on his company, Quizlet, since his sophomore year of high school when he developed the program to study for a French test. Quizlet is an online study tool allowing students to create and share flash cards.

This summer, Sutherland realized he had to either choose his business or his schooling. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to do both well,” he says. “I saw how big Quizlet was getting, how many people were using it and how big an impact it could have for millions of students.”

Wesley Zhao similarly withdrew from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania two weeks ago when he decided to devote his energies to AvantCard, a site reinventing gift card giving. AvantCard’s co-creators, Ajay Mehta, Jesse Beyroutey and Dan Shipper, are not leaving school to pursue the startup.

“I think you just get different things from being in class and going into business,” says Zhao. “I definitely think you learn things in class but you learn more practical skills by doing it yourself.”

For 19-year-old Zhao, the decision isn’t risky because he knows he can always return to school. He plans to go back someday to pursue a degree, however, he no longer intends to major in entrepreneurship.

Sutherland also hopes to return to college, noting that he had a great time meeting friends and studying computer science. He believes M.I.T. does a great job of fostering entrepreneurship, easily allowing students to take leaves of absence and subsequently return to campus.

The Classroom Is Lacking

Dale Stephens left Hendrix College in March to pursue his blog-turned-social movement UnCollege. Halfway through his freshman year, Stephens started writing about his frustrations with higher education.

“I found smart people writing term papers, not changing the world,” he says. “I was working on theoretical homework rather than seeing the direct application of my work in the real world.”

Stephens was awarded a Thiel Fellowship to pursue his work as an educational futurist. He initially applied with a proposal for a budget transatlantic airline. Although his proposal was rejected, the committee approached him after he left college to work on UnCollege. Stephens, now based in Silicon Valley for Thiel’s mentorship, is using his seed money to publish his first book, “Hacking Your Education,” which he describes as a practical guide for gaining the skills schools aren’t teaching. The release is scheduled for early 2013.

While his book is in the works, Stephens says universities around the country have reached out to him as a consultant. “Tech is changing faster than they can. It’s really inspiring to see individuals working within the system, genuinely interested in building a better university of the future,” Stephens says.

True enough, college dropout will free up a lot of time for you to focus on what you want to do in your life, but thats provided that you really have something that you want to focus and that you are sure what you are doing, because simply giving up your education puts your future at stakes. There is really too much opportunity cost. For Singaporean, since they need to go through the national service, by the time they go through a 4 year degree program and step into the society, they would be 24/25 year old, depending on whether did they go through polytechnic.

So to foster the spirit of entrepreneurship, I think that the Singapore tertiary education institution plays a crucial role, not forgetting also the role of polytechnics in promoting entrepreneurship. Tertiary education institutions play important part in shaping the workforce and also a nation. They are the forefront of quality human capital. The good thing about the tertiary institution in Singapore is that they are doing quite well and are very supportive of the whole idea of entrepreneurship. Singaporeans or people who are studying here in Singapore should really be thankful and appreciative and really make full use of all the various resources and programs available. =)


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