Mark Zuckberg, Stacey Ferrai and Kirk Kilbane all have at least one thing is common – they didn’t officially graduated from College or University.
They’re all College or University “dropouts”.
You may not have heard of all three, however, they’re all business owners. Zuckerberg is one of the co-founders of facebook, Stacey is an Amercian entrepreneur who, having sold her first firm (MySocialCloud), has secured a multi-million dollar investment for her second (Forge), and Kirk is one of the “Acorns” (new businesses) we’ve worked with, who has set up his own car valeting business, Kirk Kilbane Car Care, something he’s been absolutely passionate about since he was just 12-years old!
All three have very different paths. All three are dropouts.
What Exactly Is A College or University Dropout?
According to Dr Google, a “dropout” (dr?pa?t) is defined as:
- A person who has abandoned a course of study or who has rejected conventional society to pursue an alternative lifestyle. E.g. “a college dropout”.
- Rugby: the restarting of play with a drop kick.
For the purposes of this blog, we’re going to focus on definition numero uno, particular those who left to pursue running their own business. However, we really don’t like the dictionary definition of this word, nor society’s take on it!
I mean seriously, “abandoned?”. Abandoned?!
It’s such a harsh word. And to my mind, it’s the complete opposite of what taking this brave decision actually means.
Is College or University the Only Destination After High School?
Enrolling in Further and Higher Education is not for everyone. However, most of the school system seems geared up for this output. (There. Is No. Other. Destination.)
This is just not true. It may be a timing thing – some people want to go travelling, have some life experiences, or just aren’t ready to continue their educational journey at the time they leave school – and that’s totally cool. You can always decide to go back to it later, or develop and learn through other means.`
And even for those who do decide to go to College or University, they can do so for the wrong reasons: peer pressure, encouragement from their parents or careers advisors – “it’s what you’re meant to do!”.
I went to University and I loved it! For me, it was absolutely the right thing to do. I studied Business Management with Marketing, at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. I loved my time there and found it very enjoyable and valuable. However, I also understand that it’s not for everyone and not everyone “loved” the University experience.
I knew that after I graduated I wanted to work in some sort of Marketing role, as I felt a real connection to that particular area. In my gut, I just knew that was what I wanted to do. I now know how lucky I was to find the thing I wanted to do so easily. Something I was truly passionate about. And this has since evolved into startups, student enterprise and entrepreneurship.
In my experience, most people have no real clue of exactly what they want to do. And this can still be true for people in their 50’s!
Just like when you are a child, you have to try lots of different things to work out for yourself exactly what you like and don’t like doing. What you’re good at and what you’re not. Note the deliberate use of the words “try” and “for yourself.”
Despite society trying to wrap us up in cotton wool sometimes, everything can be viewed as an experiment. And sometimes there’s just no way around experiencing it for yourself. No book you can read, no meeting with a careers advisor, no lesson from your teacher, lecturer (or parents!) and no video you can watch. Sometimes, you just gotta get out there and live it!
So back to the point, what about those who do go on to College or University but decide to dropout (shudder!) for whatever reason?
A Better Description for College and University Dropouts
Whilst we glamourise business people who are “successful” College and University drop-outs, like Mark Zuckerbeg, what about those who are not high-profile or celebrities?
What about normal people who dropped out to pursue running a business?
Whilst it’s seen as the cool thing to do for the business rockstars of the word, those who are just starting out on their entrepreneurial journey after leaving College or University aren’t celebrated the same. That’s probably the understatement of the decade!
We’ve worked with several business owners who decided College or University wasn’t for them. They spoke about the emotional hurricane (why not!), of deciding to withdraw…and of course, telling everyone else.
Some said they felt like a failure. Others said their parents threatened to cut them off if they left college or university. And some were bullied and teased by their so-called friends and classmates.
Perhaps the hardest part of all this is being brave enough to admit to yourself that College or University wasn’t right for you at this time. And this is then compounded when you have to tell people: your family, friends, lecturers, classmates and everyone else.
Deciding to withdraw from College or University is not a decision to take lightly. And doing so to launch your own business shouldn’t be demonised!
It’s not that someone isn’t good enough or clever enough for College of University, it’s just that they found an alternative path that was more for them. Despite how scary, overwhelming and challenging launching a business can be, it felt more natural to these people than sitting in a classroom ever did.
Kirk Kilbane – Why I Decided to Dropout of University to Run My Own Business
Kirk studied Business Management at High School and decided to further his knowledge here by applying for University.
He explained: “In the first couple of days, the lectures outlined how the course would run. To me it seemed that the course content was more basic than in High School Business Management!
“I understand that the course would have got more challenging as time went on. However, at the time I was so hungry to get straight out into business and start making money, that I didn’t want to wait up to 4 years to get to that point!”.
“If my memory serves me correctly, one of the lecturers said, ‘Welcome to International Business Management! The business world is so fast paced that by the time you’ll have your degree, 50% of what you have learned will be redundant!’ …Of course, that was a major red flag to me!…And I’m sure it would be the same for other budding entrepreneurs”.
How Did You Feel Dropping Out of University to Run Your Business?
“It was a relatively easy decision for me to make, I dropped out on day 3 – just 6 lectures in. The beauty of coming to my senses so early was that I didn’t waste too much time. Perhaps if I was 6 months into studying, it could’ve been a much more challenging decision to make.
“With regards to how I felt: I felt frustrated. I’m passionate about business, loved studying Business at High School, and wanted to keep the progress going.
However, the whole environment of the lecture theatre seemed to be very uninspiring. An essential skill for a successful business and startup is a willingness to be different and challenge the status-quo. The University I attended seemed like the sort of environment that made what I’d call “cookie-cutter” candidates to enter the business world and work for someone else. That just wasn’t for me.
“The best environment to make business owners prosper are small, intimate groups that are led by other entrepreneurs, like the Business Accelerator Programme I attended at Acorn Enterprise!” (thanks for the cheeky plug, Kirk!).
Instead of mocking College and University dropouts, let’s help them!
We are all unique. We are all on our own journey. We are all have our own aspirations. Instead of telling other people what they should or shouldn’t do, let’s just focus on ourselves and being the best we can be.
Instead of labelling these brave people who take the bold decision to leave College or University to start their own business as “failures”, “dropouts” or “losers” – let’s celebrate them. Let’s support them. Let’s help them.
I don’t believe that it’s all or nothing, when it comes to running your own business as a student. By that I mean, I don’t think you always need to choose only doing your business or only studying. I think it is possible to do both, and I’ll cover that in more detail in a future post. However, for those who do decide to go all in on their business and leave College or University to do so, we need to give them more help.
Cut Early Dropout Fees
Figure vary, with some reports suggesting that College and University dropouts cost the taxpayer £ million every single year.
It can also cost those individuals who choose to withdraw. Depending on where you live, what institution you attend and exactly when in the academic year you leave. In some instances, there can be tution fees to pay, even if you don’t complete the course!
One suggestion is to cut dropout fees for students, and this is a campaign that is being led in Scotland by the National Union of Students (NUS).
Business Incubators for Those Who Withdraw from College or University
Another approach that can support those who withdraw from College or University is access to a Business Incubator or Enterprise Hub. This is something we are extremely passionate about and Acorn Enterprise have been involved in this space since we launched in 2013.
A Business Incubator is a place where aspiring or existing business owners can go to develop themselves and their venture. The exact provision varies, however, we believe it should develop: confidence, clarity and business skills – all whilst raising aspirations. And this can include: office space, a seminar schedule, a mentor, events, introductions to investors and other parties, and more.
Provision varies from institution to institution, with some providing a really valuable service, whereas others are offering nothing but a spare room in the attic with a few sticks of furniture!
Equally access to these facilities varies too. Some Colleges and Universities only allow those who have graduated entry into these Hubs. However, we would advocate allowing current students use these facilities too, especially if they are speaking about withdrawing or already have done so.
Whilst learning in the classroom is not for them at this time, being involved in a community of other business owners, with access to real support to help them grow is exactly what they need!
The Thiel Foundation
A final suggestion brings us back to Stacey Ferrari, who we mentioned at the start of this article. She successfully secured a fellowship from the Thiel Foundation.
A two-year program exclusively for young people who decided to dropout of College or University to start their own business. As well as a tailored programme, participants also benefit from access to a network of advisors and $100,000.
The Foundation was established in 2011 by Peter Theil, one of the co-founders of LinkedIn. There is an intake once a year, and there are between 20-25 particiaptns on each cohort.
I think this sums up what they do best: The Thiel Fellowship gives $100,000 to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.
Could we establish something similar in the UK for those who dropout of College and University to start their own business…?
It’s hard enough starting a new business, nevermind feeling like everyone is now watching you, wanting you to fail – just so they can say “told you so” or “see, you shouldn’t have dropped out of College or Uni!”. That additional pressure is intense, and it’s a lot to carry at once.
Instead of judging, criticising or mocking these dropouts, let’s champion them instead!