12 Multimillionaire High School Dropouts
For a talented few, the school of hard knocks offers a substantially higher return than time spent in the classroom.
A good mind is a terrible thing to waste–on high school, perhaps. One of my song lyrics goes:
“On the very same streets u see the homeless/
&the workers who think its all about their Christmas bonus/
you also got all shades of players and owners/
…and millionaires who aint even got diplomas….”
Yeah well for a special crop of talented go-getters–entrepreneurs, artists, former U.S. surgeons general (you read that right)–jumping right into the wide world without first bagging a high school diploma was the best thing that ever happened to their bank accounts.
Many leaped out of necessity. Others had encouragement from a mentor or at least from a supporter looking to piggyback on their success. All, however, had a vision and a demon drive to fulfill it. Even at a young age, that commitment and passion can overcome the hard months and years it can take to perfect a product and win over investors.
“Great entrepreneurs aren’t born fully sprung from the river of Zeus,” says Nancy Koehn, Historian of Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School. Furthermore, Koehn argues, the success of commercial wunderkinds has much to do with what they learned outside the classroom.
For all the new entrepreneurship programs popping up at business schools, there will always be a slew of born entrepreneurs who prove that high school diplomas, let alone fancy graduate degrees, might well be barely worth the paper they’re printed on. Here are just a handful of examples.
Robert De Niro
Fans of Vito Corleone and Jake LaMotta can thank one of the world’s most popular actors for leaving high school before his 17th birthday. The two-time Oscar winner studied his craft at Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio and the Stella Adler Conservatory. De Niro learned a thing or two about business along the way, too: His financial portfolio includes film studio TriBeCa Productions and a handful of posh New York eateries.
At last count by Forbes, this megaresort tycoon, who dropped out of school to pursue amateur boxing when he was only in eigth grade, is now worth $3 billion. Bankrolled Vegas Strip mainstays like the International Hotel and MGM Grand and bought a majority stake in MGM Mirage ( MGM – news – people ) in 2006. Survived a multimillion-dollar hit in 2008 after unloading Ford stock at a third of original buying value. Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation has donated more than $180 million to Armenian reconstruction efforts and various charities.
With holdings like Christie’s Auction House, Gucci, Samsonite ( SAMC.OB – news – people ) and Puma ( PMMAF.PK – news – people ), it’s hard to believe the third-richest man in France quit high school in 1947 to work at his father’s lumber mill. One reason he quit school: Classmates made fun of his poor background. Poetic justice: At last count, the retail kingpin and father-in-law to actress Salma Hayek has amassed an $8.7 billion fortune.
Born to a factory worker and an accounting clerk, this three-time Oscar-winning high school dropout showed signs of filmmaking flair as a child, crafting short movies with a Super 8 cine-camera in New Zealand. At age 20 he worked as a newspaper photo engraver by day and made slapstick horror films by night. His first mainstream hit, the murder drama Heavenly Creatures, came out in 1994. Jackson struck box-office gold with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which grossed just under $3 billion worldwide.
“If I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records and you don’t need a high school diploma over there,” Billy Joel once famously declared after learning he had fallen one credit short of his high school graduation requirement in 1967. The six-time Grammy Award winner has sold more than 150 million records worldwide and recently finished touring with Elton John in March 2010. (Joel’s old high school finally agreed to award their famous alumnus a diploma–25 years after he left.)Joel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. His estimated net worth is $160 million.
If this former U.S surgeon general is any example, you can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it–high school dropouts included. In 1967 Carmona quit Dewitt Clinton High School at age 16 and enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he eventually earned his GED. Carmona graduated at the top of his medical program at University of California, San Francisco in 1979. President George W. Bush appointed Carmona surgeon general of the United States in 2002.
The daughter of a seamstress and factory owner quit school at age 15 to pursue a stage career in London. The smoldering Welsh actress rose to fame in the late ’90s with her performance alongside Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro. In 2002 she captivated audiences as Velma Kelly in the blockbuster musical Chicago, earning the actress an Oscar, BAFTA Award and Screen Actors Guild Award. Zeta-Jones also has appeared in advertisements for Elizabeth Arden ( RDEN – news – people ), T-Mobile, Alfa Romeo and Di Modolo jewelery. Zeta-Jones’ estimated net worth is nearly $45 million.
John Donald Imus Jr. grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona and quit school when he was 17. Following short stints as a military bugler and railroad brakeman, the radio rabble-rouser took to the airwaves in 1968, disc jockeying for a small Palmdale, Calif., station. Fired for saying “hell” on air, Imus moved his on-air pranks to Sacramento, Cleveland and finally New York City in 1971. After the shock jock’s morning show was canceled in 2007, thanks to his disparaging comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, it was later picked up by WABC under a five-year deal worth up to $40 million.
This billionaire dropped out of high school to deliver milk for his family’s dairy. In 1940 he used a $1,200 loan to open an ice cream shop with his sister and two brothers. In 1959 he left the business and started investing in savings and loans, and eventually insurance concerns, which he assembled under American Financial Group ( AFG – news – people ). In 1984 Lindner bought Chiquita Brands International ( CQB – news – people ) (formerly United Foods) and ran it until 2001. The family dairy, called United Dairy Farmers, now has 200 ice cream parlors and convenience stores. Lindner’s estimated net worth: $1.7 billion.
The caustic judge pulled down an estimated $80 million last year, thanks to his involvement with American Idol;Britain’s Got Talent; musical talent show The X Factor; and SyCo records, his production company. The 50-year-old impresario dropped out of school at age 16 and landed a job in the mail room at EMI. At 23 he left to start his own record label, Fanfare. Cowell recently shifted his focus to a U.S. version of the The X Factor, where he serves as both judge and executive producer.
The son of a barrister and a flight attendant dropped out of Stowe School at age 16 to start an arts and culture magazine called Student. In 1970, at age 20, he founded a mail-order record retailer called Virgin. He later opened a record shop and recording studio, which became retail chain Virgin Records and record company Virgin Music. His Virgin Group empire now includes 200 companies in 30 countries, spanning airlines, music festivals, mobile companies and other businesses. Today Branson owns two private Caribbean islands, Necker and Mosquito, and has an estimated net worth of $4 billion.
Jay-Z (Shawn Carter)
Jay-Z may have “99 problems,” but not having a high school diploma ain’t one. Carter grew up in one of Brooklyn’s roughest housing projects, dealing drugs before finding salvation in hip hop. In 1995 Carter took his first single to Def Jam Records, the company he ended up running from 2004 until 2007. In 2008 he signed a 10-year, $150 million deal with Live Nation ( LYV – news – people ) that gave him control over his records, tours and endorsement deals with companies like Dell ( DELL – news – people ) and Budweiser. The 10-time Grammy Award-winning hip-hop superstar is now worth an estimated $450 million.
special shout to Jane Lee and Helen A. Coster…