I departed the University of California, Santa Cruz, for Northern Nigeria in June 2010, after my junior year.
I never went back.
Therein lies a commentary about the necessity of a college degree, and about prioritizing passion over paperwork. In my mind, an entrepreneur should always follow one’s heart when you are young, because you are unencumbered — you simply have nothing to lose. So why not put yourself out there? Why be overly concerned about completing one’s coursework when you can do something you really love?
At that point in my life, I was most concerned with redoubling my efforts toward eHealth Nigeria (later eHealth Africa), an organization I had co-founded with my business partner, Adam Thompson, during a three-month internship in Nigeria the year before, at age 20. Our goal was to improve the nation’s healthcare through better use of data, and to that end, we had already created its first electronic medical records system. How was completing my final year in college and earning a Bachelor’s degree in Biology going to help me achieve that goal?
Without a college degree, I was able to co-found 3 successful companies; eHealth Africa in 2010, EHA Clinics in 2018, and now eha Impact Ventures in 2021.
In my mind, then, a college degree is useful to an entrepreneur, but not vital. Yes, there are professions like medicine and law where you are legally required to complete certain coursework. And as Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, LLC, pointed out in a 2020 piece for Forbes, degrees like those in business, finance, communications, IT and marketing are of value to an entrepreneur.
But as he also notes, one’s mindset — being willing to take risks, to build one’s knowledge base, to network — is just as valuable.
Some rather notable people appear to share that view, and that approach. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard during his sophomore year to found Microsoft. Mark Zuckerberg departed that same institution within two years to focus on Facebook. The late Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, left Reed College after a semester.
The object lesson here is that a college degree is not the be-all, end-all it is often depicted to be. It can serve as a foundation or a fall-back, but it’s also time-consuming, not to mention costly. The U.S. student-debt total is nearly $1.6 trillion, an average of $37,500 per student.
Certain employers, like Apple, IBM and Google, no longer even require degrees, preferring instead those candidates who possess qualities like “curiosity, confidence and perseverance,” as Microsoft executive Dan Ayoub once said. Apple CEO Tim Cook estimated in 2019 that half of his organization’s U.S. employees hadn’t earned their degrees, and pointed out that skills essential to many businesses, like coding, aren’t even taught in college.
Elon Musk, as is his wont, went one step further at a conference in 2020, asserting that college is “not for learning” but rather just for fun. Most things, he added, can be learned online for free.
While the latter is no doubt true, college provides support, structure and direction; certainly not everybody has the discipline to immerse themselves in online instruction. As a result, the pursuit of a degree is far from a frivolous endeavor. But in the case of entrepreneurs, it is not vital. Mindset matters more. So too does pursuing one’s passion.
To all the young entrepreneurs out there debating if they should finish their degree or start their own business – my advice is to leap. Take the risk. Do what you are passionate about. If you don’t do it now, you never will. You can always go back to college if it will add value later in life. You can never get these unencumbered years of passion and energy back. Go for it!