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Do degrees help entrepreneurial success?

By JAMES COAKES Published 4th Feb 2015
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This is an often discussed question and, in recent years, there has been a growing suggestion that taking the time to get a degree is not a good investment if your aim is to become an entrepreneur.

Familiar university dropouts such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg stoke the flames of the debate. Sir Richard Branson famously dropped out of education at the age of 16 and, ironically, began his business career by launching the magazine Student.

Kalixa Pro, a company providing payment by mobile phones, recently conducted a survey which suggested that only 6% of entrepreneurs feel that academic qualifications are important. They considered that risk taking and ruthlessness are key qualities and 8% felt that their ‘good looks’ had helped them.

There are a few potential headlines in this information and various news outlets carried the story, which must have pleased Kalixa Pro. You might wonder what interest a company selling mobile payment solutions has in the subject. The answer is probably news headlines and internet links. You might also question whether entrepreneurs themselves are the best people to answer the question.

So, do degrees actually help entrepreneurial success? The answer is most likely to be; ‘It depends’. If you are in a hi-tech Silicon Valley start up, or anywhere else for that matter, or in pharmaceuticals or another academic area then, probably, it will be essential. Your colleagues will, after all, want to respect you. If you’re in the sort of ubiquitous startup that we’re seeing so much of in the UK at the moment in which your looks may be a factor then that’s a different thing.

Back in 2008, before the current startup mania, a study (by Vivek Wadhwa published on the Social Science Research Network) of over 500 tech startups found that college graduates had twice the average revenue and number of employees as counterparts who skipped college.

Meanwhile the Kalaxia Pro poll did find that one third of those polled felt that they were making less money and working longer hours than they had expected that they would. Perhaps those respondents should have gone to college and got a degree after all.

The Kalaxia story came from one of the free ‘newspapers’ which are given out on the London Underground. In any one edition you see a lot of stories like this, based not on research but on a press release sent in by a company with an agenda. If you’re a free newspaper you might not have so much to invest in independent journalism, perhaps that’s why they carry these stories which are essential written for them.

So it is not true that having a degree will not make you more successful. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. However, reading free newspapers may make you more stupid.


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