In recent years, there’s been plenty of debate about the merits of college and whether, given the escalating price of a higher education — and the time required — it’s worth it. Certainly, dropping out of college proved an auspicious decision for Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell. The same could be said of Mark Zuckerberg, Ev Williams and Travis Kalanick.
WeWork co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann feels rather differently about the value of a college diploma. In fact, today, 15 years after enrolling in Baruch College in New York, Neumann — whose company is currently valued by its investors at roughly $17 billion — is both delivering the commencement address at the school and graduating, having recently completed the independent study he needed to finally receive his bachelor’s degree.
We were in touch with him late yesterday to ask why he made the effort.
TC: Did you know from the outset that you wanted to study business?
AN: When I moved to New York City from Israel, I came here with the idea to get a great job, have tons of fun and make a lot of money. Growing up in Israel, I watched a lot of American TV and I thought it’s what the “cool” people did, and I wanted the same thing. I thought this was the American dream — a fast-paced pursuit, a joyride — and it drove my desire to pursue a career in business. After I met [my wife] Rebekah, I realized that this was wrong. She told me that if I brought passion and intention together, it would lead me in the right direction and I would become genuinely happy. And then, the money would follow.
TC: Were you a good student? How would you describe your teenage self?
AN: When I started at Baruch in January 2002, I was almost 23 years old. I’d previously spent five years as an officer the Israeli Navy. I did what I thought you were supposed to do at that age — a little studying and a lot of trying to have fun.
TC: I think I’ve heard you say that you had the idea for WeWork while a college student, but a professor dissuaded you. If so, have you been in touch with that professor in subsequent years?
AN: In college, I entered an entrepreneurship competition and I submitted a concept like our current product WeLive that was called “concept living.” There were five rounds. The first round was a written proposal and in the second round you got to present, and I didn’t even get to present. The professor didn’t think I’d be able to raise enough money to change the way people live.
I think there’s an important lesson in that, when you’re a teacher, when you’re in a position of power, when you’re a leader, be very careful what you tell people they can’t do. Because they might just listen to you. And you may just be crushing a dream that might be very, very meaningful — not just to that person but to the world.
However, what he said to me influenced me to start WeWork first, and I would not have been able to launch WeLive without the success of WeWork.
TC: Why did you drop out?
AN: A month after my women’s shoe line failed, I started a new business: baby pants with kneepads to protect the child’s knees as the infant crawled on the floor. I called it Krawlers. I convinced one of my Baruch marketing professors to fly to China with me and help me out. We found a supplier and filled our first order, but when the samples finally arrived, they were a mess: the knee-pads were at the ankles; the sleeves were two inches too long. Two strikes in a row was a lot to take, so I struggled to make the company work. I shifted the business and turned it into a mass-market baby clothing company. For five years, I struggled making payroll each month to my small team of eight employees. It was a constant struggle, and with only four credits left, I dropped out of school, deciding to give every bit of my energy to my business.
TC: Your grandmother in Israel agreed to pay for your college when you decided to move to New York. Was she upset when you dropped out?
AN: My grandmother — Safta Esti — paid for my entire education, and she really wanted me to graduate. When I dropped out, she relentlessly kept asking for me to graduate. I’m graduating today, but even yesterday she was still pushing me to graduate.
But it wasn’t just her — some of my early employees, including a few who had just graduated from Baruch, also pressured me to graduate. It was important to everyone that I do this. I made a commitment to her that I would do this and I’m so happy that she’ll be there celebrating with me and my fellow graduates.
TC: How much independent study was left for you to complete after you left school and at what point did you resolve to do it?
I made the decision to go back last year, and I completed an independent study over the course of about four months. My grandmother had always wanted me to go back, and without the support she and my grandfather showed me through the years, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to attend college. I’m finally old enough to realize just how important family really is, and I couldn’t be happier to finally give my grandmother the joy of seeing her grandson make something of himself and graduate college.
TC: There’s a lot of debate about the value of a college education, including because of its soaring price tag. Given your success in recent years, how can you not conclude that a college diploma is overrated?
AN: I dropped out with just four credits left. I thought it wouldn’t matter because for me, school represented the experiences and connections that were made and I didn’t think a piece of paper was going to make a difference.
But there was never a doubt in mind that studying and education were important. Baruch College taught me how to write my first business plan, it gave me the opportunity to start my first business, it taught me my first public failure, when I didn’t make it to the second stage of that competition. I do believe that mentorship is something I did not get in school, and I don’t think it exists in school in a sufficient way. Mentorship plays such an important role in business — we know it’s a must — and I believe schools should embrace it in a much fuller way.
TC: What was the most rewarding aspect of your experience at Baruch?
Because most of the students were an average of four or five years younger than me, I learned about American culture at Baruch and I learned about millennials. And because Baruch is one of the most diverse colleges in the country, with more than 168 countries represented on campus, and because being Israeli, I came from not such a diverse country, I learned important lessons about diversity there. I had Palestinian friends at Baruch, where, growing up in Israel, that just didn’t exist. In my time at Baruch, I definitely got to hear a lot more opinions and I learned to listen and to be a lot more tolerant.
TC: You have young children. If, 10 to 15 years from now, one of them wants to drop out of college — inevitably pointing to the fact that their dad dropped out and did just fine — how might you react?
I hope that by the time my children go to college, college will have evolved into an experience that focuses more on being a good global citizen of the world. I hope that the experience of attending college will become so meaningful that no one who could help it could even imagine dropping out.