Why You Don't Need a College Degree to Run a Successful Creative Business

I came across an article on Inc.com last week that caught my attention: What College Degree Will Make You Rich? I was shocked to read that 32 percent of billionaires - among whom are Oprah, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg - don’t have a college degree. And if that isn’t surprising, maybe this next fact will be: Twice as many billionaires have degrees in the arts than those who have degrees in math and science. 

The article brought up some legitimate questions that I’ve been wrestling with. How relevant are college degrees today, especially among creative entrepreneurs? Does 4 years of in-class training really prepare you like first-hand experience in an industry? And with everyone getting degrees, what value do they hold and will they hold 20 years from now? Not to mention the ballooning costs of tuition.

Today I’m exploring these thoughts and presenting my argument that you don’t need a degree to run a creative business. I’m also sharing a handful of essential traits for a successful business owner that college can’t teach you.

Why You Don't Need a College Degree to Run a Successful Creative Business - Elle & Company

How relevant are degrees today?

College has become the rule, whereas 50 years ago it was the exception. It’s now the expectation that high school seniors will further their education through a 4 year-university upon graduation, and I would even go so far as to argue that those who don’t go to college or enlist in the military are seen as second-class citizens. Why is this the case?

Diplomas have held weight in our society because they’ve been seen as a way to confirm someone’s knowledge and work ethic. But do they hold weight in the areas of skill and aptitude? According to Harvard Business Review, the value of those pieces of paper is bound to decline as employers implement more efficient and holistic ways for applicants to demonstrate these qualities. And because of this, degrees are losing relevance and are less solid than the higher education industry would like us to believe. 

I think this is even more applicable to creative industries, where the gap between knowledge and talent is a little more noticeable. While education and techniques help inform and refine your skill-set, there’s an element of creativity and ingenuity that can’t be taught in a classroom. When I graduated from Virginia Tech 3 years ago, employers in the design industry were much more impressed by a beautifully designed portfolio and resume during my interviews than they were by the information that was actually on my resume. I realize that this is an industry-specific example, but I would argue that more employers are looking at the experience and talent among their applicants than whether they hold a 4-year degree. And because anyone and everyone holds a degree today, experience and talent are stand-out qualities. In fact, in that same article by Harvard Business Review, the author spoke with a software CEO who said that he “avoids job candidates with software engineering degrees because they represent an overinvestment in education that brings with it both higher salary demands and hubris” and that the candidate is likely to “show no loyalty to the company.” While that might be representing another extreme, it demonstrates companies’ lack of confidence in a degree alone.

Alternative means of education

Both knowledge and talent are important, but a degree from a 4-year university isn’t the only means by which someone can educate themselves within a field of study. There are a growing number of educational resources like e-courses, articles, podcasts, and video lectures, all available for a much cheaper price tag than the rising tuition costs of a 4-year university. There’s also a growing trend of college professors and scholars bucking the higher education system by sharing their academic knowledge with the open market through websites, blogs and e-courses (read an interesting article on this topic here). Legitimate resources like these are becoming more and more prevalent, and everyone stands to benefit from them.

I know this seems a little backwards coming from me, a product of the higher education system and graduate, but I can honestly say that many of the fundamentals that I learned in those 4 years about design, software, typography, drawing, etc. could have been learned through books and online resources. I’ve learned a thousand times more in my 3 years of experience outside of the classroom than I learned while I was in school, and my interest in those fields of study has increased exponentially now that I see how they can be practically applied. I would also argue that I might have been able to dive into my field more if I hadn’t had to take other required, unrelated courses like biology and hospitality management.

But I digress. It isn’t a bad thing to hold a university degree and go the higher education route (especially in fields like engineering, medicine, and teaching), but diplomas aren’t a requirement for creative entrepreneurship and they definitely don’t guarantee success. 

Unlearned traits of successful entrepreneurs

In a society that’s becoming increasingly results-driven, business owners who don’t hold a degree are put on an equal playing field with those who do. The difference between successful entrepreneurs and unsuccessful entrepreneurs isn’t found in a degree; it’s found in the areas of motivation, perseverance, adaptation, and innovation, traits that can’t be taught in a classroom. 

Motivation and drive are innate qualities. They aren’t learned, and they’re usually the force behind starting a business venture in the first place. You work harder when you’re passionate about what you do and you’re more likely to take risks when you strongly believe something; both of which are needed in order to start a successful business. 

Perseverance and adaptation are two other fundamental characteristics of noteworthy entrepreneurs, but they aren’t dependent upon a degree. Businesses are ever-changing to keep up with their industry and appeal to their audience, and change doesn’t come easily to many people. But in order to see success, you can’t quit at the first sign of failure and you can’t refuse to reevaluate and adapt. While these traits can be learned, they’re often learned from experience and not from a textbook.

And last, but definitely not least, successful entrepreneurs must be innovative and break the mold. I think this is the reason for the higher number of billionaires with art degrees than with math or science degrees (out of those who actually have degrees); a business requires creativity, even if it isn’t labeled a creative business. In order to stay on top of the curve and remain a frontrunner in any industry, an entrepreneur must be willing to innovate instead of replicate. While I had many professors push me to think creatively in design school, nothing has caused me to think more creatively than starting my own business and trying to set myself apart. Innovation doesn’t begin in a classroom and I think that it can’t always be learned; it just comes easier for some people than it does for others. 

All of this to say, if you’re starting a creative business and you don’t have a degree, you’re at no disadvantage. With the ever-increasing number of resources out there apart from higher education, you have countless opportunities at your fingertips. And if you have a degree and you’re starting a creative business, know that while that education plays a large part in business, there are other fundamental parts that don’t come from 4 years at a state school. Hone in on those skills that can’t be taught, gain experience, continue to learn, be adaptive and open to change, persevere and get creative if your first idea isn’t monumental or successful, and focus on results.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you think degrees are fundamental to running a successful creative business?