Monday, June 25, 2012

Do you need to go to college if you want to be an entrepreneur?

There are many millionaire and billionaire entrepreneurs who did not go to college. Billionaire and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has become well-known for his anti-college rhetoric. He even has a grant for entrepreneurial students - the only catch: they have to drop out of college. (Interesting note: Thiel holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a law degree from Stanford).

With the rising cost of college, many are debating its worth. If you are an entrepreneur or have an entrepreneurial idea, you may wonder if college is a worthy investment for you, since you won't technically need a degree to "apply" for a job with your business.

I recently interviewed Jerry Ross, the Executive Director for the National Entrepreneur Center. And as a new solo-preneur myself, I was excited to hear his ideas about how entrepreneurship and education connect. I think you will enjoy his story. 

Jerry attended Heidelberg University in Ohio. "I wasn't really sure what I wanted to major in and so I majored in communications and in business. But I had always been an entrepreneur because I come from a big family; there were 11 kids in our family, so I had to be an entrepreneur to pay for college. I cut grass, painted houses, and shoveled snow. Then when I got to college I continued working many jobs; I became a DJ and worked at the local radio station,  I was the box office manager, and I worked for the athletic department. I did just about job that someone would pay me to do."

"Doing all of those different things at the college exposed me to a lot of things I liked doing, had a skill at doing, or what I wasn't good at. I was an actor  in theatre dept and found out I really wasn't very good at it. But I also got to learn about the stagecraft and building the lights and running the sound, which ended up becoming very important to my entrepreneurial future. 

Jerry's first job out of college was as part of the Ohio Bell Telephone company (part of AT&T at the time). " I learned systems and corporate systems and discipline. Because even while I had been an entrepreneur, I didn't have a lot of experience in the corporate world. I picked up skills there that were very important."

From there Jerry worked at a software company, and then moved to Florida to start his own business with a partner. "It didn't work; it was awful, and I lost just about everything." 

But like any successful entrepreneur knows, failure is part of the game, and resilience is key. "Within a year, I started another business."

And here Jerry's stagecraft and lighting experience came back into play. Have you ever been to Disney World in Orlando and seen the massive lights in the sky at night? Ever seen the lights that light up the Space Shuttle at night on TV? Jerry's second company provided those. 

This venture "drew on all of the experience I had done up to this point. As a student you have lots of ideas and there are a lot of opportunities, but you don't always have a lot of experience (it's not your fault, it's just part of being young). I'm an old guy now, and have learned that everything that is part of your experience you will use later in life. You've got to engage in that experience and use everything you get."

"While some people look at my college experience and say wow you had to work really hard in college and didn't get to party a lot, all of that experience helped me later. Even my radio DJ experience in college helps me when I am on TV and Radio as an entrepreneurial expert." 

Jerry's business lit up Universal Studios, the Olympics, SuperBowls, and more. He eventually sold the business and, after a stint as a small business coach with UCF and founder of Maverick Business Magazine, the Entrepreneur center recruited him to run the center. Last year the organizations located at his centercoached and trained over 10,000 small business people; representatives from over 34 countries have visitedthe center, and Orlando, has been named one of top 10 cities in America to start a business. 

Jerry has such incredible and unique experience that I had to ask him a couple more questions that would yield more advice for you:

What is the first thing a student who is considering being an entrepreneur should do?  "They need to reach out and find advisors and mentors outside their circle. I've never met an entrepreneur who wasn't willing to help another one. Find mentors who are successful entrepreneurs, maybe someone you know in your community. Find someone you want to be like, and sit down and ask them for advice."

How do college and entrepreneurship go together? "We are entering the innovation economy, and the innovation economy requires entrepreneurial thinking. It doesn't matter where you work, you are going to be required to be an entrepreneurial thinker. So in any class, you must apply what you are learning to everything. Create a curiosity about whatever it is that you are passionate about and engage deeply in the classroom - ask questions and apply your knowledge. The future of our economy is incumbent on students today to be entrepreneurial thinkers. Though there is much chaos in the economy, in that chaos there is opportunity."

What majors would you recommend for aspiring entrepreneurs? "You can major in almost anything. Major in business if you really like business, but be sure to find what you like. The most important thing is that you engage in a lot of extra-curricular activities and learn what you're good at and where you can offer something of value to the marketplace. I didn't know much about lighting, but I saw an opportunity to apply my skills, education and experience in a unique way."

What is one thing you think my  readers should do as soon as they finish reading this article in order to be more successful? "Be here now. Improve your entrepreneurial skills (you can great a lot of free business coaching from the groups located at the NEC if you live in Central FL). Quit worrying about yesterday, quit worrying about tomorrow, and be here today! Whatever class you are in, go deep. Whatever person you are next to at lunch, learn from them. Soak up all you can, because you will use it tomorrow."

You learn more about Jerry, his speaking, his books, and more at

And for a great place to look for internships at start-up companies to get an up-close look and experience with entrepreneurship, check out

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