How I Became the CEO of a Multimillion-Dollar Company -- Without Going to College
Look at a list of successful entrepreneurs, and it’s pretty easy to spot the demographic patterns. Most of those who are household names are white, well-connected males from the upper strata of society with access to capital, and degrees from famous colleges.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Researchers behind the CEO Genome Project studied thousands of CEOs and found that 8 percent never completed college. This latter group were leaders highly valued among their teams, evidenced by the fact that 89 percent had spent their careers in their respective industries, building knowledge and cultivating key relationships.
I can tell you from experience that while there might be a traditional path for creating a successful company, you don’t have to follow it turn by turn. I built a company that generates multimillion-dollar revenue, and I come from a modest family background and never attended regular college -- something nearly unheard of in India.
When I was 17 years old, my father told me I should help him run his business instead of getting an engineering degree. Looking back, I can see how that choice to “take the blue pill” actually put me in a better place to become a successful entrepreneur because it taught me things I never could have gained in a classroom.
Valuing exposure over academics
After deciding to forgo college, I began attending a computer programming course offered in the evenings at a small institution. I immediately fell in love. I even paid $20 for a programming book -- a price inconceivable at the time in rural India. After I completed the course, I decided to start my own computer training center with four partners.
Colleges tend to create artificial environments where students don’t get true exposure to real-world concepts. But in my own training center, I had unlimited exposure to creating programs and solving real problems. Had I studied computer science at a university, I would have been restricted to the assignments I was given and might not have realized my full potential.
Without an engineering degree, searching for a job in the tech world was a big challenge, but I eventually secured a role with HP. There, I realized I had a knack for working on problems that were not easily solved. Because I wasn't chained to a college course, I could dive deep into those topics and build up my knowledge bank. Some of those topics even became the foundation for my future business.
How to succeed without a degree
During my journey as an entrepreneur, I believe I've learned much more from working in the field than I would have had I pursued a college degree. If you want to strike out on your own and bypass the college process, follow these steps I did to build a strong foundation for your future:
1. Don’t study for the test -- go deep instead. In most colleges, students have the system figured out: You pass the class if you pass the test. So, if material won’t be on the test, there’s no need to bother with it. Many of my early co-workers took a similar approach, putting in the minimum effort to gain promotions or simply not get fired. But in business, you need to actively pursue the deep knowledge necessary to solve problems as they arise.
Entrepreneur and investor James Altucher told a CNBC interviewer how, while he'd received a degree from prestigious Cornell University, when he got his first job, he had to take remedial programming classes for two months because he hadn’t learned the necessary skills.
Altucher suggested that spending four years pursuing skills relevant to your desired industry is better than getting a broad yet shallow education through college courses. Instead of spending money on college, books or online tutorials, he said that would-be entrepreneurs should seek out mentors to teach them the ropes in their target industry. They should concentrate on diving deep into the subjects they need to become an expert in.
2. Give value to individuals, but bet on your team. College, by and large, is an individual effort. You get an individual degree after taking individual courses and writing individual papers. However, in business, there is almost no metric by which you can evaluate yourself that isn’t heavily influenced by a team. When I started my own company, I prioritized building great relationships with my talented and trustworthy colleagues.
Once you’ve gained the skills you need, shift your focus to creating a team you trust to weather the hard times and support your endeavors. Instill in your team the mindset that each of you has something valuable to contribute and that each individual is expected to put in the same high level of effort.
According to a Harvard Business Review survey, 82 percent of participants rated leadership as a crucial entrepreneurial skill, so follow that advice: Ensure you provide your team with solid leadership. Make plans for managing your employees, maintaining company culture, resolving conflicts and communicating your vision.
3. Chase and solve hard problems. As a software engineer, I found that one area I really latched on to was rule-based computing, a big problem with few solutions. Rule-based computing became a specialty of mine and eventually became the foundation for my company.
I could have never learned the depths of rule-based computing through an engineering course, though. I learned it through many hours spent solving difficult problems and exploring the limits of what was possible.
Solving hard problems became the focus of my entrepreneurial journey. If you solve hard problems, I learned, you never have to chase after customers or venture capital funding -- they come to you. Early-stage VC funding has decreased recently, so it’s better to spend your time -- and money -- tackling difficult problems head-on. Put all your effort into improving your process and developing your products or services, and your company will be more attractive to investors and customers alike.
So, take my word for it: Your failure to win life's demographic lottery doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful entrepreneur. In fact, the very reason you don’t fit the mold might be what propels you forward. Don’t let your starting place or your path in life dictate where you end up.
Use the tools and experiences given to you, and carve your own path to success.