College graduates aren’t always prepared for the real world, and conventional education seems to be failing us. Alternative curriculum programs like App Academy, Dev Bootcamp, and Praxis have been working to redesign the educational experience; to prepare young people with real skills and real work experience that businesses need.

“Who is in the driver’s seat when it comes to your goals, skills, ideas, interests, and experiences?” Isaac Morehouse, founder of Praxis, asked us. “You can either move forward under your own direction, or get pulled wherever the current takes you. Those who are conscious of this fact and are explicitly setting out to do the things of most value to themselves rarely find college to be the only or best choice. If you go to college, I can’t really tell whether you’re actively in control of your journey. Everyone does that. It’s actually harder to not go that route today. Doing something different sends a strong signal that you have taken ownership of your life. That’s exciting.”

We sat down with some of the most influential CEO’s and entrepreneurs in the world to find out what they really think about the future for alternatively educated professionals and what they look for in potential hires, whether they have a college degree or not.

1. As college degrees become ubiquitous, what should young people do to stand out from the crowd on the job market?

Doug Ulman, CEO of Livestrong: Any experience you can get outside of your classes is significant. Whether it’s in a school club, an internship, volunteer work or otherwise, these extra opportunities will help give job-seekers an edge. Use a personal passion to start something as I did with the Ulman Cancer Fund after seeing a need for a way to connect young adults with cancer. Don’t be afraid to try different things or shy away from diverse ranges of experiences. When I was younger, I worked in a department store, a concert venue, a soccer camp and interned on a presidential campaign. All of these experiences came together to help shape who I am today.

Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of Gibson: Motivation and a sense of direction that is consistent with the position being applied for and the company’s strategy will distinguish candidates.  As an employer I would look to see if the college degree was an important step in the candidate’s goal directed journey, and that the journey would make them a great contributor for the company. Many people go to college because it is the right thing to do.  The courses they take, the major they chose seems like an afterthought, or a coincidence.  Even when competing with great grades, a candidate with a passion and direction will can stand out.

Steven Spielberg snuck into Hollywood studios and eventually found work for little or no money when he was very young.  He was driven by his quest for a career in the industry and showed his willingness to do extraordinary things to get into the business. Show high levels of motivation, passion and a clear direction and you will stand out.

David Sypniewski, CEO of Skora Running: Show initiative. With companies and startups getting leaner, every team member must be able and willing to seek out opportunities and seize them.

Ingrid Vanderveldt, Entrepreneur in Residence @ DELL: When I am looking for people that I want to invest in, hire and/or work with- there are a few items that I really look for:

  • Integrity. Does this person have a reputation for doing and being who they say.
  • Trust. The above is all related to the trust factor as to have any great relationship—it always comes down to trust.
  • Going above/ beyond. What is it that stands out about this person that allows me to see that they are willing to do “what it takes” (within reason) to get the job done?
  • Chemistry. Do people/ do I enjoy being around them?  Is this someone I want to be in the battlefield with me/ us handling what can inevitably be tough situations?
  • Vision & Service.  What is the bigger picture of where they want to go?  Does what we are doing align/ support and help that person move closer to what they want to do?

DeLisa Alexander, Chief People Officer at Red Hat: When you’re interviewing for an entry-level role and don’t yet have substantial experience in that field, there are a few ways to differentiate yourself from other candidates:

  • Do your homework about the company’s mission, culture, and the job requirements. Learn who they are, what they stand for, what their business is, what market they are trying to address, what it’s like to work there, and who their target customers are. Read up on any concepts or skills mentioned in the job description that you don’t feel comfortable talking about.
  • Pursue the right opportunities. Look carefully at the job description and what traits the hiring manager is looking for. If they need someone to execute on a strategy they’ve already developed, and you’re energized by exploring new ideas and possibilities, this probably isn’t the right opportunity.
  • Demonstrate curiosity, passion, flexibility, and willingness to learn on the job. To show that you have the potential to grow and thrive in growing company or changing industry, ask a lot of questions about what the hiring manager envisions for this role, what kinds of projects people in similar roles are involved with, what the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities include, and how the job will contribute to the strategy and mission of the company.

2. The traditional education model isn’t known for fostering entrepreneurial tendencies…what are some out of the box things you recommend for wannabe entrepreneurs?

Doug Ulman: There are a lot of opportunities out there for young entrepreneurs to learn and grow through experience outside of business classes. Many universities now have entrepreneurial programs and social innovation challenges. These are designed to help students get into the entrepreneurial mindset and also to understand the process from idea to product.  At LIVESTRONG this year we have our own social innovation challenge, The Big C competition, which we have promoted heavily through social media.  I would tell students to follow what is happening on venture capital blogs and also to use old fashioned techniques including conducting informational interviews with entrepreneurs, getting an internship at a VC firm or even starting a think tank with friends to come up with a business plan around a new idea. It is remarkable how many companies are sprouting up out of campus-based social innovation studies.

Henry Juszkiewicz: Two words:  Leadership and ownership.  Michael Dell started his business when he was still in school.  Steve Jobs ran an orchard well before starting Apple.  Successful entrepreneurs are driven to lead ventures and businesses, and are willing to sacrifice and risk their short term comfort to achieve their ambitions. Running a business of some kind where you deal with and motivate people to work with you in any way, shape or form is my strong recommendation.  It will define you. An even more defining moment is when you fail at your venture and you pick up the pieces and do so again.

David Sypniewski: Work, intern, or even volunteer at startup for a few months. The lessons learned will be invaluable and help prepare you for the reality of entrepreneurship.

Ingrid Vanderveldt: Don’t wait to get “all the experience you think you need to start a business”.  Just start. Get a mentor.

DeLisa Alexander: Develop your collaboration skills. While MBA programs frequently focus on the “group project,” many undergrand programs appear to discourage collaboration.  Students are required to sign honor codes that can be understood to equate collaboration with plagiarism or cheating. By reducing opportunities for students to voluntarily contribute to each others’ work, we limit their opportunities to learn some important skills. One great way to experience collaboration where sharing is encouraged is by participating in an open source project such as the Fedora community.

Focus on your strengths. A lot of our education model is aimed at building proficiency in areas of weakness rather than putting energy into developing natural strengths. Students hear that they need to be “well-rounded,” although from my experience, most serial entrepreneurs and top performers are “spiky” leaders: phenomenally skilled in one or two areas and well below average in many others. Spend most of your energy building on your strengths—the things you both love to do and naturally excel at doing. When it comes to your weaknesses, figure out where they are holding you back from success, and devote just enough time and effort to remedying that.  Better yet, create a network of people who have strengths that are different from yours and partner with them.

3. Would you hire someone without a degree, and if so, what would they need instead?

Doug Ulman: Sometimes the best education does not come from classrooms. We love to see people apply that have prior experience in the field, and especially those that are passionate about our mission. If you are committed and show us that you can help us improve the lives of people affected by cancer with or without a degree, we’d be happy to see your application. That being said, a collegiate experience is one I don’t recommend missing because of all it can do for you not only in your education, but as a person. The friends and connections that one makes, both inside and outside of the classroom, I believe will serve you well later in life.

Henry Juszkiewicz: I would and have hired people without a degree, and some have grown to be highly successful.  Most, however, had to start at a lower level in the organization.  The successful ones had passion, tenacity and were singularly self-directed and quickly rose.

What is important to any person is to get a stage to perform on.  If you do not have the ability to get on the stage immediately, like Steven Spielberg, you find a way to get close and push to get to the stage.  The ability to take a “job in the mail room” is truer than most people believe.

David Sypniewski: Absolutely. Again, showing tenacity for ‘getting it done’. The ability to think with the left and right side of the brain and express those ideas – those traits build great teams.

Ingrid Vanderveldt: Yes—I do and I have.  I am looking for all the things mentioned in the first question.  I hire great, smart, driven people I enjoy being around.  If they are great listeners, I know with the right support they will learn and grow.

DeLisa Alexander: There’s some confusion around this point in the media. For many years, a degree represented a point of differentiation between candidates. Fast forward to today—when most candidates, in the tech industry in particular, have degrees—a single degree no longer distinguishes someone from the competition. Often we hear people asking whether degrees are now useless, particularly given the rising cost of education. But I would argue that this shift has instead made a degree become a point of parity—one of those things that doesn’t give you any special advantage over your competition, but that’s likely to be a barrier to entry if you lack it. The more advanced someone is in their career, the less relevant a degree becomes.

Just be sure to understand it’s a starting point, not a golden ticket, and choose your investment wisely.

4. What’s one thing young people need to be prepared for that they’re not getting in HS or college?

Doug Ulman: Life doesn’t always go by your plan. In high school and college, you have your schedule, your syllabus, your deadlines and advisers in place to help you keep on track. Sometimes though, unexpected events occur. I was diagnosed with cancer three times while I was in college and certainly did not plan for that. You need to be ready for anything that comes your way, keep a positive attitude and be sure that you keep your personal support system in place to lift you over any barrier that may arise.

Henry Juszkiewicz: I think there are two things.  The first and one of my passions is marketing wisdom.  What is taught in schools is the tactics and mechanics of marketing and selling.  Advertising 101.  What marketing is truly about is understanding your customer in a profound way and then being able to serve that customer.

The second is related to the first.  The world is about people and how they act individually and in groups.  People as we know them have been around for at least 100,000 years.  Yet, every new generation believes they are different, the world is different.  Yes there are new technologies that impact people, but at our core we are not so different from generations past.  It is how people think and act that allows anyone to succeed.  Understanding how society, people, and you yourself work will give you a huge advantage.  Warren Buffet read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie over and over again.  He considered these skills essential to success.

Schools and curriculums too often reduce things to simplistic rules.  Life is wonderfully more rich and complex than text books would have you believe.  Understanding this will empower you.

David Sypniewski: Project management skills that go beyond team work, but the ability to plan, test, execute, and then amplify initiatives while managing resources.

Ingrid Vanderveldt: That no one is going to do the thing you really want to do for you. That when you see really successful people it’s really rare that the person just “made it”. Instead anyone who has been wildly successful in life has done it because instead of going out, partying 24/7 they instead focused on achieving their goals. It’s also critically important to realize that 99.9% of the time, most people will say “no” to you/your idea. It’s just part of the process.  So staying focused, grounded and persevering through all the walls is simply a process of “earning your stripes” as a successful entrepreneur/ human being.

DeLisa Alexander: Success depends on resilience—learning to pick yourself up after a failure or mistake, generate your own energy, and move on with your spirit intact.  Today, we reward a child’s participation versus excellence so much in school and sports that I fear that we are not cultivating resilience in our school programs today.

5. What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Doug Ulman: Don’t let “can’t” get in the way of a good idea. If you think of a good idea, let your creativity flow and find partners that will help along the way and make it happen. There’s no reason to say that just because other people haven’t figured out a solution to a problem that you can’t.

Henry Juszkiewicz: Life will throw hurdles in your path.  You can have enormous stress; there will be times when you lose.  Never stop striving for more and better.  Always believe in yourself (do not expect others to).   Never give up.

Remember, in the end it is the journey which is truly rewarding. I think more so than the goal.

David Sypniewski: Be ready to work harder than you’ve ever imagined. Stock up on perseverance and don’t listen to the nay-sayers.

Ingrid Vanderveldt: Get a mentor and follow your dream.

DeLisa Alexander: Build your network, and in particular, a community of people who will support and advise you along the way. Choose people who think differently about the world than you do. Get curious about their perspective, especially when you disagree. Diversity of thought will help you be more innovative and creative.