While the rest of us were negotiating our curfews and cramming for the SATs, some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs ditched high school (or didn't even enroll) to start building multimillion-dollar fortunes. Here are 25.
Robert De Niro
Fans of Vito Corleone and Jake LaMotta can thank one of the world's most popular actors for leaving high school before his 17th birthday. The two-time Oscar winner studied his craft at Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio and the Stella Adler Conservatory. De Niro learned a thing or two about business along the way, too: His financial portfolio includes film studio TriBeCa Productions and a handful of posh New York eateries.
After spending seven years in an orphanage, the future British hair guru struck out, at age 14, for a barbering apprenticeship, followed by a stint in the Israeli Defense Force. Best known for his severe geometric cuts, the coiffure connoisseur is credited for Mia Farrow's heavily copied 'do in Rosemary's Baby. Sassoon's personal fortune has been valued at roughly $130 million.
At last count by Forbes, this megaresort tycoon, who dropped out of school to pursue amateur boxing when he was only in eighth grade, is now worth $3 billion. Bankrolled Vegas Strip mainstays like the International Hotel and MGM Grand and bought a majority stake in MGM Mirage in 2006. Survived a multimillion-dollar hit in 2008 after unloading Ford stock at a third of original buying value. Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation has donated more than $180 million to Armenian reconstruction efforts and various charities.
With holdings like Christie's Auction House, Gucci, Samsonite and Puma, it's hard to believe the third-richest man in France quit high school in 1947 to work at his father's lumber mill. One reason he quit school: Classmates made fun of his poor background. Poetic justice: At last count, the retail kingpin and father-in-law to actress Salma Hayek has amassed an $8.7 billion fortune.
Curtis James Jackson III, aka multi-platinum rapper 50 Cent, made his entrepreneurial debut at age 12, hustling crack on the streets of South Jamaica, Queens. (He earned his GED while doing time for drug possession.) After his attorney slipped them a demo tape, Eminem and Dr. Dre signed Jackson to their label for $1 million. Good move: Jackson's albums have sold more than 26 million copies. Product endorsements include Reebok sneakers, Vitamin Water and Right Guard body spray. Fifty's film company Cheetah Vision landed $200 million in funding in 2010.
Born to a factory worker and an accounting clerk, this three-time Oscar-winning high school dropout showed signs of filmmaking flair as a child, crafting short movies with a Super 8 cine-camera in New Zealand. At age 20 he worked as a newspaper photo engraver by day and made slapstick horror films by night. His first mainstream hit, the murder drama Heavenly Creatures, came out in 1994. Jackson struck box-office gold with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which grossed just under $3 billion worldwide.
Southern songstress, fashion designer and reality TV star Jessica Simpson boasts two multi-platinum albums, a shoe line, hair care products and a handful of endorsements--all despite having dropped out of high school. The buxom blonde donned daisy dukes for her 2005 film debut in the Dukes of Hazard and globe-trotted for reality show The Price of Beauty in early 2010. Simpson announced in November she was headed to the altar with one-time NFL tight end Eric Johnson.
For this striking high school dropout, beauty and brains runs in the family. Thurman's mother was a model and her father, a professor at Columbia University, was the first Westerner ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Thurman enrolled in the Professional Children's School in New York City but left at 16 for onscreen pursuits. The sexy starlet made her movie debut in 1988 and went on to light up the screen in films such as Dangerous Liaisons and Quentin Taratino's Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill saga, which earned the actress Golden Globe nods.
This Hustler publisher and outspoken first amendment advocate didn't need a high school degree to live in his penthouse. Before becoming an adult entertainment icon, the controversial pornographer joined the United States Army using a counterfeit birth certificate at age 15. Flynt ran a fleet of bars and strip clubs before launching his magazine in 1974. In 2003 he threw his hat into the California recall gubernatorial election, finishing 7th in a field of 135.
"If I'm not going to Columbia University, I'm going to Columbia Records and you don't need a high school diploma over there," Billy Joel once famously declared after learning he had fallen one credit short of his high school graduation requirement in 1967. The six-time Grammy Award winner has sold more than 150 million records worldwide and recently finished touring with Elton John in March 2010. (Joel's old high school finally agreed to award their famous alumnus a diploma--25 years after he left.)Joel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. His estimated net worth is $160 million.
The daughter of a seamstress and factory owner quit school at age 15 to pursue a stage career in London. The smoldering Welsh actress rose to fame in the late '90s with her performance alongside Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro. In 2002 she captivated audiences as Velma Kelly in the blockbuster musical Chicago, earning the actress an Oscar, BAFTA Award and Screen Actors Guild Award. Zeta-Jones also has appeared in advertisements for Elizabeth Arden, T-Mobile, Alfa Romeo and Di Modolo jewelery. Zeta-Jones's estimated net worth is nearly $45 million.
If this former U.S Surgeon General is any example, you can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it--high school dropouts included. In 1967 Carmona quit Dewitt Clinton High School at age 16 and enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he eventually earned his GED. Carmona graduated at the top of his medical program at University of California, San Francisco in 1979. President George W. Bush appointed Carmona Surgeon General of the United States in 2002.
This 24-year-old home-schooled social media visionary has the blogosphere to thank for his millions. The peach-fuzzed creator of popular blogging platform Tumblr dropped out of Bronx Science High School at 15 to establish his own Web development company. As of March 2010 Tumblr gets 2 million posts and averages 15,000 new users per day.
John Donald Imus Jr. grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona and quit school when he was 17. Following short stints as a military bugler and railroad brakeman, the radio rabble-rouser took to the airwaves in 1968, disc jockeying for a small Palmdale, Calif., station. Fired for saying "hell" on air, Imus moved his on-air pranks to Sacramento, Cleveland and finally New York City in 1971. After the shock jock's morning show was canceled in 2007, thanks to his disparaging comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, it was later picked up by WABC under a five-year deal worth up to $40 million.
The first black man to win an Academy Award (for Best Actor in 1963) dropped out of school at age 12 to help support his impoverished family. After serving briefly in the U.S. Army, Poitier earned a living as a dishwasher; at 17, he got on as a janitor in exchange for acting classes at the American Negro Theater in New York City. Since 1997 Poitier has served as Bahamian ambassador to Japan. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
The founder of Inditex--a fashion empire including brands such as Zara, Stradivarius and Massimo Dutti--began life as a railway worker's son. Ortega ditched school at age 14 to run errands for mom-and-pop T-shirt stalls. In 1972 he founded a line of bathrobes, soon expanding to what would become popular bargain fashion chain, Zara. Today he owns a luxury apartment complex in Miami and properties in Madrid, Paris, London and Lisbon. Ortega, the richest man in España, is worth an estimated $25 billion.
Ahmet Nazif Zorlu
Zorlu dropped out of school at age 15 to help with his family's modest fabrics business. By the early '90s and under his direction, the company would become the world's largest polyester yarn producer and curtain manufacturer. Today the billionaire textile magnate, who travels in a custom-designed helicopter, also owns Vestel, maker of televisions in Turkey. In 1997 Zorlu Holdings took over Denizbank, transforming it into one of Turkey's leading banks. Zorlu also builds wind farms in Pakistan.
Jay-Z (Shawn Carter)
Jay-Z may have "99 problems," but not having a high school diploma ain't one. Carter grew up in one of Brooklyn's roughest housing projects, dealing drugs before finding salvation in hip hop. In 1995 Carter took his first single to Def Jam Records, the company he ended up running from 2004 until 2007. In 2008 he signed a 10-year, $150 million deal with Live Nation that gave him control over his records, tours and endorsement deals with companies like Dell and Budweiser. The 10-time Grammy Award-winning hip-hop superstar is now worth an estimated $450 million.
This billionaire dropped out of high school to deliver milk for his family's dairy. In 1940 he used a $1,200 loan to open an ice cream shop with his sister and two brothers. In 1959 he left the business and started investing in savings and loans, and eventually insurance concerns, which he assembled under American Financial Group. In 1984 Lindner bought Chiquita Brands International (formerly United Foods) and ran it until 2001. The family dairy, called United Dairy Farmers, now has 200 ice cream parlors and convenience stores. Lindner's estimated net worth: $1.7 billion.
This pervasive pitchman grew up poor in Marshall, Texas. A mentor, through Lyndon Johnson's Job Corps program, encouraged the 15-year-old delinquent to box. Foreman would eventually win a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. His big pay day came in 1999, when he bagged $138 million for selling naming rights to grill manufacturer Salton. He has since pitched brands like Doritos, KFC and Meineke, and has launched a line of environmentally safe cleaning products, a line of personal care products, a health shake, a prescription shoe for diabetics and a restaurant franchise.
The caustic judge pulled down an estimated $80 million last year, thanks to his involvement with American Idol;Britain's Got Talent; musical talent show The X Factor; and SyCo records, his production company. The 50-year-old impresario dropped out of school at age 16 and landed a job in the mailroom at EMI. At 23 he left to start his own record label, Fanfare. Cowell recently shifted his focus to a U.S. version of the The X Factor, where he serves as both judge and executive producer.
When Bundchen was 14 years old a modeling scout discovered her in a Brazilian shopping mall. In 1996 she debuted at Fashion Week in New York City. The highest paid model in the world is worth about $150 million, thanks to contracts with Versace, Dior and other companies. She also has a line of sandals called Ipanema by Gisele. For more, check out Most Entrepreneurial Supermodels.
Murdock left high school, was drafted into the Army in 1943 and moved to Detroit after WWII. In 1985 he took control of Dole Food and Hawaiian real estate company Castle & Cooke. Murdock took debt-laden Dole public in October 2009 (current market capitalization: $1 billion). The produce company is the world's largest producer of fruits and vegetables. The Dole chairman is now worth an estimated $2.5 billion.
The son of a barrister and a flight attendant dropped out of Stowe School at age 16 to start an arts and culture magazine called Student. In 1970 at age 20 he founded a mail-order record retailer called Virgin. He later opened a record shop and recording studio, which became retail chain Virgin Records and record company Virgin Music. His Virgin Group empire now includes 200 companies in 30 countries, spanning airlines, music festivals, mobile companies and other businesses. Today Branson owns two private Caribbean islands, Necker and Mosquito, and has an estimated net worth of $4 billion.
This high school dropout bloomed into a Silicon Valley legend, founding the likes of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon and Shutterfly. In recent years he started a real estate company in South Florida with Tom Jermoluk, another Shutterfly investor. He co-produced the Academy Award-winning 2009 documentary, The Cove. Today Clark is worth nearly $900 million.