Y-Combinator cofounder and famous hacker Paul Graham publishes essays, and one of his recent ones was 2016 "The Refragmentation".

One of the ancillary claims he made was that for the known founders of the big US companies (as of the middle of 20th century) were mostly NOT college educated and started out doing menial jobs (the implication being that well educated elite graduates of the mid-20th century didn't see themselves as startup founder materials back then, because they coudln't connect themselves conceptually with said original founders; and thus preferred career of executive in existing large companies).

By the 1970s, no one stopped to wonder where the big prestigious companies had come from in the first place. It seemed like they'd always been there, like the chemical elements. And indeed, there was a double wall between ambitious kids in the 20th century and the origins of the big companies. Many of the big companies were roll-ups that didn't have clear founders. And when they did, the founders didn't seem like us. Nearly all of them had been uneducated, in the sense of not having been to college. They were what Shakespeare called rude mechanicals. College trained one to be a member of the professional classes. Its graduates didn't expect to do the sort of grubby menial work that Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford started out doing.

Is that claim true? (I'm content with the first part of the claim, about lack of college education; but would prefer the second one at all, that, education aside, the founders also started in manual labour roles the way Henry Ford did).

  • How big a "big" company should be to get into this statistics?
    – Common Guy
    Dec 18, 2017 at 22:23
  • @CommonGuy - hard to say for sure from the rest of the essay but a reasonable cutoff should work (Dow index members? Top 100?). Ideally, the companies should be chosen by where top school graduates chose to be employed based on essay content; but I seriously doubt that's possible to answer within a reasonable effort; and largest companies by valuation should be a useful enough proxy.
    – user5341
    Dec 18, 2017 at 22:42
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 19, 2017 at 8:56

2 Answers 2


List of big companies in the 1970s:

  1. General Motors
  2. Exxon Mobil
  3. Ford Motor
  4. General Electric
  5. Intl. Business Machines

General Motors

Google lists the founders as:

  • William C. Durant
    Born to a wealthy Massachusetts family of French descent, William dropped out of high school to work in his grandfather's lumberyard.

  • Frederic L. Smith
    Son of copper and lumber magnate and attended Lansing High School and the Michigan Military Academy

  • Charles Stewart Mott
    Graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1897 with an engineering degree

Exxon Mobil

Hived off from Standard Oil Company, the founders of that company were:

Ford Motor

  • Henry Ford
    Studied bookkeeping at Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business College in Detroit.

General Electric

This one's harder because it was merger of a number of companies but lets try...

  • Thomas Edison
    Fairly poor family, homeschooled, no college.

  • Charles A. Coffin
    No notes on his early education

  • Elihu Thomson
    Attended Central High School, which seems like a strange high school because it's the only high school in the United States that has the authority, granted by an Act of Assembly in 1849, to confer academic degrees upon its graduates.

    After graduation he got a job at the same school, became professor of chemistry and was later given the Chair of Chemistry in the same school.

  • Edwin J. Houston
    Also a graduate of Central High School of Philadelphia.He received both his Bachelor of Arts and master's degree from the same Central High School, where he then became professor of civil engineering for a short period before holding its chair of Natural Philosophy and Physical Geography.

Intl. Business Machines

Conclusion: Likely false. At least looking at the top 5 companies in the 1970's the majority of their nominal founders studied at some kind of 3rd level institution or got academic degrees despite that being quite rare when most of the companies were founded compared to today. While there were some dropouts or self-taught geniuses like Edison they were not, apparently, the majority.

Many worked in some kind of possibly-manual role for at least a little while but it's hard to tell, when a bio says "worked at his uncles shoe factory" or similar it's hard to tell if that was a job making shoes or as a manager at a family firm. Many came from money and likely wouldn't have had to work in any too-nasty jobs.

  • 2
    I have some quibbles but +1 for research effort! Thanks
    – user5341
    Dec 19, 2017 at 16:10

This is one of those narratives that can be manipulated by how one defines the 'founder'. Quite a few companies were started by one person, but did not become successful until someone else with a strong business acumen (and usually higher education) took over. An axiom of invention is that the invention is not truly successful until a great number of people use it and benefit from it.

Especially true in the late 19th and early 20th century, where tradesmen came up with an interesting invention, but lacked the business or financial acumen to make it truly successful.

Let's look at a few...

IBM was a combination of several related companies. Herman Hollerith invented an electric tabulating machine that used punch cards to record information, and the machine summed up the data. Hollerith was college educated. William Bundy invented a time punch machine for workers to record time in and time out. Charles Flint put the companies together, not because he was a brilliant inventor, but because he had the financial backing and the business acumen to see that the related inventions would work well together. He was also college educated.

To complicate the picture further, IBM did not really rise to prominence until Thomas Watson became the president. He oversaw their entrance into, and dominance of, the new electronic computers in the 1950's, culminating in the first scalable computer line with common programming languages, the 360. It was the concept of 'write program once, run on many types of computers' that made IBM's computers so successful, they were the first to do this. Previously, coding was done in machine language, specific to the machine.

The IBM of today is more Thomas Watson's creation than anyone.

General Electric. It began as Edison Electric, founded by Thomas Edison, to promote his DC power, aided by his patron, John Pierpoint Morgan. However, when Edison's DC power was found to be inferior to Tesla's AC power for sending the power over great distances, Morgan took control of the company (he had bought controlling interest when Edison kept asking for more investment), merged it with Thomas-Houston Electric who built early AC generators, and renamed it General Electric. Edison wasn't really the founder of GE, as his idea failed. Morgan built GE into a giant, by virtue of his financial resources and business expertise. Edison was not college educated, Morgan was.

Boeing was begun by William Boeing, who attended Yale but did not graduate. He had purchased an early Curtiss airplane, was taught to fly by Glenn Curtiss, but when he crashed it and Curtiss said it would be months before the repair parts would be available, Boeing figured he could build his own plane in less time. Based in Seattle, where a plentiful supply of spruce wood to build planes existed, Boeing built a line of amphibious aircraft, later a dedicated mail plane, and when he fielded an early airliner, the 247, he also started an airline to use that plane, and a tech company to build instruments and parts for it. When the Air Mail Act of 1934 forbade manufacturers from owning airlines, Boeing sold out and his three companies went their separate directions: Boeing aircraft, United Air Lines, and United Technologies. All three prosper today, but that prosperity has little to do with William Boeing.

Boeing the aircraft company did not really take off (especially after 247 airliner was smoked by Douglas with their DC3), until Claire Egtvedt (who was college educated, but hired on as a draftsman) took over as CEO, and pushed the company in the direction of larger planes. This led to the B17 and B29 bombers, and 307, 314, 377, 707, 727, 737, 747, etc... airliners.

Some of Boeing's success was situational. While the first jet liner was built by De Havilland (the Comet), Boeing built the first jet liner that didn't come apart in the air... an important distinction. De Havilland never really recovered from the Comet disaster, while Boeing rode the 707 to even greater heights.

So one can paint a misleading narrative that large companies were 'founded' by people without higher education, by simply being selective in who they define as 'founder'. In these cases, the person who can be said to be 'the founder' was not the person who made the company truly successful... that person almost always having a higher education degree.

The assertion that most companies in the US in the late 1800's and early 1900's were started by tradesmen without higher education is false... when you investigate how those companies became successful.

  • +1 for "Boeing built the first jet liner that didn't come apart in the air... an important distinction"
    – SIMEL
    Dec 20, 2017 at 9:08

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .