The annual U.S. News & World Report college
rankings came out yesterday, with my employer,Stanford University, placing fourth, behind Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. As I was looking at the
rankings, it reminded me that when most of us think of going to college, we
automatically think that the goal is and should be to finish the degree – - that is
sure what I want for my kids! Certainly,
that is the best goal in most cases, and there are more job openings for
students who finish their degrees than those who drop-out.
But I also think that it is instructive – - and humbling for a faculty member like me –- to remember that great colleges offer so many different opportunities to students to develop skills and to build and enter social networks, that although starting a school may have been a wise decision, a point may come where the person has such great skill or such a great idea that dropping out to pursue their dream is also a wise a decision. Along these lines, it is instructive to think about some of the students who dropped-out of Stanford and went on do great things.
My list isn’t exhaustive and if
you have others to add, I would love to hear from you. And certainly, there are drop-outs from other
schools that have done equally well, such as Bill Gates from Harvard and Steve
Jobs from Reed College.
Of course, there are the athletes. Exhibit one is Tiger Woods. He played on the golf team for a couple years, and then he dropped out to pursue his professional career. I don’t know about you, but I think that Tiger’s decision was wise…I don’t think there was much value in finishing that economics degree and he did win the NCAA Individual Golf Championship when he was at Stanford. Exhibit two is tennis bad boy John McEnroe, who was at Stanford only a year. He did help lead the tennis team to a national championship, but after he got an endorsement deal, he soon dropped out, and won Wimbledon a couple years later. And, course McEnroe was infamous for his temper. Check-out this YouTube video of him going after an umpire.
Then there are the arts and letters majors, or what Stanford students call the “fuzzies.” A recent drop-out is Reese Witherspoon, who went on to star in Legally Blond and to win an Academy award for her fantastic performance in Walk the Line. Witherspoon only lasted a year at Stanford as a literature major. Hanging around Stanford to finish her degree, I suspect, would have slowed her acting career.
Perhaps the most famous drop-out under this category is Nobel Prize winning writer John Steinbeck. Unlike most drop-outs, Steinbeck didn’t hurry out of Stanford after a year or two. He hung around sporadically from about 1921 to 1925 – writing and tasking a lot of writing classes. He didn’t care about getting the diploma; he just cared about writing, so he took no breadth classes. Steinbeck got what he wanted from Stanford; he learned to practice his craft better. As one of Steinbeck’s biographer’s reported:
“When Steinbeck needed money for his college tuition, he did manual labor. He worked on a dredging crew or at the Spreckel's sugar plant. Through his work, Steinbeck met hobos, factory workers, and migrant fruit pickers and listened to their stories. As he gained experiences outside of the classroom, his writing improved. Edith Ronald Mirrielees, an English professor at Stanford, convinced Steinbeck that he needed discipline to succeed as a writer. She crossed out his inflated phrases and encouraged him to write shorter, more powerful sentences packed with truth. Here, then, we have the foundations of his life as a writer.
These are the undergraduate
drop-outs, but the list of famous dropouts from our Ph.D programs is especially
impressive – and contains a lot of very rich people. I am most familiar with
the list from the Stanford Engineering School,
as that is where I have taught for 25 years. Andy Bechtolsheim dropped out to
start Sun Microsystems. As Wikipedia tells it
(and I’ve heard both Andy and Vinod tell it pretty much like this too):
At Stanford University,
Bechtolsheim had devised a powerful computer (which he called a workstation)
with built-in networking running the UNIX operating system. He developed the
workstation because he was sick of waiting for computer time on the central
University system. Khosla approached him, wanting to build a business around
selling the workstation. He also approached McNealy who was at another company
after having completed his MBA at Stanford Business School.
in 1980. They named the company Sun, derived from "Stanford University
Network." Bechtolsheim left Stanford, where he was enrolled in a
Ph.D. program, to found the company.
The list of people who dropped out of Stanford to start technology companies goes on and on. Among the most famous in recent years are Yahoo! founders David Filo and Jerry Yang, who were the youngest donors to ever endow a chaired professorship at Stanford, called appropriately enough the Yahoo! Founders Chair. And then, most famously in recent years, are Google Founders Larry Page and Serge Brin. Who dropped out of the Stanford Computer Science Department to start what eventually became Google. See the official Google description. There is also a lovely link among three Stanford dropouts as part of this story. Larry and Serge tried to sell their search engine technology to a host of companies, but couldn’t find a buyer. BUT their first investor was none other than Andy Bechtolsheim. The Google website tells the story, but it is one that someone tells me at least once a month around Stanford:
As Sergey tells it, "We met him very early one morning on the porch of a Stanford faculty member's home in Palo Alto. We gave him a quick demo. He had to run off somewhere, so he said, 'Instead of us discussing all the details, why don't I just write you a check?' It was made out to Google Inc. and was for $100,000."
The investment created a small dilemma. Since there was no legal entity known as "Google Inc.," there was no way to deposit the check. It sat in Larry's desk drawer for a couple of weeks while he and Sergey scrambled to set up a corporation and locate other funders among family, friends, and acquaintances. Ultimately they brought in a total initial investment of almost $1 million.
My personal favorite drop-out of the Ph.D program is my friend David Kelley, who after completing his Master’s Degree in Product Design, was briefly a Ph.D. student in our Mechanical Engineering Program. David went on to start IDEO, perhaps the most famous innovation company in the world. But David continued to hang around Stanford and teach classes, and eventually got a tenure track position. David is now the Donald W. Whittier Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford, the founder of the Stanford d.school, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. As with many things throughout his life, David succeeded at Stanford by breaking the rules rather than following them – while being warm and generous to everyone around him in the process.
Indeed, another thing that all the famous drop-outs of the Stanford Engineering School have in common is that – although at the time they dropped-out, no one imagined how successful and famous they would become – all were treated with respect by Stanford faculty and administrators in the process, which is one of the main reasons most remain so loyal to Stanford Especially in the Engineering School, where relationships between faculty and technical companies in Silicon Valley have always been so close (indeed, former Stanford Engineering Dean Fred Terman loaned Stanford graduates Bill Hewlett and David Packard $500 to start their company), “dropping-out” wasn’t seen as a sign of failure, but as a path that seemed like a logical one to take at the time.
The bigger lesson in all this, of course, is that the cliché “quitters never win” is a dangerous half-truth. Although graduation is a better path for most Stanford students (including Hewlett and Packard, in my mind, the greatest of all technology company founders), there are quite a few out there who quit at the right time. Moreover, some of these “quitters” are some of Stanford’s most generous and loyal supporters.
Let me know if you have some stories about great college dropouts – from Stanford or elsewhere – to add to the list!
P.S. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak provides
one of my favorite drop-out stories. Wozniak dropped out of my alma mater, U.C. Berkeley (#21 on the new U.S. News and Report rankings, and the
top public school) in 1975 to work for HP, develop a personal computer on the
side, and soon thereafter, start Apple Computer with Steve Jobs. But Wozniak wanted on to finish his Berkeley degree AFTER he
was wealthy and famous. He returned in the mid 1980’s and enrolled under the
name Rocky Raccoon Clark (with permission from administrators) to protect his
identity, and graduated with a degree in computer science and electrical
engineering in 1987.