Money Matters

No degree required

By Richard Branson
Mon, 10, 17


Q: Two of my friends and I are exploring an exciting business opportunity. I’ve done some research and I know that while there are a number of companies already working in the space, they haven’t figured out how to scale their businesses, which leaves an opening for us.

Unfortunately, when I present my partners with ideas about how we can beat the competition, one of them is always quick to point out that the founders and employees of these companies have fancy degrees from the world’s best business schools and that “they would probably crush us.”

Comments like these infuriate me — they just seem like excuses to give up. Have you ever been intimidated by someone’s credentials? If so, how did you overcome your feelings of inferiority?

— Nirav Patal

A: First off, I think it’s great that you are looking to enter the business world with your friends. A lot of people think that’s a bad idea, but I disagree. I have a long track record of working with my friends and family, and things have worked out well. We spend so much of our waking life at work that we might as well work with people we love. It makes everything more fun — and fun is an essential ingredient in any successful venture.

That said, it’s a shame that your business partner is shutting down your ideas by suggesting that you’ll be crushed by people who are supposedly better educated than you. This is all about fear of failure. In my opinion, entrepreneurial drive beats a fancy degree anytime.

I didn’t go to a prestigious university; in fact, I didn’t even finish secondary school. I suffer from dyslexia and couldn’t keep up with my studies as a teenager. I didn’t fit in at all. Sadly, my instructors and the curriculum they taught made me feel lazy and dumb. So I turned my attention to something I was passionate about, which was producing Student magazine, with the aim of giving a voice to young people like myself.

And a wonderful thing happened: Following my passion gave me drive and purpose. My mind opened up and so my world. The headmaster gave me an ultimatum, forcing me to choose between staying in school or pursuing the magazine. I chose to leave, and I’ve never looked back.

I’m not alone. Some of the biggest game-changers in the business world didn’t go to college, let alone to an Ivy League or elite British university — people like Tumblr founder David Karp, the Arcadia Group’s Philip Green and British business magnate Alan Sugar, to name just a few.

And then there are the dropouts: Daniel Ek dropped out of a university in Sweden and co-founded Spotify; Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College in Oregon; and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg made it through the Ivy League gates, but both eventually left Harvard. They likely felt that learning in the real world would better help them to turn their dreams into reality.

The point is that university isn’t the be-all and end-all, and it’s certainly not a prerequisite for business success. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t go to university if they want to, but simply calling attention to the benefits of learning from the school of life. I received my own education through work. In my opinion, real-life learning is the best way to acquire skills. In fact, I’ve been campaigning for education to be rethought.

I don’t believe that keeping most people in school for years is good for them. And those who hope to enter professions that absolutely require a university education, such as science or medicine, should complete courses that are shorter and more intensive. Students must be encouraged to be more entrepreneurial, and to get ahead faster.

So to answer your question, no, I’ve never been intimidated by someone’s credentials. If I had, I never would have tried to achieve anything. Sure, my school grades got me down sometimes, but as soon as I discovered my passion, all of my preconceived notions about what it takes to succeed flew out the window.

I never judge people by their education and qualifications. The first thing we look for at Virgin when hiring new staff is personality, which always wins over book smarts or job-specific skills — the latter can be learned. We also give a lot of weight to experience. Time and time again I’ve seen people with a broad employment history and skill set who aren’t an obvious fit for a particular role bring a new perspective to a position and become incredibly successful.

Nirav, you’ve done your research and you’ve got a great idea, so now is the time to make something happen. You’ll never know if your idea is as good as you think it is unless you give it a shot.

If your business partner continues to respond negatively to your enthusiasm, perhaps it’s time to find a new partner with a mindset similar to yours — someone who isn’t afraid of a real challenge.

(Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.)

© 2017 Richard Branson (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)