The Unlikely Academic Origins of Today's Startup Unicornsby@foundercollective
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1,115 reads

The Unlikely Academic Origins of Today's Startup Unicorns

by Founder CollectiveMay 25th, 2018
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<em>By</em> <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Joseph Flaherty</em></a>
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By Joseph Flaherty

It’s commencement week in Harvard Square, and thousands of brilliant students will collect their diplomas before heading off to make their marks as professors, politicians, and startup founders. Even Harvard dropouts have an excellent track record. What about entrepreneurs who didn’t have the opportunity to follow in Zuck’s footsteps? Should they abandon all hope of being touted in TechCrunch?

50 Big Companies that Started with Little or No Money_VC is a common denominator of the most successful tech startups, but it isn’t a prerequisite, especially at the early…

Nah. While compiling a list of 50 startups that got big before raising VC, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of founders with atypical educational backgrounds. Sure, the Ivy League and its elite cousins are well represented, in the form of Wayfair (Cornell), CarGurus (Dartmouth), SimpliSafe (Harvard), and AdaFruit (MIT). However, for every founder with sterling academic credentials, there is a Michelle Phan, who dropped out of a Florida art school named after a circus and went on to co-found a startup called Ipsy, which has since raised $100M and is leading its category. There are three very successful founders on this list with no post-secondary schooling at all.

In just this small sample, there are founders with degrees from high schools, state schools, art schools, and trade schools that have gone on to build startups worth billions of dollars. Broadening the lens to look at all startups would likely yield even more inspiring stories that started outside the ivory tower.

All things being equal, a Symbolic Systems degree from Stanford is a better predictor of startup success than a sheepskin from the school ranked #1,806 by U.S. News & World Report, but a lack of capital or credential need not be an insurmountable impediment. Here’s a short Who’s Who of successes stories that didn’t start at an august alma mater:

High School

Shopify founder Tobias Lütke went to a trade school in Germany and served out an apprenticeship in computer engineering before going on to found a $15B tech giant. Quizlet founder Andrew Sutherland didn’t pay a penny for college tuition while building a company that has since raised $32M. Colette Gunnell of Scentsy needed just a high school diploma to launch a business now doing a half billion dollars a year in revenue.

State School

Shutterstock founder and self-made billionaire Jon Oringer studied at Stony Brook University, which is ranked a respectable #97 by U.S. News & World Report. A more important ranking is the market cap bestowed on his company by the NYSE, which pegs the company’s value at $1.5B.

SparkFun started in a dorm at the University of Colorado. PaintNite’s Co-founder is a proud Wisconsin Badger. MailChimp’s founder got his start at the University of Georgia. Go State!

Liberal Arts Colleges

Some founders went to notable schools but didn’t study tech or entrepreneurship.

Economics major, Winston Churchill Society member, and LootCrate co-founder Chris Davis uses the highbrow lessons learned at Claremont McKenna College to cater to the needs of pop culture fanatics the world over. founder Lynda Weinman earned a degree at Evergreen State College, before teaching herself the rudiments of computer graphics as an FX artist on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which paved the way for her eponymous EdTech startup.

Peter Rahal studied Poly Sci and pledged Phi Kappa Psi at Wittenberg University which equipped him with enough business sense to turn $10,000 in seed capital into RX Bar, which was acquired for $600M — just in time for his five-year reunion.

Brigham Young University

Brigham Young University is ranked #61 among national universities and has a distinguished list of alumni that includes Senators, Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, and the author of the Twilight saga. What it doesn’t have, in the tech community at least, is a reputation commensurate with the achievements of its founder/CEO grads. Just from my list of bootstrapped startups you’ll find:

● PluralSight founder Aaron Skonnard (NASDAQ: PS, Mkt. Cap $2.8B)

● Braintree founder Bryan Johnson (Acquired by PayPal for $800M)

● Qualtrics founders Ryan Smith & Stuart Orgill ($2.5B valuation)

● founder David Elkington ($1.5B valuation)

● Scentsy co-founder Kara Egan, who has an associate’s degree from BYU’s Idaho campus

This is a track record of startup success that rivals MIT, in the number of unicorns, if not their total market cap, over the last 10–15 years. Even more astonishing, the school’s tuition is just over $12,000/year, proving a solid technical education need not come with tons of debt!

International Schools

Schools like the Sorbonne, the University of Cambridge, the Indian Institute of Technology, and Tsinghua University have global reputations. By contrast, the British Columbia Institute of Technology isn’t even ranked by U.S. News & World Report, and still produced Plenty of Fish founder Markus Frind, who sold his dating startup for $750M.

The University of New South Wales, tied for 5th place among Australian colleges and universities, managed to graduated Atlassian co-founders who bootstrapped their way to a $15B business.

So in short, hit the books, but don’t obsess so much about where.