Is the secret to business success a well-rounded, robust educational background, or are some of us simply born to be business people? We explore both sides of the great debate.

Having a degree means you always have something to fall back on. It can never be taken away from you.
Helen Reynolds, Ink Gardener Copywriting and Social Media

Whether you’re a budding entrepreneur or the owner of a stable business, there’s a certain age-old debate that can leave even the best of us questioning everything. Are some of us born with entrepreneurial genes that make us business geniuses, or is business-savvy something that can be taught? Can someone be made, tutored and moulded into a brilliant entrepreneur?

Opinion is as divided as it is divisive – so we had to take a look at the stats and stories for ourselves. We evaluated the educational backgrounds of some of the world’s most successful businesspeople and gathered the stories and opinions of people who own up-and-coming businesses today.

The hope is we’ll finally find an answer to the question: are entrepreneurs born or made?

The stats behind the world’s most successful entrepreneurs

Forbes’ list of the world’s most successful billionaires contains some of the biggest entrepreneurs and businesspeople of today. In fact, each of the top 10 male and top 10 female billionaires gained their wealth through running their own business or by impressively growing the net value of an inherited company – both of which require more than a touch of business savvy.

Getting schooled

Another thing the top billionaires have in common is that most underwent some form of university schooling.

60% of the male billionaires and 80% of the female billionaires graduated with at least an undergraduate degree. Some notable exceptions include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison and Gina Rinehart, all of whom dropped out of university to pursue their careers.

In the case of Iris Fontbona, she took her family business Antofagasta to new heights with only a high school education behind her. And, more dramatically, Inditex boss Amancio Ortega left school at age 14 to take on work to help care for his parents, rounding off our list of four men (in contrast to two women) who stopped their studies in favour of the working world.

Parental guidance

The 63 youngest billionaires are collectively worth an impressive $265 billion, despite making up only 2.85% of the total 2,208 on Forbes’ list.

But, looking more granularly into their numbers, there’s a stark gender divide in the way the world’s richest under 40 gained their wealth.

All of the 34 self-made young billionaires (i.e. those who built a business independently with little parental help) are men. In contrast, each of the 16 young female billionaires featured inherited their wealth. This is not to say, of course, that young female entrepreneurs are non-existent. In fact, research has shown that start-ups with female founders tend to grow faster than those headed solely by males. However, with female founders often facing unfair bias – whether conscious or unconscious – from investors and perhaps even consumers, it’s no wonder that they struggle to reach the same heights as their male peers.

Learning your craft

Interestingly, all of the MBA-educated billionaires in our list of 20 were female, with many taking the high-level business course to prepare for a C-Suite role in their respective companies. A form of insurance, perhaps, to bridge any gap in their knowledge before they started working.

Looking at the other subjects chosen by those top businesspeople, 50% of males studied an engineering discipline before embarking on their entrepreneurial careers while 40% of females chose to study business or economics, and 30% completed an MBA.

Why are engineering degrees (and to a lesser degree, business and economics) so prevalent in the educational backgrounds of these successful billionaires? It could be that the transferrable skills (such as resilience, curiosity and ability to make disparate connections) encouraged in those degrees propel them headfirst into thinking entrepreneurially.

An entrepreneur’s view of education

Looking at our top 20 billionaires as a whole, 70% of them have completed a university degree. However, these highly successful businesspeople present only a fraction of the business world. So, what about the rest of us who aren’t perched on the pinnacle of wealth? Does higher education and business acumen go hand in hand for everyday business people?

We asked members of the Hiscox Business Club – a group of successful small-to-medium business owners based in York – for their thoughts.

Education was a lifesaver
Melody Clarke, Beware of the Bull Ltd.

For Melody Clarke of Beware of the Bull Ltd, higher education gave her a welcome escape: “Education was a lifesaver. I left school at 17 with a couple of low grade O-levels and only returned to education eight years later. After working full-time, plus in several dead-end jobs and getting caught in the early 90s property crash (we lost everything) … going from that scenario to education was heaven”.

It’s a sentiment shared by Stuart Priest of Circus Skills York CIC. “Going to university when I came from a working-class family and when only 5% of the school population could go felt like a huge privilege. My working life has continued to be an education.”

Running your own business is not something education can prepare you for
Mark Bewick, NIMA

Paul Farquharson of Beetroot Box says that university allowed him to “take the time to be indulgent and to learn”. But, although many of the entrepreneurs agreed that university helped their personal development, they also agreed that it didn’t necessarily prepare them for running a business.

As Mark Bewick of NIMA explains, “Running your own business is such a unique experience and not something that education can really prepare you for. Sure, you can gain the necessary qualifications and skills, but that’s just a small part of the journey. A lot of what I apply in my business today has come from the experiences I have had – from the daily learns and incredible highs, to the trying times and devastating lows.”

None of the entrepreneurs we questioned felt that going back to education would add anything to their business, with Mark Bewick adding that enhancing your knowledge and skillset can be achieved through other avenues.

Do something you love
Simon Holland, Barefoot Lightning Ltd.

So, if our entrepreneurs didn’t find that education directly helped them with running their business, would they have done things differently in hindsight?

Simon Holland of Barefoot Lighting Ltd says he would advise his younger self to “do something you love [while at university], as the learning journey and staying interested is the most important thing.” Ian Beestin from Money Alive agrees, saying he wished he’d worked much harder at school and embraced the chance to absorb knowledge for free.

And, when it comes to running a company, preparation is key. Mark Bewick would’ve told his younger self to write a business plan while Mike Leigh Cooper from InkBlot Media says he wishes he’d spent time growing his network and saving some money first.

The state of education today

Our respondents from the Hiscox Business Club believed strongly in the benefits of learning and enjoyed the university experience. However, the formal education system as a whole fared less favourably. While all our respondents had a degree, 50% of them said it had helped them with their business while the other 50% felt they had gained no applicable knowledge that directly related to their work.

Describing today’s education system as “a political football” (Helen Reynolds), “a horrific ‘sausage factory’ [and] the worst mental health crisis this country has ever known” (Melody Clarke), many of our successful businesspeople felt strongly that the education system needed improving if we are to cater to all types of students.

Only 30% of the top male and top female billionaires on Forbes’ list opted not to complete a university degree while the small-to-medium business owners of the Hiscox Business Club are divided on whether or not a university degree has real-world worth. So, do you need formal education to succeed in business or will pure business-savvy see you through? Our profiled entrepreneurs suggest that the answer lies within.

If you want success in life – in business or otherwise – going with your strengths will win out in the end.

You can’t teach that entrepreneurial drive needed for business success. But if a person has it within them, it can be encouraged, nurtured and coaxed out.
Paul Ward, Telo Group

Anyone considering entrepreneurship must first start with interrogating their personality and motivations. If you’ve concluded that you do have an innate business mind, the next step is finding out what your business needs from you. Be it a university background or thorough work experience, figure out what it’ll take to prepare yourself to run your business. After which, you can finally take the fateful step to starting your business journey.

As part of keeping your business healthy, it’s important to make sure you have comprehensive business insurance that protects your business against as many risks as possible. Whichever path you choose to take in your journey towards successful entrepreneurship, purchasing the right type of business insurance cover can help your business go from strength to strength. And, if you’re a party of one running your business independently as a self-employed or sole trader, purchasing specific self-employed insurance can be an important step in your efforts to build a better business.