A Different Kind of Education
Higher education has opened many doors for women — access to college and postgraduate degrees has bolstered women’s earnings and made them a valuable addition to the workforce. But for certain successful outliers in a variety of industries, traditional education was not their path to glory.
Here are seven highly accomplished ladies who either opted out of college or dropped out — to the benefit of their careers.
Pioneering cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein got her business start in Poland as a teenager doing bookkeeping for her father, a wholesale food broker. She showed a good head for numbers and, at age 15, attended her first business meeting in place of her ill father.
Helena’s father then decided she should study medical science. While she liked working in labs, she loathed the smells and grisly sights of the hospital, so she dropped out. Next, her father insisted she marry a rich widower 17 years her senior. She suggested a fellow medical student instead, but her dad declined.
Running out of options, Helena asked her uncle in Australia if she could stay with him. She arrived in 1903 with 12 pots of beauty cream from a family recipe. After noticing the poor, sun-damaged complexions of many Australian women, Helena set up shop selling her family’s skin cream, calling it Helena Rubinstein, Beauty Salon. (This wasn’t a salon in the way we think about it now, but a place “designed entirely for women, where a client could learn not only how to improve her looks, but also how to reconceive her standards of taste, and to understand design, color, and art in order to express her own personality.”)
According to her autobiography, she turned a loan of £250 (about $1,500) into a £12,000 profit by working 18-hour days for two years (other sources speculate it was actually eight years). To improve her product, she later studied dermatology, skin treatments, facial surgery, and good dietary practices. Her company would eventually move stateside and become Rubinstein & Co.
Consistently ahead of the curve, Helena is credited with offering the first skin type–specific skin care regime in 1910, followed by the first waterproof mascara in 1938 and the first modern mascara in 1958. In 1928, she sold her business to Lehman Brothers for more than $7 million. (L’Oréal has owned the brand since 1988.)
Without a college degree, Helena is arguably “the first modern self-made woman magnate.” Her business is estimated to have been worth somewhere between $17.5 and $60 million in her lifetime.
Jessica began studying acting as a tween and was signed by an agent at age 12. Once she graduated from high school, she joined the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York City. After appearing in a string of films, Jessica broke out in 2000 as the star of the sci-fi TV show Dark Angel (where she reportedly clocked an 86-hour work week).
In 2008, pregnant with her first child, Jessica began searching for alternative ingredients to mainstream laundry detergents and other cleaning products. When she couldn’t find sufficient products, she began making her own.
When Christopher Gavigan, former CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World, a California-based nonprofit that aims to protect kids from toxic chemicals, told her there was no single company offering all the household products she was looking for, she started brainstorming. Tons of research, one business plan, a PowerPoint presentation, two added co-founders, and an estimated $6 million in investor money later, Jessica founded The Honest Company, offering nontoxic household products.
According to Forbes, The Honest Company has seen “an absurd level of growth.” In its first year (2012), it raked in $10 million in revenue, and it hit a staggering $150 million in 2014. It’s on track to grow to more than $250 million this year.
Anna didn’t just forgo college — the influential editor-in-chief of Vogue didn’t even finish high school. As a teenager, Anna quit her studies at the prestigious North London Collegiate, a private school for girls, and started working in fashion. At 15, she took a job at the Biba fashion boutique, and at 21 she was hired as one of the first editorial assistants at Harpers & Queen, beginning her career in fashion journalism.
Anna continued to climb the editorial ranks, hopping from New York magazine to British Vogue. She was named the editor-in-chief of Vogue in 1988 and artistic director of Conde Nast in 2013. In 2009, President Obama appointed her to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Celebrity chef and author Rachael Ray spent her early life in kitchens. Her parents owned three restaurants on Cape Cod, and their three kids often came with them to work. When her parents divorced, Rachael’s mom took a job managing nine restaurants — and she recruited Rachael, then 13, and her siblings to do everything from dish washing to busing tables. While still in high school, Rachael developed her own business, Delicious Liaisons, a food gift-basket service.
After graduating high school in 1986, Rachael started at Pace University in New York, studying communications and literature. Two years in, she dropped out to save money and reassess her career.
She held a lot of jobs in the food services industry before being hired as candy manager at Macy's Marketplace (she was then promoted to the fresh food section). She was also chef and buyer at a gourmet foods store and gave cooking lessons. It was during one of her lessons in a shop in Albany, New York, that she was spotted by a local television station, which led to a segment she hosted called “30-Minute Meals.”
Rachael’s segment eventually led to a Food Network show by the same name in 2001 and her first book deal. 30-Minute Meals was such a success that the Food Network offered her three other shows: $40 a Day, Inside Dish, and Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels. Her cookbooks include Comfort Foods (2001), Get Togethers (2003), and Rachael Ray 365 (2005).
In 2005, Rachael launched her food and lifestyle magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray. Her self-titled television talk show in collaboration with Oprah debuted in 2006. 30-Minute Meals won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Service Show in 2006 and Rachael Ray won the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Entertainment in 2008 and 2009.
In her last year of high school in Nashville, Tennessee, Oprah was enrolled in drama class. While rehearsing a scene, staff from local radio station WVOL saw her performance and asked her to read on the radio. She was then encouraged to apply for a job reading news on air. Not only did she get the job, but Oprah entered — and won — a public speaking contest that offered a scholarship to Tennessee State University. She majored in speech communications and performing arts before being offered a TV job as a co-anchor on CBS.
Oprah turned down the job quite a few times before her speech professor suggested it might be the right move for her career. Not long after accepting the position, Oprah was offered another job as an on-air reporter in Baltimore. The only problem was that the job started a few months before her graduation. Ultimately she chose the job (from which she was fired), sacrificing her college degree.
She soldiered on, working a morning talk show in Baltimore and then hosting another in Chicago before hitting the big time. The Oprah Winfrey Show was the highest-rated talk show in American history, earning 17 Daytime Emmys. She was named the richest African American of the 20th century by Forbes in 2009 and is one of only two black female billionaires in the world.
Ellen’s childhood ambition was to be a veterinarian. In 1976, she enrolled in the University of New Orleans with a major in communications, but she dropped out after a semester. She then held a series of jobs: waiting tables, selling vacuum cleaners, painting houses, and working as a paralegal. She turned to stand-up comedy in 1981, and her mom supported her (both financially and emotionally) as she performed in coffeehouses and small clubs. In the early 1980s, Ellen toured nationally and was named the funniest person in America after winning a Showtime-sponsored competition.
Ellen acted in various films and TV shows in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and starred in Ellen, a sitcom based on her comedy. In 2003, she started hosting The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which won 15 Emmys in its first three seasons and is the first talk show in TV history to win the Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show in its first three seasons.
After Coco’s mother passed away, her father placed her in an orphanage. She was raised by nuns who taught her to sew, foreshadowing the successful career to come. But first a penniless Coco worked as a club singer, where she reportedly earned her nickname (Coco was born Gabrielle). Still in love with sewing, she convinced her lover, Etienne Balsan, to build a millinery business in Paris.
In 1910, she opened her first business, a hat shop, also in Paris. She later established boutiques in Biarritz and Deauville, this time making and selling clothes. Her designs were hugely successful, and by the 1920s, Coco had debuted her iconic perfume: Chanel No. 5. Five years later she launched the classic Chanel suit (the collarless jacket and fitted skirt).
Coco is notably the only fashion designer on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. She is credited with liberating women of the early 20th century from the confines of the corset, and introducing simpler fashion, lines and fabrics that endure today.