x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Harvard dropout's degree of success on self-made route

Women, money and style: If you want to be successful in your career, you need a university degree. That sounds rather obvious, right? Well, not according to Alexa Von Tobel

If you want to be successful in your career, you need a university degree. That sounds rather obvious, right? Well, not according to Alexa Von Tobel. She's the brains behind LearnVest, a financial planning service leading the online world of debt management. Some of the group's prime investors include American Express Ventures and Claritas Capital - to the tune of US$16.5 million. Not bad for a Harvard Business School dropout, wouldn't you say?

Ms Von Tobel joins an illustrious group of unlikely school leavers. There's the Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg, who rewrote history when he became the world's youngest self-made billionaire - his net worth an approximate $16.1 billion as of August 1, according to Forbes magazine.

Mr Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard during his sophomore year to devote all of his time to Facebook.

Then there's Sir Richard Branson, the chief executive of Virgin, who not only has no university qualification to speak of, but also dropped out of high school at the age of 16.

But herein lies the question: do you need to be a maths whizzkid like Mr Zuckerberg or charismatic and doggedly determined like Sir Richard to achieve their kind of self-made success?

More importantly, could you do it without any qualification behind your name? Better yet, do you think you would be at the same level of your career and as financially secure had you chosen to forego your university degree?

If you're already settled in your career, the answer to this question may seem inconsequential. But imagine if your child faced the same dilemma. Would you be OK with them dropping out versus staying in school?

The deciding factor, it would appear, is cost. In 2011, a study by Harvard University found that loan debt from university fees in the US totalled in excess of $1 trillion.

In fact, they found the cost of obtaining a university degree had increased by almost six times between 1980 and 2010. The study surmised that to graduate with a bachelor's degree in the US in 2013, a student would need to rack up more than $23,000 in debt.

And this is exactly where Ms Von Tobel comes in. One of the main objectives of LearnVest is to help people from all walks of life - particularly students - to recover from debilitating debt.

She was recently interviewed by the website Refinery 29 on the secrets to her success. Refreshingly, Ms Von Tobel wasn't flush with complicated boardroom jargon and high-brow business concepts. Her approach to business - and life - is quite simple: "Get up, dress up, show up."

She speaks honestly, for example, about the hard work that goes into running your own business.

"One day in running your own start-up is like one semester in business school. I mean that literally. You're dealing with everything from accounting to leadership skills to marketing and product management. You have to be pretty good at all of it because you can't not know how to do it."

However, this doesn't mean she regrets her limited formal training.

"I wouldn't exchange my time at business school for a second … but do I think you need it? No. Do I think you learn so much running your own company? Absolutely."

According to Ms Von Tobel, real business know-how comes from the doing, not the learning. What's the one common thread that ties all business owners together - educated or not? Failure, she says.

"I've had the privilege of talking to thousands of people about their money, and what I've found is this common theme: everyone feels like they don't know what to do," she says. "It doesn't matter if you went to Harvard Business School, work at Goldman Sachs, or went to community college; everyone has the same questions."

But while we all feel like we're just winging it, we're afraid to admit when we need help and guidance and inevitably end up making costly mistakes. "No one asks the right questions, when we should know and be unafraid to ask."

So my question to you is, what questions are you too afraid to ask? Do you dream of starting that passion project that's always been at the back of your mind? Ms Von Tobel is just one of the many women out there making their financial dreams a reality through determination, hard work and guts.

In her own words: "When you're thinking about anything in life, whether it's who to marry, or whether or not you want to start a company, quit a job, or leave a boyfriend, I always put everything through this filter of wondering when I'm 90 years old, will I regret not doing this or that? If I'm going to regret not doing something, why not just do it?"


Janelle Malone is a wealth commentator, writer and author. You can read her blog at www.womenmoneyandstyle.com