U.S. student loan debt is at $1 trillion and growing. The average college-related debt for a graduate is now $35,000. That has some students questioning the value of a college degree. WNPR’s Sujata Srinivasan met some entrepreneurs who began their companies fresh out of high school.
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson once said that life is one long university education. That pretty much sums up how a lot of entrepreneurs who lack formal education think. Tariq Farid is one of them. He was in his sophomore year at high school in West Haven when life took an unexpected turn.
“I used to work at a flower shop when I was young and because I worked there my father somehow assumed that maybe I can run a business! And he asked me and at that time, you really just didn’t say no because the family was struggling. So when the opportunity came, I just said ‘Sure.’”
Farid’s family was living hand-to-mouth at the time, but was able to buy a flower business for $6,000, thanks to a loan from a friend. After school, the teenager spent almost all of his time working at the shop.
“People were celebrating their graduation parties and I was figuring out, you know, how you’re going to turn around and have a better prom season in the flower business or who you’re going to be hiring and how well people deem my second store. Success meant that you put food on the table and you help your parents and when you took a little money home they were just impressed.”
The shop did well and Farid bought two more, by which time he was too busy to go to college. Then in 1999, he opened Edible Arrangements, selling flower shaped fruit bouquets and smoothies. The Wallingford business employs nearly 8,000 people in 1,200 locations worldwide. Along the way, Farid did give college a try. He took classes in finance and marketing but soon dropped out – what he was learning in class was something he’d already learned in his business. Matthew Atwater was 15 when he stopped going to school. That didn’t sit very well with his parents. His dad has a PhD in physics and mom, a master’s in adult education.
“I went through what I think a lot of 15-year-olds probably go through. I didn’t really know what to do with myself in terms of job prospects or anything like that but I knew that I didn’t really want to be at school anymore and frankly I don’t think the school really wanted me there either. And my father said, ‘Well if you’re going to stop going to school, then you really need to apply yourself to a job and maybe we’re going to charge you some rent’ and something like that. So I said ‘Okay, I can do this. I could take some responsibility.’”
A year later, Atwater got a job as an apprentice at a computer repair shop where the owner taught him to repair PCs and printers. Then when he was 18, he got a job as a network administrator and grew into a leadership role in that company.
“I was favored by the timing on that because, you know, it was the mid nineties, the Internet was relatively new. So they were looking for anybody who had any kind of IT skills that looked like they could, you know, do the work. There were a lot of job opportunities, there was lot of opportunity for somebody who wanted to learn things and having a young IT guy on staff was actually kind of a sign of the times you know. There were a lot of companies all of a sudden, big Wall Street companies and stuff were hiring these kids with the green hair and the spiked collars and saying, ‘Well, this is our IT guy, you know.’”
At 24, Atwater co-founded Tsunami Solutions, an engineering software firm in Glastonbury, focused in the aerospace sector. He employs 65 people – over a quarter of them earn six figure salaries. By definition, entrepreneurs are doers, says Mike Roer, president of the Entrepreneurship Foundation in Fairfield. The English word is derived from French – entreprendre, to undertake. But Roer says students should plan for college. Those who build successful businesses after high school are by and large an exception.
“They were outliers. They defied convention. They did what was presumed was not that easy or even possible to do.”
Tariq Farid of Edible Arrangements had little choice – his family was struggling financially and he needed to step up and earn income. But without funding from a family friend, he wouldn’t have had his first flower shop. Matthew Atwater also had factors align to help him succeed – the computer repair shop owner wanted to help out a teenager and he was in the right industry at the right time. But for the most part, research shows a college education is a big advantage in the job market, says Connecticut Department of Labor economist Patrick Flaherty.
“Education still has a tremendous benefit in the labor market. The unemployment rate for college graduates is less than half of the overall unemployment rate and the more education you have in general, the lower the unemployment rate. And there’s a payoff in terms of income.”
Taking a path that’s the exception, not the rule, can offer huge rewards but is also hugely risky. For high school students, that’s not an easy choice to make.