Entrepreneurs who didn’t go by the book

MEERA SIVA NALINAKANTHI V | Updated on January 24, 2018


Success mantra: self-education, learning from mentors and practical knowledge

The day you don a graduation gown and hat and receive your degree is a special one for most, but many entrepreneurs have not felt the need to go through the rigmarole of formal education to make a mark in their business. What is it that made them choose the road less travelled?

Theory and practise

One reason why some dropped out was their disenchantment with the education system. Take the case of Yogendra Vasupal, co-founder of Stayzilla, who quit in his third year of engineering. “The theory of computation, an important subject in computer science was dropped for the next batch, because it was considered too difficult to teach. I felt that something was wrong with the system and hence decided to quit,” explains Vasupal.

Opting for practical knowledge over theory was also what prompted Kunal Shah, co-founder of Freecharge, which was recently acquired by Snapdeal, to quit his part-time MBA programme.

“Hailing from a business family and having seen the practical stuff in life, theory looked boring,” he says. Kunal adds that not doing an MBA may have given him an edge, as he could think from a consumer’s perspective.

Prashanth S Devan, co-founder of D’vano, an online elevator shoes buying platform, says that education can be a trap. He quit school while in his seventh standard as he could not cope with studies. “I am successful because I did not fall into the trap of education. Formal education can give you a living, but self-education can give you a fortune,” he asserts.

Deepak Ravindran, co-founder of Lookup, a messaging app company, felt learning was not the motivator to attend college. “I could code even before I joined engineering and went to college only to network with like-minded students,” he says. Dorm room was his first office where he started his maiden venture SMSGyan.

Ongoing learning

Just because they did not pursue a formal education did not mean that they stopped learning. Many of the successful entrepreneurs are voracious readers and tap resources such as the internet to nurture the learner in them.

“You have everything online now. Make use of Khan Academy, YouTube, Wikipedia and Coursera to learn about anything,” Vasupal points out.

Learning from people is also something they all do. Devan attributes his business knowledge to the many entrepreneurs he interacted with in Russia.

Ravindran believes in learning from people who are smart. “Kris Gopalakrishnan of Infosys and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone are not just investors but also my mentors,” he says.

“Receiving mentorship and guidance from visionaries like Peter Thiel, as recipient of Thiel scholarship was the most transformational experience for me,” says Ritesh Agarwal, founder, OYO Rooms, a budget room booking service, who left college when he was 17 to pursue his passion for travelling.

Failure, according to Devan, is the secret to success. “You need to face failure to grow in life,” he says.

K Mahalingam, Managing Director of TSM Cars and RupeeZone – an engineering graduate with an MBA from an IIM – believes that academic success may give one the feeling of superiority and they may take success for granted.

“Those without a premier institution tag may be extra hungry to prove themselves and will work harder,” he observes.

No regrets

Do these entrepreneurs regret their decision to drop out? Vasupal is a tad regretful.

“A degree would have given me more discipline. Without that, I had to structure myself and it took some time to do this,” he says.

Not so for Shah, who feels he is better off without an ego-boosting degree stamp which, he thinks, could hamper learning.

“As long as you demonstrate smartness, people will accept you without regard to your academic pedigree,” he says.

These founders seek such skills and not academic merit when they hire. Ravindran says he looks for people with a hacker mindset – who are keen to code and do not care for much else. “I hired a 16-year-old as his work was excellent,” he explains.

Such coding talent among non-degree holders is not a one-off occurrence, going by the experience of IT firm Zoho Corporation. Founder Sridhar Vembu, a graduate from IIT-Madras and Princeton University, has been training school drop outs in coding, through his Zoho University. “These programmers form 10 per cent of the company’s 3,000 employees,” says Vembu.

Pick your path

Bill Gates, a college drop-out, has emphasised the merits of a degree.

“Although I dropped out of college and got lucky pursuing a career in software, getting a degree is a much surer path to success,” he wrote in his blog.

Shah certainly sees value in attending college.

“Exposure and experience help you and college aids you towards these. But take the path that gives you the best exposure early on — be it a job, degree, going abroad or starting something,” he advises.

Published on June 15, 2015

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