One reader recently sent a question into Richard Branson, asking: "Have you ever been intimidated by someone's credentials? If so, how did you overcome your feelings of inferiority?" His answer revealed a lot about his approach to business.
"It’s a shame that people shut down ideas because they’re worried about being crushed by people who are supposedly better educated than them. This is all about fear of failure. In my opinion, entrepreneurial drive beats a fancy degree anytime," writes the Virgin Group founder.
"I didn’t go to a prestigious university; in fact, I didn’t even finish secondary school. I suffer from dyslexia and couldn’t keep up with my studies as a teenager. I didn’t fit in at all. Sadly, my instructors and the curriculum they taught made me feel lazy and dumb. So I turned my attention to something I was passionate about, which was producing Student magazine, with the aim of giving a voice to young people like myself.
"And a wonderful thing happened: Following my passion gave me drive and purpose. My mind opened up and so my world. The headmaster gave me an ultimatum, forcing me to choose between staying in school or pursuing the magazine. I chose to leave, and I’ve never looked back."
As Branson points out, despite the fact that this might seem like an unconventional to some, he’s not exactly the only success story to have started out in a similar way.
"I’m not alone. Some of the biggest game-changers in the business world didn’t go to college, let alone to an Ivy League or elite British university - people like Tumblr founder David Karp, the Arcadia Group’s Philip Green and British business magnate Alan Sugar, to name just a few.
"And then there are the dropouts: Daniel Ek dropped out of a university in Sweden and co-founded Spotify; Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College in Oregon; and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg made it through the Ivy League gates, but both eventually left Harvard. They likely felt that learning in the real world would better help them to turn their dreams into reality.
"The point is that university isn’t the be-all and end-all, and it’s certainly not a prerequisite for business success. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t go to university if they want to, but simply calling attention to the benefits of learning from the school of life. I received my own education through work. In my opinion, real-life learning is the best way to acquire skills. In fact, I’ve been campaigning for education to be rethought."
As soon as he started founding his own companies, Branson took this approach and used it to influence the employment process across them. As he explains, the Virgin businesses look for qualities that can’t be learnt in the classroom.
"So to answer your question, no, I’ve never been intimidated by someone's credentials. If I had, I never would have tried to achieve anything. Sure, my school grades got me down sometimes, but as soon as I discovered my passion, all of my preconceived notions about what it takes to succeed flew out the window,” explains Branson.
"I never judge people by their education and qualifications. The first thing we look for at Virgin when hiring new staff is personality, which always wins over book smarts or job-specific skills - the latter can be learned. We also give a lot of weight to experience. Time and time again I’ve seen people with a broad employment history and skill set who aren’t an obvious fit for a particular role bring a new perspective to a position and become incredibly successful."