Successful People Who Didn't go to University

It is a good idea to leave school with the best qualifications you can, but heading off to university doesn’t have to be the ultimate destination. As these familiar faces prove, there are all kinds of routes to success.


1. Lord Sugar

Best known for: Putting wannabe entrepreneurs through their paces

Lord Sugar famously left school at 16, instead starting his business life by selling aerials and repaired televisions from a van. But in a strange way, his success could also partly be put down to a rejection – from IBM. “I failed an aptitude test”, he told the Daily Mail. “They didn’t think I was good enough to be a computer programmer.” But convinced of his own vision, he started up Amstrad in 1968. By the 1980s, it was one of the biggest manufacturers of personal computers. In 2007, he sold Amstrad to BSkyB for £125m. And IBM’s headquarters on London’s South Bank? He now owns it.

2. Zoella

Image of Zoella

Best known for: Her YouTube fashion and beauty channel, and writing a best-selling book

If you’re over the age of 20, or male, you’d be forgiven for asking ‘who?’. However, with over seven million subscribers to her beauty and fashion YouTube channel and a bestselling book (Girl Online) to her name, Zoella (aka Zoe Sugg) is a genuine phenomenon in the vlogging (video blogging) world. She gained some good grades at A Level but decided university wasn’t for her, opting for an apprenticeship with a design company instead. Her YouTube channel, set up in 2009, soon took off though and is now estimated to earn her around £20,000 a month in advertising. She also has another book planned and has released a range of beauty products under the name Zoella Beauty – the biggest UK beauty launch of 2014. In terms of the future, she claims to be heading “somewhere bigger and more exciting.”

3. Simon Cowell

Best known for: High-waisted trousers, and making or breaking dreams

Cowell left school at 16 and worked his way up in the music business from the mailroom. But the man now worth an estimated £300m had plenty of setbacks on the way. When his label Fanfare Records folded in 1989, he had to move back in with his parents. But these are the things that make you. “You make a ton of mistakes in the beginning” he told the Daily Mail. “You just hope you learn from them.' His company, Syco, now produces The X Factor in several countries, and has several artists signed to its music roster. It also produces Britain’s Got Talent and Cowell serves as an executive producer on a host of pilot TV shows.

4. Karren Brady

Best known for: Regular appearances on The Apprentice, and running a football club at 23

In 1993 Birmingham City Football Club was in receivership. Enter managing director Karren Brady. She was just 23 at the time – having left school at 18. The former advertising account executive helped turn the club’s financial fortunes around, and in 2009 Birmingham City sold for £81.5m. Brady is vocal in her support for women in business: “I think companies without any women on their boards should write to their shareholders and explain why – explain how many women they’ve interviewed, why they haven’t taken anybody on ” she told Marie Claire magazine. Brady is currently the vice-chairman of West Ham United, a trusted adviser on The Apprentice and the UK’s Small Business Ambassador.

5. Sir Richard Branson

Image of Richard Branson


Best known for: Brilliant businessman, and ballooning around the world

Richard Branson left school at 16. He started a mail order record business, opened a store on Oxford Street in 1970 and a record label in 1972. Over 40 years later, Virgin Group now includes more than 200 companies - from trains to space travel – in over 30 countries. For him, it was never about the grades. “If you have the desire to succeed, not having a piece of paper with A, B or C written on it isn’t going to hold you back.” Knighted in 2000, and with an estimated net worth of £2.7 billion, Branson is the UK’s seventh richest citizen.

6. Sir John Major

Best known for: Former UK Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Even the most high-profile job in the country doesn’t need a university degree. Sir John Major, Prime Minister from 1990-1997, left school at 16 with three O Levels. After taking a banking course, he became increasingly involved in local politics and was elected as a councillor for Lambeth in London at the age of 21. A steady rise up the ranks saw Major eventually replace Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990. Now he’s a vocal campaigner for opportunities for all young people. “We need them to fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them.” He’s also a strong supporter of apprenticeships, telling the Evening Standard that we need to “increase the social cachet of those skills”. Major is still active in public affairs, heading up the Chatham House think tank.

7. Mary Portas

Image of Mary Portas


Best known for: Her TV role as the ‘queen of shops’

At 18, Mary Portas had the chance to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but commitments to her family meant she didn’t take the place. Instead she worked at John Lewis, Harrods, Topshop and eventually Harvey Nichols, where she was appointed to the board of directors at the age of 30. A keen supporter of opportunities for young people, her Pilot High Streets initiative includes creating spaces for young people to work on business ideas. Her TV work includes a show for the BBC – Mary, Queen of Shops and Mary Portas: Secret Shopper for Channel 4. She currently lectures internationally on retail and brand communication, and has launched a hosiery collection – Mary and Charnos – with Charnos lingerie.

8. Coco Chanel

Best known for: Founder of the Chanel fashion brand

“Fashion changes, but style endures.” And with those words, legendary designer Coco Chanel sums up what the fashion world loves about her brand – a legacy that lives on through the fashion house’s haute couture offerings and signature scents to this day.
Raised in an orphanage, and taught to sew by the nuns who schooled her, she built a millinery business that went on to become a fashion and fragrance empire. Chanel’s revolutionary designs were instrumental in helping women to forego corsets and other restrictive garments, in favour of stylish suits and, of course, the little black dress. Friends with the likes of Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, her funeral in 1971 was attended by hundreds of high profile guests.

9. David Karp

Image of David Karp


Best known for: Founder of Tumblr, which he sold to Yahoo! for $1.1bn

David dropped out of Bronx Science high school at the age of 14, opting for home schooling while focusing on honing his coding skills, and picking up some essential work experience at animation studios along the way. Within a couple of years he had a host of clients using his tech services but David’s real passion lay in building his own microblogging platform, which eventually launched in February 2007 under the name Tumblr. Within two weeks, the service had gained 75,000 users. In May 2013 it was sold to Yahoo! for $1.1bn and, as of February 2015, Tumblr hosts over 221.3 million blogs. For David, though, his success is still measured by reach, not wealth, saying: “There are a lot of rich people in the world. There are very few people who have the privilege of getting to invent things that billions of people use.”

Around the web
Further education and apprenticeships advice from the UK Government website
Thinking of not going to university?
Alternatives to higher education
This article was inspired by an article in The Telegraph

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