Formal education isn’t a prerequisite for being a successful business owner – but it helps.

Hollywood, and the American dream, have given us corny ideals about what a great businessperson looks like. You’ve got the cigar-chomping mogul who probably inherited his way into all his lucky breaks. And then you’ve got the maverick outsider who dropped out of school aged 12 and built the foundations of her empire selling windfalls she scrumped from the local orchard. Education doesn’t feature very strongly in either the villainous or the heroic model.

Instead, small business owners are expected to get by on their ingenuity, luck, and resourcefulness. Frankly, if you’re just starting your first company, this clichéd model is not enough. You’re taking a major risk if you don’t use that resourcefulness to figure out a way to get the education that will give you a firmer footing as you forge ahead.

So goes the research behind this new business resource from resume.io. They looked at the top-earning CEO in every state of America to see what kind of educational background they have. You can use the interactive element to check out the results state-by-state. Tl;dr? They all studied. In fact, two-thirds of them continued to study, claiming a graduate degree on top of their bachelors.

Yes, college drop-out Mark Zuckerberg got lucky; and Jeff Bezos was right to quit school and concentrate on Amazon – the timing made all the difference. But they are the exceptions.

What to study

There’s no right or wrong answer when choosing what to study. It’s different for everyone, and you’ll never be sure exactly how you might utilize your specific education one, five, 20 years down the line. Choose something you’re good at, or you’ll struggle; find something that interests you, too, and you’ll be sure to push that extra mile. It can work to major in your passion, and take electives that are appropriate to your business idea, or vice versa. Education is a reward in itself, so it shouldn’t be a chore.

But it’s also worth bearing in mind the success stories of those top-earning CEOs. Of course, many of them studied business – at least as their graduate choice. Studying your passion first, and following it up with a rigorous MBA, can help you to specialize. You have something more specific to apply your new business ideas to, whereas business studies can feel quite abstract if you just leap in without a prior degree.

It’s significant, too, that more than one in five of the top-earning CEOs studied engineering. You may be wondering how engineering degrees led to boardroom business success. The answer is two-fold.

Firstly, there’s the practical element. A business person whose trade involves engineering will benefit from knowing the ins and outs of how their product is made. They’ll understand materials, construction, and maintenance. They’ll intuitively understand the bottom line of what their business does, and they’ll have an instinct for ways to innovate and diversify.

And on the other hand, there are the cognitive benefits of the engineering mind. Folk who are natural or taught engineers have a very powerful toolkit at their disposal, and it’s not the one in the garage – it’s the one between their ears. Engineering requires both foolproof logic and creative imagination. It is a trade that is founded on problem-solving. It requires both intense lone work and the ability to collaborate and build ideas in a group. And it requires an instinct for math that is not out of place in the chief executive’s office. (12% of the top-earning CEOs in resume.io’s study majored in economics.)

Let’s not rule out the humanities altogether, though. While just 9% of the CEOs earned a degree in the arts and humanities, that figure still dwarfs those who took natural sciences (2%). And a background in the humanities can be invaluable for developing an ethical, people-oriented approach that attracts the best minds to your business and contributes to a canny marketing and PR game.

Case studies

So just who do these top earners think they are? And how have they used their education to climb to the top? Spoiler: it’s a mixed bunch! Let’s take a look.

Doug Lawler (Oklahoma)

Robert D. (“Doug”) Lawler is the CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corp., and he has turned the company’s fortunes around since his arrival – which goes some way to justifying his $14.9m income. Doug is one of the engineers of whom we speak; he went to Colorado School of Mines to major in petroleum engineering.

But it is also to be noted that Doug considers his time on the college football team to have been crucial to his success, saying that it gave him the resolve to accept the knocks his career would take and bounce back stronger. Of course, college is not just about the knowledge and skills you accumulate, but the life-changing experiences and relationships you encounter.

Sunny Sanyal (Utah)

Sunny has done the double we suggested earlier in the article: he began with degrees (two of them!) in engineering before mastering in business administration at Harvard Business School. His bachelors was in industrial engineering before he got his MSc in the more specific electrical engineering – this time from the University of Bombay in India.

Sunny now earns $6.6m each year as CEO of Varex Imaging Corporation, who produce contraptions such as x-ray machines for hospitals. It is a fast-moving area of engineering in which a business leader who did not have a firm grasp of the engineering principles at play would surely struggle to keep his company afloat.

Kenneth W. Lowe (Tennessee)

Netting $28.8m per year as head of the E.W. Scripps Company, Ken can thank his arts degrees for giving him the grounding in broadcasting that has taken him so far. Ken got his big break when he turned decades of experience into a business venture, founding HGTV in 1994. It’s now the number three channel in the States, having dislodged CNN in 2016.

Ken is a great example of how formal education makes a professional, but experience creates the true master of his or her trade.

Where will your story begin?

G. John Cole
G. John Cole

John writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A digital nomad specializing in leadership, digital media, and personal growth topics, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.