To study or not to study?

  • Columns
  • Monday, 15 Aug 2016


If you’re thinking of skipping university because your head is full of business ideas and you’re raring to go, then this may well be the path to take. Almost all entrepreneurial skills are learned on the job through personal experience.

Q: I was wondering what your opinion is on whether it’s necessary to get a college degree before becoming an entrepreneur. Say you’re 20 years old and entrepreneurship is your calling, but your parents want you to go to school first. Do you think that getting a bachelor’s degree, or even an associate’s degree, is worth the time and effort? — Dillon Cortez

This is an interesting question, Dillon, and one that young people ask me often. Given the rapidly changing global jobs market, the increasing cost of higher education and the increasing interest in entrepreneurship around the world, your question is important to anybody who’s thinking about starting a business.

If you aren’t sure whether you should go to university, it may be partly because the value of a degree appears to be declining.

With the jobs market changing so rapidly, more and more employers are favouring on-the-job experience over formal qualifications. A degree in business may not offer the kind of security people used to expect.

Going to university is the right choice if you’re looking to become a scientist, architect or doctor. A programme of study in one of those fields is essential preparation, though you don’t stop learning after the degree is done — my daughter, Holly, who studied medicine, is a great example.

Almost all of an entrepreneur’s skills have to be learned on the job, through personal experience. You probably know that Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of school and went on to found successful businesses instead.

Nobody would question whether any of those entrepreneurs could run a business. They didn’t develop their unique and compelling approaches to disruptive innovation and leadership by reading a textbook, but by living through the thrill, dread and sleepless nights that come with being an entrepreneur.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some great business leaders out there who have MBAs, but to me it seems unnecessary. No matter how much you study the art of business or analyse famous entrepreneurs’ strategies, nothing can prepare you for the journey that is running a business.

The simple fact is that every entrepreneur makes mistakes — and you tend to make many when you’re starting out. From a practical standpoint, it’s best to go through that learning process when you’re younger and have less to lose.

Racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts before you even get started sets limits on your freedom to launch a business.

Our team at Virgin has never agreed with the idea of encouraging young people who have entrepreneurial ambitions to head off to university and accrue debt when that clearly isn’t their best option. We’ve always felt that there was a better way of doing things.

A few years back we lobbied the British government to launch the national StartUp Loans programme in order to provide funding for young entrepreneurs. The government was receptive to the idea, and now, through delivery partners such as our own non-profit Virgin StartUp, young people in the UK have a choice.

They can go the traditional route and take out a loan and head off to university, or they can take out a loan and launch a business — with advice from Virgin StartUp’s network of expert mentors.

The results have been wonderful. Since Virgin StartUp was founded in 2013, over 1,000 loans have been distributed, totaling more than £12mil, or about US$16mil.

Programmes like that one give the new generation of entrepreneurs a helping hand, allowing people to turn their amazing ideas into reality. And research shows that for every £1 that is loaned to a startup, another £3 is put back into the economy. Giving entrepreneurs options makes financial sense for our communities and our society.

If you decide to launch a startup rather than go to university, that doesn’t mean that you’re closing yourself off from learning and personal development. It simply means that you’ll find it in different places.

Find yourself a mentor and start working on launching your startup, and you’re in business. No university studies can match of tackling real-world problems yourself, with advice from a business leader who knows the industry — someone who can help you to come up with solutions by drawing on his or her unique expertise.

Dillon, when it comes to starting a career in business, there’s no time like the present. Talk to your parents, share your concerns with them, tell them about your plan, and maybe they’ll agree that the entrepreneur’s path is the best one for you. — Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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