Most U.S. billionaires have a college degree, but these self-made superstars built their fortunes with just a high school diploma, if even that.
Jimmy John Liautaud opened the first Jimmy John’s sandwich shop in January 1983, just a few months after he graduated from high school. Liautaud’s Army veteran father gave him a choice of enlisting or starting a business after high school. He chose the latter.
Liautaud had a hard time in his high school classes because of undiagnosed dyslexia. He was “a real street kid,” he says of growing up in Cary, Illinois, which taught him a lot about hierarchy, honor and “the efficiency of being straight up.”
“You’ve got to be straight up on the street,” Liautaud says, a lesson that he applies to being a successful businessman. “When you say you’re gonna show up at three, you show up at three. When you say you’re gonna do something, you do it.”
The business took off and, in 2016, Liautaud sold an estimated 65% stake in Jimmy John’s to private equity firm Roark Capital in a deal that valued the company at $3 billion. He sold his remaining Jimmy John’s stake in 2019 to Inspire Brands, an arm of Roark Capital, for an undisclosed amount. Now worth an estimated $1.7 billion, Liautaud is one of just 24, of about 700 American billionaires, who graduated from high school but never attended college (not including those who enrolled and dropped out, like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates).
Diane Hendricks, America’s richest self-made businesswoman, was forced to leave school at 17 after getting pregnant but made sure she got her GED. She married the father but the couple divorced three years later. The newly single mom got a job waitressing at a local Playboy Club and later sold real estate before cofounding roofing supplies distributor ABC Supply in 1982. Not going to college, she says, made her more entrepreneurial. “I created my own learning opportunities. I found role models. I learned through doing and from my mistakes,” Hendricks says via email. “Pursuing a career is much more important than pursuing a degree.”
Two of her seven children also opted out of college. “Both of my sons went right to work,” says Hendricks. “Our family believes strongly that all work, all jobs have value, regardless of whether they require a college degree.”
Another notable high school grad who debuted among the country’s richest in recent years is Mailchimp’s Dan Kurzius. He was a part-time DJ, competitive skateboarder and worked in real estate before getting into web design with cofounder Ben Chestnut. Both he and Chestnut had witnessed the challenges faced by small businesses (his dad ran a bakery-deli that went bankrupt) and bootstrapped Mailchimp, never raising money from investors. In September 2021, financial software giant Intuit announced it was buying Mailchimp for $12 billion in cash and stock.
The wealthiest person in the country to have made a fortune without attending college is oil tycoon Harold Hamm. The youngest of 13 children, Hamm grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, picking cotton as a child and working at a gas station as a teenager. He eventually started his own trucking company to haul water to oilfields, and by 1971, when Hamm was 25, had taken out a loan to drill his first well, kickstarting his oil drilling career. Currently chairman and CEO of oil producer Continental Resources, he is worth $21.1 billion and ranked 28th on the recently released Forbes 400 list of richest Americans.
In addition to the two dozen billionaires who have only a high school degree, there are three billionaires who never even got a diploma: former hairdresser and founder of OGX hair care products Todd Christopher, cable TV pioneer Alan Gerry and Dole Foods’ David Murdock.
Though the wealth accumulated by these billionaires is anything but average, their educational attainment resembles that of many Americans. About 28% of Americans claim a high school diploma as their highest level of education, and nearly 9% never graduated high school. More than three-fifths of Americans haven’t completed a bachelor’s degree, according to 2022 U.S. Census Bureau data.
“College plays a part for sure,” says Liautaud, “But I think everything plays a part, and I don’t think it’s one big thing. I think it’s a thousand little things that make people successful,”