Attaining higher education has always been deemed a prerequisite for achieving professional excellence, however, history and recent examples show that this is not always the case. There are many examples of current business leaders, who make us believe in the fact that you don’t need to necessarily have an Ivy League degree or higher education to achieve financial success.

To cite some examples, founders of companies like Apple, Oracle, Virgin Group, Microsoft, Dell, and Facebook are some of the most famous college-dropout CEOs who not only came up with a business vision, but also had the acumen to steer their business to greater heights. 

According to the findings from a recent survey conducted by Harvard Business Review (HBR), only 7% of the high-performing CEOs from the study sample, had an undergraduate Ivy League education, and 8% of them didn’t graduate from college at all. Some of the CEOs who managed to excel in their businesses had certain traits and virtues, which made them successful, despite the odds.

here are few key skills and attributes that some of the top CEOs without a top college degree or none at all possess:

deep industry knowledge and network

Many CEOs who rose steadily into the ranks without any academic credentials, made it big, as a result of the experience gained by working in an industry for a considerable period of time or a function or firm-specific knowledge. Also, the connections made through business dealings, makes such CEOs as a true business insider. According to the HBR report, nearly 89% of CEOs without college degrees ‘grew up’ in the same industry where they served as CEO, and spent 40% more time in the industry, where they became CEO compared to their peers with college degrees.

an eye for talent

A talented human capital is a key factor which defines business success for any company. CEOs without degrees understand this fact and are more likely to hire strong talent and rely on them for contributing to the business goals, by bringing in their expertise, compared to their peers. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, is a firm believer of this thought and says that he likes to always hire people who are smarter than him. 

fostering an inclusive culture

For any business or CEO to succeed, understanding market diversity, ideas, customer requirements and talent is driving the need for inclusion. Many CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, a college dropout, believes in the importance of an inclusive corporate culture at Facebook. His philosophy is based on having a culture, which focuses on less hierarchy, more collaboration and creativity. 


Having a clear understanding of the present business environment, global issues and any potential organizational instability requires CEOs to be a transformational leader. They need to be cognizant and aware of such situations and take action accordingly. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group, never attended college, however, his leadership style has helped the company grow organically. Unlike his peers, who have college degrees and rely on traditional ways of running the business, Mr. Branson had the ability to identify opportunities and risks before-hand, because of the experience gained over the years in different types of jobs. His focus has always been to never go for scale, but rather bring out the entrepreneurial spirit of its staff. Through this, the company managed to foray into different types of businesses and grow. 

The bottom line is that there is no there is no certainly no ‘one size fits all’ approach for success. While having an academic background certainly provides a perspective on how to run a business, having the required industry experience, network, leadership traits and access to a strong talent pool doesn’t require a college degree from a top institute to become an industry leader who can take on the role of a CEO.