Saturday 25 January 2020

One degree of separation - four successful business people who skipped college

Is a university degree the be all and end all? Our reporter meets four Irish people who carved out successful careers without one

Nicola Watkins runs her own public relations and communications company
Nicola Watkins runs her own public relations and communications company
Colleen Harte, founder of Lucy Annabella Organics
Terry Prone founded the Communications Clinic along with her husband Tom Savage
Music videographer and photographer Christian Tierney
Richard Branson
Steve Jobs
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Yesterday's Leaving Certificate results were received with mixed emotions. While thousands of students were busily totting up points and assessing their chances of getting into their preferred university, others were considering foregoing the traditional higher education route to forge their own path instead.

While some contend that a degree is an entry-level requirement for professional employment, others are of the 'no degree, no problem' school of thinking. Here we meet four Irish success stories who decided to enrol in the university of life instead.

'I basically attended my own  film school on YouTube'

Music videographer and photographer Christian Tierney

Music videographer and photographer Christian Tierney (19) is the founder of an eponymously titled YouTube music channel that records live sessions with emerging and established artists. He did his Leaving Certificate last year but passed over a college place so that he could run his successful online business.

"I'm not the type of person who learns from sitting in a classroom listening to people talk. I'm the type of person who learns by going out and learning on the job. If you are that type of person, there is no need to do a creative degree. Besides, film isn't the type of job where you get hired based on a piece of paper. You get hired on the quality of your work.

"I got my first camcorder when I was 12 and I got my first proper camera when I was 14. I watched YouTube tutorials on techniques and effects all day, every day, and I also found a film school YouTube channel called Film Riot. I used to watch hundreds of hours of that. I basically attended my own film school on YouTube.

"My first paid gig was when I was 14. A musician saw one of my videos on YouTube and emailed me, asking if I could make a music video for them. I thought, 'Wow, I'm after making money doing something I absolutely love'.

When I was 15, I worked with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I emailed their manager - he had no idea about my age - and asked if I could shoot a video. I told him that there was a chance I could get it on a popular UK online music channel that I had just done work experience with.

"A month after I shot that video, Macklemore took off really big. I've always had a good ear for picking artists before they get famous, so I decided to start my own YouTube channel. A lot of channels that do sessions with musicians just put anyone up there. I thought I'd be really picky and only put up artists that are really good.

"So I started contacting artists around Dublin who weren't getting the attention they deserved. I also started checking the listings of artists coming to Dublin. I'd find emails for their managers and one out of 20 would reply. Then, when I had videos to show them, I'd get maybe one out of 10 replies.

"By the time I was 17, I had quite a nice portfolio of artists and, eventually, as the subscriber numbers went up, publicists for artists in the UK started contacting me.

"I shot the first ever video of James Bay's song 'Let It Go'. He had literally just been signed and he was playing in Academy 2 in Dublin to about 60 people. The song is now platinum in the US and that video has five-and-a-half million views on my channel.

"I did my Leaving Cert last year and I had to decide whether I wanted to study film or give it a go myself. I applied for Film and Television Production in IADT and, after submitting my portfolio, I got a place. Now, after deferring for a year and having time to think, I've decided not to do the course at all."

Christian is one of the speakers at Zeminar, an event for Generation Z and their parents, teachers, mentors and coaches, taking place in the RDS, Dublin from October 11-13. For more, see

'We can't deny that a lot of entrepreneurs are college drop-outs'

Colleen Harte, founder of Lucy Annabella Organics

Colleen Harte is the founder of Lucy Annabella Organics, a range of luxury bath and body products that is sold in the UK, Denmark, Spain, Austria and Switzerland. She studied psychology in university for one semester before leaving to pursue a career in clinical aromatherapy and complementary therapy instead.

"University wasn't stimulating enough and I left after one semester. I was just so bored...

"I came back home and worked in the family restaurant but I made it very clear that it was only a short-term solution. My parents weren't disappointed. I'm dyslexic so I think they were happy enough that I got my A- Levels. I'm very lucky to have a family that never judged me. I was also lucky that I never cared about what other people thought.

"I knew I wanted to work with people and to work in complementary therapy so I started enrolling in a number of private courses while working part-time. I was always doing two diplomas at a time and, when I had enough qualifications, I opened my own clinic as a complementary therapist.

"I did that for 14 years and I was constantly doing other courses and travelling to places like France, Australia and Thailand to study. In 2012, I launched my own business, Lucy Annabella Organics.

"We can't deny the fact that a lot of entrepreneurs are college drop-outs. Then again, a lot of entrepreneurs have degrees and double-degrees too. People say, 'If you want to be an entrepreneur, get a degree first so you have a Plan B'. But entrepreneurs generally don't have Plan Bs...

"I spoke at a prize-giving in the high school I attended last year. 'You're so young,' I said to them, 'and the one thing you have to do now is find out who you are'.

"If you know what you want to do now, that's amazing. Go and do that. If you don't know what you want to do, that's also brilliant. There's plenty of time to explore your options."

'By not going to university, I got on the career ladder much earlier'

Nicola Watkins runs her own public relations and communications company

Nicola Watkins runs her own public relations and communications company, with key clients including Netflix, Water Babies and Greenbird. She eschewed university and joined the workforce at the age of 18.

"I just didn't know what I wanted to do when I left school in 1989, so I was quite happy to go out into the working world. My Leaving Cert was fine - I got good results in a lot of subjects - I just wanted to start working and I also liked having money.

"My mum wanted me to do something practical so I did a secretarial course. Being able to type was a real skill back then.

"Eventually I got a job working in customer relations for Aer Lingus - I later worked in the press office of corporate affairs for the Young Scientist Exhibition [which Aer Lingus then sponsored].

"That's when I decided that this was what I really wanted to do. I also had a fantastic boss and mentor, Declan Conroy, who suggested that I do a two-year course at the PRII (Public Relations Institute of Ireland).

"I then worked as Bill O'Herlihy's PA for two years - I learned so much from him - and as a PR manager for CityJet for four years. Following that, I worked with a PR consultant for five weeks. During that time, I realised that everything I was doing there, I could do for myself. So I left and set up on my own. That was 17 years ago.

"By not going to university, I got on the career ladder much earlier. The PRII course obviously stands to me - and Leaving Cert students should definitely consider companies that help them gain higher education - however, I've never been asked about my education because experience stands to you. Likewise, I don't remember anyone ever asking me to provide my Leaving Certificate results."

'I prefer not to hire politics graduates for politics jobs'

Terry Prone founded the Communications Clinic along with her husband Tom Savage

PR mastermind Terry Prone dropped out of an arts degree in UCD to pursue an acting career, before moving into communications. She had her own radio programme by 19, was an editor of a magazine by 21, and became a director of Carr Communications before she was 30. In later years she founded the Communications Clinic along with her husband Tom Savage.

"My parents' deal was I got a degree (safety net) and then they would support me for a couple of years while I tried to make it in the theatre. Bottom line was that if I dropped out, I was earning my own living from that point on.

"I was lucky enough to get into journalism, broadcasting, training and business before having a degree was a gateway qualification. If you're delivering clean copy on time, if you turn up sober and prepared, if you're solving problems for people, they shouldn't worry about the letters after your name.

"I prefer not to hire politics graduates for jobs related to politics. They tend to get PTSD from the collision of their theory and the on-the-ground reality. Other than that, I ignore the education bit of the CV."

Get rich or die trying: successful college drop-outs

Richard Branson

Virgin entrepreneur Richard Branson never completed school, dropping out at the age of 16. He is also dyslexic and achieved poor grades during his school days.

Steve Jobs

The late Steve Jobs dropped out of college in 1973. However, he sometimes visited his old alma mater - Reed College, in Portland, Oregon - where he joined the occasional calligraphy class with a Trappist monk.

Paul Allen, the co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation, dropped out of Washington State University in his freshman year. He also convinced Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard.

Irish Independent

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