Common assumption implies that one must acquire a business degree – preferably advanced – in order to become the CEO of a major corporation. In reality, many of the most famous and financially successful executives received their formal education outside the field. Some earned degrees in industries related to their careers, others majored in something entirely unrelated and some never finished college at all. Many CEO’s in high profile positions managed to succeed despite their lack of formal higher education due to their own wits and flexibility. If you hold lofty goals of fronting your own company someday, whether you are a Biology or Business Administration major does not matter. Taking time to cultivate a specific skill set involving critical thinking, creativity, responsibility and leadership matters more than your degree. The talents you either naturally possess or refine in an educational setting or through practice resonate significantly further than any piece of paper.
- Name: Bill Gates
School: Harvard University
Microsoft founder and CEO Bill Gates received an honorary doctorate from Harvard as recently as 2007, where he originally began his college career. In spite of his myriad accomplishments in business, computer engineering and philanthropy, many are shocked to find out that Gates never actually finished his stint at Harvard. Nor did he ever officially declare a major. He did tinker with computers quite a bit, however, often spending hours upon hours in the labs at school. After developing a BASIC interpreter in 1975, he applied for a leave of absence from school and joined contemporary Paul Allen – eventual co-founder of Microsoft – at Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems. Gates never received an official college degree until receiving his first honorary doctorate from Nyenrode Business Universiteit in 2000.
- Name: Steve Jobs
Company: Apple, formerly Pixar
School: Reed College
Like his main rival in the personal computing industry, Steve Jobs never officially completed college. He enrolled at Reed College in 1972, but only attended for 1 semester. During his incredibly brief stint in higher education, Jobs studied poetry, physics and literature. However, in spite of his dropping out, the future CEO did continue auditing courses for no credit – focusing mainly on those that would come to help him in his technological pursuits. Calligraphy class, for example, provided valuable lessons on typography. During this time, he collaborated with Steve Wozniak at the Homebrew Computer Club, together forging the concepts and projects that later became the Apple Computer Company in 1976. Although he has given commencement speeches at institutions as prominent as Stanford, Jobs has yet to receive any honorary degrees.
- Name: Janet L. Robinson
Company: The New York Times Co.
School: Salve Regina College
Degree: B.A. in English
Janet L. Robinson does hold an honorary Doctorate of Business Administration from her alma mater Salve Regina College (conferred in 1998) and completed the Executive Education Program at Dartmouth in 1996, but these came well after the seeds of her impressive professional accomplishments had already been sown. Before launching her illustrious career as the CEO of The New York Times Co. – who own and publish the eponymous periodical, International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe and others – she completed her B.A. in English in 1972 and taught at a few New England public schools. Robinson started working at her current employer in 1983, moving up through the ranks in varying sales and management positions before finally landing the CEO position in late 2004.
- Name: Sam Palmisano
School: Johns Hopkins University
Degree: Bachelor’s in History
As with many CEOs whose careers blossomed in the business world in spite of their seemingly unrelated degrees, Sam Palmisano did eventually earn himself an honorary doctorate in the field. Awarded in 2005, Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute conferred upon him a Doctor of Humane Letters for his successes at IBM. London Business School also granted him an Honorary Fellowship in July of 2006. He started working for the technology conglomerate in 1973, shifting upwards from management position to management position – even serving a stint as the senior managing director of operations in Japan – until his appointment to CEO in 2002. Less than a year later, he ended up holding the title of Chairman of the Board as well.
- Name: Michael Dell
School: University of Texas at Austin
Degree: Bachelor’s in Pre-Med, never finished
At 27, Michael Dell became the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 Company – not a shabby honor for the very small business he founded right there in his UT-Austin dorm room! He ended up at the university intending to earn a Bachelor’s degree in pre-med studies, but the myriad opportunities available through his fledgling corporation began earning him around $80,000 worth of profits every month. After quitting school in 1984 to pursue the increasingly lucrative deals coming his way, Michael Dell concentrated exclusively on building his business up into the computing juggernaut it is today. He did step down as CEO in 2004, serving as Chairman of the Board and spending time with his philanthropic pursuits until resuming the position 3 years later.
- Name: Eric Schmidt
Company: Google, formerly Novell
School: Princeton University
Degree: Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering
School: University of California at Berkeley
Degree: Master’s and PhD in Computer Science
He may not hold any degree – honorary or otherwise – in business, but Eric Schmidt’s prowess in electrical engineering and computer science dovetails agreeably with internet giant Google’s main objectives. The former CTO of Sun Microsystems and CEO of Novell came to the company with plenty of technical and business experience on his résumé. Google’s international success has earned him even more accolades than he could have ever imagined when walking the halls of Princeton as a greenhorn electrical engineer. In addition to continuing to serve as CEO, the very busy Dr. Schmidt also sits on American President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Chairman of the Board at the New America Foundation, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
- Name: Robert Iger
Company: The Walt Disney Company
School: Ithaca College
Degree: Bachelor’s in Television and Radio
Following the infamous Michael Eisner, Robert Iger assumed the mantle of Walt Disney Company’s 6th CEO in 2005. Prior to that, he served as a member of the board of directors in addition to COO. After graduating in 1973, he applied his newly-acquired bachelor’s to working as a weatherman for a local news station. Shortly thereafter, he began working for ABC and very slowly made his way up to the very pinnacle of the corporate world after taking part in the network’s massive merger with Disney in 1996. Iger’s educational training in media studies assisted him in keeping his company’s momentum swinging ever forward, overseeing the major acquisitions of the highly lucrative corporations Pixar and Marvel Entertainment.
- Name: Kenneth Chenault
Company: American Express
School: Bowdoin College
Degree: B.A. in History
Prior to working for American Express, Kenneth Chenault put his juris doctor to good use after graduating from the prestigious Harvard Law in 1976. Until 1981, he worked in a law firm and as a management consultant before finding himself snapped up by the credit card giant. Chenault eventually piqued the interest of the higher-ups when he successfully restarted their Merchandise Services division. Multiple promotions and accolades regarding his risk-taking business acumen later, American Express officially awarded him with the title of CEO in 2001. With this great honor also came the distinction of being the third African-American to hold such a lofty position at a Fortune 500 Company. Unfortunately, however, it also meant that one of his first major challenges meant navigating the company through its personal and financial losses during and after 9/11.
- Name: Rex W. Tillerson
School: University of Texas at Austin
Degree: B.S. in Civil Engineering
Some of the most successful CEOs in the world major in a field closely connected with their company rather than business. Such is the case with current ExxonMobil head Rex W. Tillerson, who joined the company in 1975 working in a production engineering position that actively engaged his education. Assignments took him all over the world, and his dedication to getting them done efficiently, safely and as quickly as possible led to a series of escalating promotions to management and executive positions. Before being named CEO in 2006, Tillerson spent the previous 2 years on the board of directors and serving as the President of the Corporation – both, of course, after stints as Executive Vice President and Senior Vice President.
- Name: Sanford Weill
Company: formerly Commercial Credit and Citigroup
School: Cornell University
Degree: B.A. in Government
Banker Sanford Weill involved himself with a number of different financial outlets, starting his career with Bear Stearns in 1955. He served as a runner on Wall Street for about 5 years, then opened up the brokerage firm Carter, Berlind, Potoma & Weill that he stayed with for 20 years. What followed was a dramatic and storied series of financial ups and downs, mergers and messes, until he finally landed Chairman and CEO positions at Citigroup in 1998. At first, he co-helmed the company with John Reed, but started flying solo in 2000. This arrangement lasted only 6 years, with him stepping down as CEO in 2003 and Chairman in 2006. Today, he enjoys his retirement and philanthropic efforts from his Connecticut home.
- Name: David O’Reilly
Company: formerly Chevron
School: University College, Dublin
Degree: Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering
Given the nature of Chevron’s business, it’s only natural that an educated chemical engineer such as David O’Reilly should find him- (or her-!) self landing a coveted CEO position. His alma mater awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Science in 2002, 2 years following his appointment. After his1968 graduation, he began working for the company who would later promote him to the highest title as a process engineer. As with pretty much every other individual on this list, O’Reilly worked in a series of positions of escalating importance before earning the CEO spot. He retired in 2009, but continues to serve on a number of different business and energy-related boards around the world.
- Name: Frank Moss
Company: formerly Tivoli Systems
School: Princeton University
Degree: B.S. in Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences
School: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Degree: M.S. and PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics
Frank Moss currently heads the MIT Media Laboratory, an honor no doubt bestowed upon him for his contributions to today’s networking and internet technologies. Prior to the 2006 appointment, however, the influential individual shared a long and healthy relationship with IBM. So much so that he played a major role in establishing Tivoli, with whom he had worked since 1991 and even took public in 1995, as the networking and systems arm of the massive computing company by 1996. The deal landed him a primo spot as the general manager of the new division, but he retired his Chairman position 2 years after the multi-billion dollar acquisition. Even beyond his work at the MIT Media Lab, Moss continues indulging his entrepreneurial and developmental urges.
- Name: Bruce Bodaken
Company: Blue Shield of California
School: Colorado State University
Degree: Bachelor’s in Philosophy
School: University of Colorado
Degree: Master’s in Philosophy
After completing his education in 1975, Bruce Bodaken started his career teaching college-level students before switching his attentions to working in the health care sector. By 2000, he found himself the CEO of one of the fastest-growing insurance plans in the State of California. 10 years later, BusinessWeek has named the company one of its 20 Most Generous Corporations for its dedication to bringing medical care to the impoverished and underinsured. As a result, Bodaken has taken the nonprofit to new levels, leading it to stand at the forefront of the movement promoting affordable healthcare for all. He sits on a wide number of different boards for civic and professional organizations in addition to his CEO duties.
- Name: Steve Adams
Company: Sabrix, formerly Uniscape
School: Florida State University
Degree: M.A. and PhD in Early 20th Century British Literature
Literature and other liberal arts seem like incredibly strange starting points for a career heavily involving considerable expertise in numerous technical fields. But Steve Adams sacrificed a teaching position at University of Louisiana at Monroe to try his hand at technical writing following his 1982 graduation. The creativity and flexibility afforded to him by a liberal arts degree allowed him to soak up all the nuances and inner workings of software and hardware alike. Adams began his stint at Sabrix in 2002 after serving as CEO of Uniscape. Both positions required intimate knowledge of globalization, tax and management software – an aptitude for which he gained while having to pen relevant literature as an entry-level worker. Who says English degrees are all useless?
- Name: Michael Eisner
Company: formerly The Walt Disney Company
School: Denison University
Degree: Bachelor’s in English and Drama
For better or for worse, even those outside the business world know of Michael Eisner. His stint as CEO of The Walt Disney Company prior to Robert Iger ran from 1984 to 2004 witnessed the last few wildly popular, traditionally animated musicals draw audiences to theatres, a highly lucrative partnership with Steve Jobs’ Pixar, the acquisition of ABC and its affiliated channels, the acquisition of Miramax, the Broadway productions and more. His experiences at Paramount and ABC prior to the significant Disney promotion dovetailed perfectly with his formal training in drama and English. Considering how much of their output relied on relaying a product to entertainment-hungry consumers, Eisner really knew what demographics to milk and trends to follow to rake in the cash. These days, his business pursuits revolve around The Tornate Company, which manages entertainment and media companies such as Topps, Veoh, Team Baby and more.
Anyone hoping to someday succeed in business and rise to the top as the CEO of a pre-existing company or found one on their own doesn’t necessarily need a degree in the subject. Plenty of highly successful executives majored in subjects either close to their industry or something altogether different. Some never even finished college! It takes a certain set of professional skills to earn a CEO position – ones that do not necessarily come as a package deal with a business degree. They either come intrinsically or through dedicated practice and/or education, but one does not have to enroll in business school to obtain them.