Warren Buffett has said he doesn’t stress higher education in the hiring process, and yet he went to some of the most prestigious schools in the country. One common thread among the world’s most successful and inspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders is that many went to college — even if only for a short while. It would appear that for some of the world’s top business leaders, college shaped their lives and paid off.
Last updated: Feb. 5, 2021
College: Princeton University
Former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is one of the richest people in the world and, according to Forbes, is the first billionaire to break the 12-figure mark. The son of a single mother, Bezos earned early admission to Princeton, originally intending to practice theoretical physics. After graduation, however, he realized the power of the internet and began selling books online, a small business venture that grew into the world’s most powerful online retailer.
College: University of Pennsylvania, University of Nebraska and Columbia University
Warren Buffett followed his father’s advice and went to the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business — but only reluctantly. The man who has gone on to become the “Oracle of Omaha,” arguably the most successful investor of all time, completed his undergraduate education at the University of Nebraska before attending graduate school at Columbia University.
Despite many years of schooling, Buffett doesn’t think college is for everyone and doesn’t base his hiring decisions on degrees, according to CNBC.
College: University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University
Elon Musk is the co-founder of PayPal, the creator of SpaceX and the CEO of Tesla. In 1989, however, the South African immigrant entered Queen’s University in his mother’s native Canada and eventually transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in physics and economics in 1995. Musk enrolled at Stanford University but left after just two days to start his first company, Zip2.
Musk was the highest-paid CEO in the world in 2018, according to The New York Times, with compensation totaling nearly $2.3 billion.
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College: Auburn University and Duke University
Tim Cook earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Auburn University and an MBA from Duke University, where he was a Fuqua Scholar. Today, he’s the CEO of Apple.
Before reaching the executive level at Apple, Cook worked for Compaq and IBM.
College: University of Southern California
Marc Benioff was a pioneer of cloud computing and now serves as the chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California in 1986. He enjoyed college so much that he never severed ties — he currently serves on the school’s board of trustees.
College: Ithaca College
Before he saved Disney, Iger graduated from Ithaca College in 1973, where he cut his teeth in one of the toughest gigs in show business. Intent on landing a television career, Iger spent five hard winter months working as a local weatherman in notoriously frigid Ithaca, New York.
College: Tufts University and Harvard University
Harvard graduate Jamie Dimon runs America’s largest bank as the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. He’s famous — or infamous — for protecting that bank by dumping $12 billion in subprime mortgages in 2006, which helped the bank survive the Great Recession.
Dimon graduated from Tufts University in 1978 and later enrolled in Harvard Business School. He parlayed the MBA he earned there in 1982 into a billion-dollar career.
College: Kettering University and Stanford University
Mary T. Barra — listed by Forbes as one of the world’s most powerful women — became the first woman to lead a major automaker when she was named CEO of General Motors in 2014. In 2018, she earned $21.9 million in total compensation at GM.
She graduated from Kettering University in 1985 — it was called General Motors Institute then — and earned an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1990.
College: Stanford University and University of Pennsylvania
Sundar Pichai interviewed with Google on the day the company launched Gmail in 2004. Now he’s the company’s CEO and the CEO of its parent company, Alphabet, after Google’s co-founder Larry Page stepped down in December 2019.
The metallurgical engineering student did so well at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur that he won a scholarship to Stanford. After earning his Master of Science, he earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
College: University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is credited with moving the software giant away from a failed mobile strategy and toward winning endeavors such as augmented reality, cloud computing and the purchase of LinkedIn. Nadella has two master’s degrees. He earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
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College: Oregon State University and Stanford University
Nvidia founder and CEO Jensen Huang is the leader of a company that pioneered computer gaming in the 1990s and invented the GPU card. He earned a BSEE degree from Oregon State University and, like so many others on this list, a master’s degree from Stanford.
College: University of California at Berkeley and Bowling Green State University
Shantanu Narayen earned more than $28 million in 2018 as CEO of Adobe, the company that gave the world Photoshop and the PDF. A native of India, Narayen earned an undergraduate degree in electronics engineering, a master’s in computer science from Bowling Green and an MBA from Berkeley.
College: Dartmouth College and Stanford Graduate School of Business
John Donahoe took over as the CEO of Nike on Jan. 13, 2020, and although he didn’t have experience in the apparel industry, he’s a whiz in the tech world. He recently was the president and CEO of ServiceNow, an enterprise cloud computing company, and was the president and CEO of eBay from 2008 to 2015. Donahoe earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Dartmouth College and an MBA from Stanford University.
College: University of Massachusetts-Amherst, MIT, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Harvard University
T-Mobile CEO John Legere has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry — and he built his career on an impressive academic resume. According to his UMass alumni page, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UMass Amherst, a master’s degree as an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He then completed Harvard Business School’s Management Development Program.
College: Princeton University and Harvard University
A self-made woman, Meg Whitman has a resume that would put most business leaders to shame. The former CEO of eBay and Hewlett-Packard, Whitman is the CEO of the new short-form video platform Quibi. She’s a member of Princeton University’s class of 1977 and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.
College: New Mexico State University
Kevin Johnson — who raked in over $13 million in 2019 as the king atop a coffee throne — began his career at Starbucks in 2009 and worked his way up the ranks to become CEO in 2017. He previously worked at Microsoft and Juniper Networks. Johnson earned a bachelor’s in business administration at New Mexico State University.
College: Northwestern University
Spending more than 30 years climbing the corporate ladder before reaching the top of IBM in 2012, Ginni Rometty earned a bachelor of science degree from Northwestern in 1979. Rometty, the first female CEO of the iconic company, studied computers and electrical engineering and graduated with high honors.
College: New York University and Missouri University of Science and Technology
After a brief stint at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Jack Dorsey transferred to NYU, where he dropped out. At the age of 29, he was out of work, living in a tiny apartment and unable to find a job — even at a local shoe store.
He dabbled in fashion, and then the self-taught coder went on to found Twitter. That final act made him one of the richest CEOs in Silicon Valley.
College: University of Vermont and MIT
Brian Halligan graduated from the University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and earned a master’s from MIT in 2005. One year later, he formed inbound sales and marketing company HubSpot with fellow MIT grad student Dharmesh Shah. Although he only earns a base salary of $1, his total compensation package totaled $3.1 million for 2018, Salary.com reported.
College: Stanford University
Richard Fairbank is a member of the vaunted three-comma club. One of the country’s longest-serving bank CEOs, Fairbank leads Capital One Financial Corp. Long a CEO who shuns the limelight, Fairbank graduated with an MBA from prestigious Stanford University, where he also studied as an undergraduate.
College: Bowdoin College and Stanford University
Reed Hastings is an entrepreneur who studied mathematics at Bowdoin College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1983. Afterward, he joined the Marine Corps and traveled the world with the Peace Corps. If you’ve ever binge-watched movies or TV shows from beginning to end, you probably have Hastings to thank — he founded mail-order DVD service Netflix in 1997.
College: University of Alabama, Columbia Business School and Harvard Business School
One of the most powerful women in business, Marillyn Hewson is the CEO of Lockheed Martin. Her more than three decades with the company came on the heels of one of the most impressive academic careers in the business world.
She earned a B.S. in business administration and a master’s degree in economics from the University of Alabama. She went on to complete both the Columbia Business School and Harvard Business School executive development programs. Hewson’s 2018 compensation package was worth a whopping $17 million.
College: University of Pennsylvania
In the decade of leadership under Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn has ballooned from 33 million subscribers to nearly 660 million, and a company with a few hundred employees became one that employed 10,000 people. Weiner graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics.
College: Harvard University
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has weathered a scandalous — yet financially successful — past few years. But in 2004, he was a computer programmer and a recent Harvard dropout focused on spreading his emerging online platform from Harvard to campuses across the country and, eventually, the world. Dropping out of college hasn’t prevented Zuckerberg from becoming one of the richest people in the world.
College: Northwestern University and University of Pennsylvania
Bill McDermott is the CEO of ServiceNow, former CEO of software giant SAP and the grandson of basketball great Bobby McDermott. He also overcame a host of traumas and challenges, both in childhood and as an adult.
The way he financed his education, however, might be more impressive than his academic record — he bought a deli when he was 16, which generated enough money to pay for his college. He went on to earn his MBA from Northwestern University and complete the Executive Development Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. McDermott’s net worth isn’t known, but he earned about 9.8 million euros ($10.9 million) as CEO of SAP in 2018.
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Laurence D. Fink
Laurence D. Fink graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in 1974 and an MBA in 1976. Twelve years later, he founded BlackRock, which holds $5.4 trillion in assets and dominates the global exchange-traded fund market.
College: Harvard Business School
Kevin Sneader is the global managing partner of McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. Previously, he was the company’s Asia chairman and had been working for the company for 26 years when he was appointed to the top role in 2018. Sneader studied at the University of Glasgow and Harvard Business School, where he was both a Baker and a Fulbright Scholar.
College: University of Southern California and Pepperdine University
In December 2019, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz announced he would step down as CEO in May 2020. And he’ll probably miss the big paycheck — his 2018 total earnings were over $10 million.
The oldest of nine children, the former soda executive was the first in his blue-collar family to attend college. He credits a guidance counselor with pushing him to apply to colleges he never thought would accept him. USC eventually did, and he graduated with a business degree before earning an MBA from Pepperdine.
College: California University of Pennsylvania
In 2017, Money magazine crowned Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge as the highest-paid boss in business. The $98.5 million he commanded in the previous year was more than double the salary of the next-highest-paid CEO. However, his pay has plummeted dramatically since then — in 2017, he earned about $7.8 million, and in 2018, he earned about $8.2 million, which is still pretty good money by most standards.
Before he was a member of the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame, Rutledge studied economics as an undergraduate at California University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1977.
Brian L. Roberts
College: University of Pennsylvania
Like Thomas Rutledge, Brian L. Roberts is a well-paid media chief. The CEO of Comcast earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. His father was one of the founders of Comcast, and Roberts started there as an intern at age 15.
College: University of Arkansas and University of Tulsa
The youngest Walmart CEO since founder Sam Walton, Doug McMillon began his career at the world’s largest retailer unloading trucks as a teenager. Like Walmart, McMillon’s education was based in Arkansas. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Arkansas and then enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Tulsa.
Before he finished, he enrolled in Walmart’s buyer-training program and, upon graduation, started as an assistant manager at store No. 894 in Tulsa. His salary has definitely increased since his assistant manager days — his earnings for the 2019 fiscal year were $23.6 million.
College: West Point and University of Pennsylvania
Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky is a military veteran who attended the elite United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating in 1982, he joined the Army Rangers. In 1996, he returned to school to earn an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Gorsky made $20 million as the top brass at the healthcare company in 2018.
College: University of California-Santa Cruz and University of Chicago
After serving as McKesson’s president and COO, Brian Tyler became CEO of the healthcare company in April 2019. He graduated from the University of California-Santa Cruz with a degree in economics and earned his Ph.D. and M.A. in economics from the University of Chicago.
College: Stanford University
Zillow CEO Rich Barton co-founded the company and served as its CEO until 2010; he stepped up to the CEO role again in 2019. And Zillow isn’t Barton’s only entrepreneurial venture — he also founded Expedia and co-founded Glassdoor. Before he made it big as a tech entrepreneur, Barton earned an economics degree from Stanford University.
College: Lincoln Technical Institute, Santa Clara University and Stanford University
VMware has nearly doubled in size since Pat Gelsinger took over in 2012 — and he been paid handsomely for his leadership, with over $23.5 million in total compensation for the 2019 fiscal year. Gelsinger, who is credited with developing the original 80486 processor while working at Intel, didn’t start his academic career at Harvard or Penn’s Wharton School, like so many of his contemporaries.
Gelsinger, who holds seven patents, started studying electrical engineering at Lincoln Technical Institute. After earning his associate degree in 1979, he graduated from Santa Clara University in 1983, then earned a master’s degree in 1985 from Stanford.
College: University of Pennsylvania
Safra Catz had served as co-CEO of Oracle since 2014, and became the sole CEO after her co-chief executive Mark Hurd stepped down and passed away shortly after. Catz has spearheaded several acquisitions for the company. She has two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania — one from the Wharton School and one from Penn’s law school.
College: Cornell University and the University of Virginia
Regeneron Pharmaceuticals CEO Leonard Schleifer has impressive academic bona fides in business and medicine. He was accepted to Cornell on a scholarship and pursued a career in medicine. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, he earned his medical degree at the University of Virginia, where he also was awarded a Ph.D.
College: James Madison University and George Washington University
Now the chairman, CEO and president of Northrop Grumman, Kathy Warden earned a bachelor’s degree from James Madison University and a master’s degree in business administration from George Washington University. She earns a fairly modest salary for a CEO — about $1.9 million a year.
W. Craig Jelinek
College: San Diego State University
Costco chief W. Craig Jelinek graduated from San Diego State University with two degrees: a bachelor’s in business and another in marketing, both earned in 1975. When he took the job of Costco CEO in 2012, Jelinek’s starting salary was $650,000, plus a bonus of as much as $200,000. By that time, however, he’d already earned millions as company president and COO.
Robert A. Kotick
College: University of Michigan
Longtime Activision Blizzard CEO Robert A. Kotick has served at the company’s helm since 1991. His alma mater is the University of Michigan, but he serves on the boards of both The Center for Early Education and the Harvard-Westlake School.
Under Kotick’s tenure, Activision Blizzard has developed hit franchises such as “Call of Duty,” “Candy Crush” and “World of Warcraft.” In 2018, the video game boss earned a compensation package worth $30.8 million.
Richard K. Templeton
College: Union College
Richard Templeton is the boss of Texas Instruments, and he’s been with the company since 1980 after earning his bachelor’s degree from Union College in Schenectady, New York. In his private life, he’s a major player in advancing education, including his push to improve access to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Under his stewardship, Texas Instruments has given $150 million to the cause.
College: Brown University
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi graduated from prestigious Ivy League school Brown University in 1991 — but getting there wasn’t easy. At age 9, the future Expedia CEO escaped Iran with his family in 1978 on the eve of the country’s Islamic revolution. His father returned to care for an ailing relative, only to be captured and held for six years while his family was in America.
College: Arizona State University
The CEO of PepsiCo since 2018, Ramon Laguarta was the president of the company before taking the helm. The Barcelona native holds an MBA from ESADE Business School in Spain and a master’s in International Management (M&M) from the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. His compensation package for 2018 was worth about $9.7 million.
College: Smith College and the University of Pennsylvania
The CEO of defense giant General Dynamics, Phebe Novakovic earned her undergraduate degree from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Then, like so many of her contemporaries, she earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Forbes considers her one of the most powerful women in the world — and she’s wealthy, too. Novakovic earned $20.7 million in 2018.
College: Polytechnic Institute of NYU and Columbia University
Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns is a classic American rags-to-riches story. Raised in the projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Burns excelled at math and was accepted to the prestigious Polytechnic Institute of NYU in Brooklyn, New York.
She went on to earn her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Ivy League school Columbia and joined Xerox via an internship that paid for part of her schooling. She left Xerox in 2017 and now is the executive chairperson and CEO of Amsterdam-based VEON.
College: University of Colorado
In 2017, Michael Wirth was named CEO of Chevron after the departure of longtime leader John Watson. Wirth earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Colorado in 1982. That same year, he joined the energy giant as a design engineer.
In 2018, Wirth’s compensation package totaled over $20.6 million.
Darren W. Woods
College: Texas A&M University and Northwestern University
Darren Woods has been the chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil since Jan. 1, 2017. He joined the company as an analyst in 1992 after earning a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering at Texas A&M. Following that, he earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. In 2018, Woods’ compensation totaled nearly $18.8 million.
College: Stanford University
As the CEO of Anheuser-Busch InBev, Brazil native Carlos Brito is the brewmaster of the world — and he also earned college degrees on two continents. He received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and completed his MBA at Stanford University. Brito earned $2.6 million as CEO of the beverage giant in 2018, Simply Wall St. reported.
College: Duke University and Harvard Business School
Control of the world’s largest restaurant chain has been in the hands of Chris Kempczinski since he took the job as McDonald’s CEO in November 2019, but he’d worked for the company since 2015. Kempczinski has an impressive academic background, attending both Duke University and Harvard Business School.
In 2017, Target CEO Brian Cornell took a massive pay cut of about one-third as the troubled company struggled to perform. Fortunately, his pay jumped back up — from the $8.4 million he earned in 2017 to $17.2 million in 2018, topping his 2016 pay of $11.3 million.
He joined the retailer in 2014, after gaining more than 30 years of experience with retailers and other companies around the world. Before that, he earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1981 and also went to the university’s Anderson School of Management.
College: Northeastern University and Boston College
Nikesh Arora is another CEO who has earned multiple degrees on multiple continents. He has an M.S. in business administration from Northeastern University, an M.S. in finance from Boston College and an electrical engineering degree from the Institute of Technology at Banaras Hindu University in India. He’s held the top spot at the cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks since June 2018; before that, he worked with SoftBank, Google and T-Mobile.
Arora’s newest gig is paying him a pretty penny. He earned $125 million in 2018, making him the third highest-paid CEO of the year, The New York Times reported.
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Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.