Simply put, school isn't for everyone. Although there tends to be a
stigma attached to being a high-school or college dropout, a number of
well-known and highly successful men began their careers by taking a
calculated risk and dropping out of school. Here are six such
Note: All amounts are in U.S. dollars.
1. Simon Cowell
of: A London boarding school in 1975 at age 16.
Cowell was such a poor student that the school held him back a year,
which landed him in his younger brother's grade. His family was
well-connected — his family's neighbor was the head of MGM studios in
London, and Stanley Kubrick, who would one day buy the Cowell family home,
offered him some work on The Shining — but when Cowell went down to the
EMI studio in Hertfordshire and saw so many people standing in line for
work on the film, he decided it wasn't for him. He wanted to make his own
money, so he applied for a job in the mail room at EMI and worked his way
up to record producer.
His accomplishments: These days, Cowell is best known for his role as
the acerbic judge on American Idol, for which his salary is estimated at
over $30 million. He owns a record label, has successfully promoted
various bands and artists — including the international operatic group Il
Divo — and is the highly successful creator/producer of such TV shows as
Pop Idol and American Inventor.
By graduation time: By the time Cowell would have graduated from
boarding school, he'd already been working as a clerk in the mail room at
EMI for 18 months and was soon to become a producer. It wasn't until the
mid-'80s that Cowell started his own record label, Fanfare.
2. William H. (Bill) Gates
Dropped out of: Harvard University in 1975 at age 20.
He dropped out in large part due to the urging of his childhood friend
Paul Allen. Gates and Allen convinced MITS (Micro Instrumentation and
Telemetry Systems) — the makers of the first microcomputer, Altair — that
they had written a version of the programming language BASIC that would
work well on the Altair. It was a lie — they hadn't written a single line
of code — but they went to work and finished it in eight weeks.
His accomplishments: Bill Gates is the co-founder, chairman and chief
software architect of Microsoft Corporation, the worldwide leader in
personal and business computer software. The company currently employs
more than 64,000 people across 85 countries.
Although he has recently taken a back seat with regard to Microsoft's
day-to-day operations, Gates remains highly influential in the
corporation. He is the richest person in the world according to Forbes'
2006 list and is widely considered to be the world's most giving
humanitarian, as he has donated more than half his fortune to
By graduation time: By the time Gates would have graduated from
Harvard, he and Allen had formed Microsoft, based largely on their version
3. John Mackey
of: Three different Texas colleges in the mid-1970s.
Mackey, a strict vegetarian at the time, soon started his own natural
foods store, where he sold food dropped off by local farmers.
His accomplishments: Today, the visionary Mackey — sometimes called the
Bill Gates of organic food — is Chairman and CEO of Whole Foods Market, a
$3.8 billion Fortune 500 company and the world's largest natural foods
retail chain. While other supermarket chains post losses, Whole Foods has
prospered, thanks in large part to Mackey's highly stylized approach to
business, which includes his personal beliefs in vegetarianism (he is now
technically a vegan), the value of all-natural health foods, and working
with animal rights groups to adopt more humane treatment standards for
Mackey is also highly regarded for taking a lower salary than other
CEOs might and for making certain that all Whole Foods workers are
involved in profit sharing.
By graduation time: By the time he would have graduated, Mackey and his
then-girlfriend had borrowed money from friends and family to start a
vegetarian food company, Safer Way, out of a garage in Austin. Within two
years, he had founded Whole Foods Market.
4. Ron Popeil
of: A Florida high school in 1951 at age 16.
Popeil himself admits his childhood was so terrible that he's actively
blocked much of it out. His parents divorced when he was 3 and he was sent
off to a New York boarding school soon afterward. Unable to tolerate it,
he went to live with his grandparents in Florida, but by 16, he could no
longer tolerate that situation either. He dropped out of school and went
to live with his father, Samuel Popeil, a Chicago-area inventor, who sold
his products to companies such as Sears and Woolworth.
His accomplishments: Popeil, the highly recognizable father of the
infomercial and inventor of such products as the Veg-O-Matic and the Food
Dehydrator, created Ronco in 1964. He began running advertisements for his
various products on television, which was still a relatively new medium.
All told, Popeil's inventions have generated over $1 billion in retail
sales. He recently sold Ronco for $55 million, but he remains the
By graduation time: By the time Popeil would have graduated from high
school, he was working for his father. Initially, Popeil would set up a
table in stores and try to convince both customers and store owners to buy
his father's products. Soon, Samuel was selling his inventions to Ron — at
wholesale, meaning that Samuel was making a profit — who would then sell
them to stores.
5. Russell Simmons
out of: City College of New York in 1977 at age 20.
Russell dropped out after hearing a singer named Eddie Cheeba working a
New York City club by calling out rhymes. Saying he had an epiphany,
Simmons decided to pursue this emerging music scene and began promoting
local music groups and producing their albums.
His accomplishments: Hip-hop and rap pioneer Simmons is the creator of
Rush Communications, a huge conglomerate that includes two record labels
(Def Jam Records and Russell Simmons Music Group), a management company, a
clothier (Phat Farm), a movie production house, television shows, a
magazine, and an advertising agency. Although he recently sold his stake
in Def Jam and Phat Farm, Simmons remains a highly influential media
figure, and has a net worth estimated at over $500 million.
By graduation time: By the time Simmons would have graduated, he was
busy promoting local music groups that included Kurtis Blow, Run DMC and
Public Enemy. In 1984, when in his late 20s, he and Rick Rubin founded Def
Jam, signing such acts as LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. The following
year, they signed a production deal with CBS for $600,000 and were
eventually responsible for getting Run DMC on MTV as the channel's first
6. Sir Alan Michael
Dropped out of: Brooke House School in London in 1963 at age
He went briefly into the civil service as a statistician, but having
come from a relatively low-income family, Sugar soon turned to the
business of buying and selling — cigarette lighters, intercoms, car
stereos, and antennae — in order to make his way in the world.
His accomplishments: Today, Sugar's net worth is estimated at
approximately $1.5 billion, thanks in part to various successful business
ventures, including Amstrad, his electronics and computer business, and
Amsair, a company providing charter jet services. He is currently the star
of BBC's The Apprentice, assuming the role Donald Trump has on the
American version of the television show, and was at one time a part owner
of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.
By graduation time: By the time Sugar would have graduated from high
school, he was still selling fruits and vegetables out the back of a van
paid for with his then-life savings of $185. His hard-won business acumen
served him well, however; within five years, he founded Amstrad, which
would eventually make him a multi-millionaire.
Where there's a will there's a wayIf there is a lesson to be learned
from the lives and careers of successful dropouts, it isn't that dropping
out of school is always a good idea. Rather, it's that dedication and hard
work — whether applied at school or at the proverbial school of hard
knocks — will always prove rewarding if you believe in your dream and work
hard to achieve it.