Five Aussies who made it big after dropping out

August 17, 2015
Article Promo Image

The latest findings about university dropout rates were recently released, and the situation seems pretty grim: around one in five of us will drop out or change courses within the first year. But while there may be a stigma attached to dropping out, there’s certainly more than one measure of success - just look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Australia also has its own examples of those who bucked higher education and found success, proving that sometimes no graduation paper with a fancy university stamp is needed to make it big.

Clive Palmer: businessman, politician, twerker extraordinaire

Palmer dropped out of journalism and law studies at the University of Queensland in the ’70s, but obviously that hasn’t stopped him: just look at his initial ventures in real estate and the resources sector; his tourism resorts, including the bombastic Jurassic Park rip-off (aka Palmersaurus) and Titanic II replica; and him becoming adjunct professor of management at Bond University. Still, his appetite for success shifted to politics, where he formed and leads the Palmer United Party. Even as an asthma sufferer, he’s not slowed down one bit, showing he can compete with the best in the twerking industry.

Kristy Dunphey: businesswoman, author, self-made millionaire at 23

By the time a typical undergraduate student obtains that all-important piece of paper, Dunphey already had business experiences that surpasses the textbook theories in lectures and tutorials.

She flirted with university life on and off, until finally dropping out at 21 and starting M&M Real Estate. Two years later, the ‘self-made millionaire’ tag was slapped onto her name. In between that, she nabbed the title of Telstra Young Australian Business Woman of the Year in 2002. Being a multimillionaire at 27, she could’ve retired and enjoy the lavish fruits of her hard labour, but instead she says shes a lifelong learner - even with no university degree. Her desire to continue learning resulted in Uploans, a finance broking company based in Launceston. Oh, and she’s also had two books published.

Grant O’Brien: electrician, CEO without MBA or high school

Grant is the embodiment of some of the most ancient career advice: start from the bottom. Although he initially trained as an electrician after dropping out of school in year 10, he gave that up, obtained a diploma in business and accounting, and became a part-time shelf stacker and accounting assistant at Woolworths in Tasmania. He then soared up the ladder to become CEO in 2011. It's an impressive feat considering he didn't even have an MBA - O'Brien enrolled at Monash but later dropped out. Despite lasting less than four years as CEO (hes announced his retirement after financial pressures), it’s still pretty damn admirable for someone without a university business degree (nor a year 12 certificate) to reach the top, let alone the top of a major Australian company.

Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes: founders of Atlassian, philanthropists, Australia’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen

To talk about dropouts and self-made millionaires without mentioning one (or two) from the tech start-up world would be a travesty. Like the founders of Microsoft, the guys behind Atlassian met when they were 22 and enrolled in science/IT degrees at the University of New South Wales. They realised they wanted to work for themselves, so both dropped out and formed Atlassian — a company that provides software products to improve workflow processes — in 2002. Twelve years later, they became self-made millionaires, topping the BRW Young Rich list in 2013–14. It’s even more impressive considering that, in 2002, Facebook wasn’t even born yet, and Australia still lacked any sort of tech start–up scene. Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes are both pretty grounded as well, contributing to philanthropy and mentoring other entrepreneurs.

Toby Vue

Toby is a Master of Arts (journalism) student at Charles Sturt University. He tweets at @tobyvue.

Image: Clive Palmer official Facebook page