For some people, higher education is the only viable path to one’s chosen career; this is specifically true of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and so on. But what about business owners?
Whether or not an aspiring entrepreneur needs a college degree is widely debated. Some point to successful entrepreneurs who didn’t complete, or even go, to college—like Steve Jobs (Apple) or Richard Branson (Virgin Group)—noting that waiting four years to get things off the ground can do more harm than good. Others argue that college provides more than just field-specific skill sets and offers young minds a chance to engage with peers and field experts. The decision of whether to go to college—or skip it and start a business—is a personal one, if not always clear-cut.
In an attempt to nail down an answer, let’s look at two entrepreneurs who’ve taken different paths to success.
Learning on the Job and in Life
Jordan Agolli, founder of and Chief Podcasting Officer at Force Media, also has his own podcast, Teenage Entrepreneur, which addresses this very topic. Raised in an entrepreneur family (Agolli’s father was a business owner), he’d been business-minded from an early age. He started his first company, a power-washing company, at 14, moved on to manage and co-own a lawn and landscape company, and finally started his newest venture, Force Media, this year. He doesn’t have a college degree, but he does have a thriving business at age 21—proof that the piece of paper isn’t always the be-all and end-all of success.
He learned about business by working for his dad, accompanying him to conferences, and simply being in the car with him during business meetings. However, he says he also places a lot of importance on active learning in one’s surroundings. Even serving tables, he says, can result in a better understanding of business.
Of course, the ability to learn on the job, or simply in life, isn’t unusual or exclusive to the Force Media founder. In some ways, city chambers or professional development organizations work on this very principle. Pair people with professionals in their field, and as long as they are driven, they will learn.
Some people see the purely entrepreneurial approach as being one that breeds creativity, whereas higher education tends to stifle that in an entrepreneur. In fact, a 2013 Hiscox survey of entrepreneurs found that “two thirds (66%) of all respondents agreed that their national education system did not encourage individual ideas and dreams.”
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More Than Just a Piece of Paper
On the other side of the debate is Dr. Sara Moore. She’s a professor of integrative media, a designer (you can see her work at SaraMooreDesigns.com or most recently on the socks worn by the U.S. women’s field hockey team), and the founder of Flourish Wilkes-Barre, an organization that empowers leaders to work with and improve the lives of the impoverished.
She was born in a small coal town, where opportunity wasn’t exactly around every corner. She was, however, born into a family who encouraged creativity as a means of communication—a skill and way of life that sticks with her today. How did she turn her passion for the arts into a career and entrepreneurial outlet? You guessed it—college.
“At college, I gained academic capital, I learned about other cultures, which increased my empathy. I also learned to obsess over detail and to set and attain long-term goals. In addition, I learned how to learn,” she says. College helped her form a personal identity and self-awareness, qualities she says directly helps her ability to create and carry out an action plan.
Dr. Moore is not alone in her value of education. A Manta poll found that 61% of small business owners surveyed felt that a college education is “important or necessary to success in the business world,” and 69% of owners polled had a degree, 68% of whom believed it played a role in their success.
What does this all that mean? Ultimately, the relationship between a college degree and being a successful entrepreneur comes down to your individual experience and what you need to get you to the next level. There are common threads that run deep in the approach that both Agolli and Dr. Moore take in their professional lives. These might be of help to anyone who’s trying to figure out their next steps.
1. Look for opportunities before you make your decision.
When discussing the role of mentors in his success (“invaluable,” by the way), Agolli says he was recently honing his skills as an MC, perhaps an obvious outlet for a podcast king, and he turned to a family friend who had been doing that for years. As luck would have it, this friend wanted to build a podcast, something Agolli is well versed in. The end result: a mutually beneficial exchange of skill.
Opportunities to learn or expand upon your current skills are likely to exist in many forms, including volunteer programs, internships, or professional relationships. If you’re aspiring to one day open a business and have similar opportunities, this is something to investigate before you hop into a college program. For that matter, it’s something you should do with each and every new project or step in your business or career.
2. Be true to yourself, be confident, and be resilient.
Taking advantage of new opportunities requires you to to realize and use your resources. But in order to carry yourself through, regardless of which path you choose, you’ll also need to be confident in your decisions.
“Every time something great happened in my career, it was because a visionary gave me a shot and I had the confidence to try,” says Dr. Moore.
Likewise, you’ll need to be resilient. Agolli takes a candid approach to this in “The Depressing Reality of Owning Your Own Business,” a blog post he wrote for The Wish Dish. In it, he’s brutally honest about the pressures that accompany any business venture. Realize they exist, don’t let them drag you down. And, as Agolli says, don’t let the success (or failure) of your business equate to the success of you as a person.
3. Create a strong network of support.
Dr. Moore and Agolli both give major credit to their support systems. Mentors, family, friends—all of these people help shape and mold not only your business aspirations, but you, too.
“Talk to people. Don’t hold it in,” says Agolli, who stressed how important a strong community can be to your professional and personal life. Dr. Moore agrees.
“Get out there, create a network, go to professional events, hang out with good people, be personable and let them know what you are passionate about,” says Dr. Moore. “Create a strong portfolio, and eventually the work you love will come to you.”
This advice can benefit any entrepreneur, regardless of the path they choose.