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We're proof you don't need a degree to be a success

We meet three businesswomen who never finished college. and andrea smith finds there are plenty of advantages...

The Leaving Cert is fast approaching, and the race for points and college places grows more intense with every passing year. While this year's crop of students are probably already up to their ears in authors, they should take a moment to dwell on one of Oscar Wilde's wisest quotes. "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

So what happens if you don't get the college course you've set your heart on, or when you get it, you realise that it isn't what you wanted? Or what if you never get to go to college at all? We spoke to three Irish women who are very successful in business, and who have risen to where they are today without having completed a degree.

Tara Sinnott, 30s, lives in LA where she runs her celebrity agency, Red Carpet Agency LLC.

I left school when I was 15, much to the disappointment of my parents. I was very unhappy in school for a couple of years before I left, and was a very determined young lady. I went to work full-time as a receptionist for my father Gerry in his printing company, Aungier Print, for a year. I was paid 70 Irish pounds a week, 30 of which was given to my parents as rent, which taught me at a very early age to appreciate what I had and how to budget my money.

Then I started working in the Olympia Theatre production office, and did every possible job until I climbed to the top and became the theatre manager. I left the Olympia after 10 years, and moved to the UK to spread my wings into new areas of entertainment, setting up bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Upon returning to Ireland, I used my PR and marketing skills to turn failing venues into hotspots and 'must-do' items on social calendars.

With all of that experience, I made a lot of contacts and even some very close celebrity friends. I set up an entertainment agency, Red Carpet, in 2008, which was Ireland's first agency to look specifically after UK and internationally based artists. It was hugely successful, but my heart was in LA, so the Red Carpet Agency in Ireland was sold and Red Carpet Agency LLC in LA was born.

 

Smart

It is only in recent years that I have regretted not going to college, especially this year when I first tried to get a visa to live in LA and realised I needed my Leaving Cert – thankfully, I finally secured one.

I never took time out to travel or live in different countries, as I had responsibilities, rent and bills. I learned a lot, but it was too much, too soon. When I was in my 20s, I was bothered by my lack of general knowledge, especially in subjects like history and geography, although now this is no longer an issue as I have furthered my knowledge in these areas. The advantage of not going to college is that I am incredibly street-smart as I grew up very, very fast. I learned a massive amount and was blessed with the teaching and work ethic that I was shown. I don't think I would have been as successful as I have been if I hadn't started working as early as I did. It takes time to figure things out, so I would advise people to take their time, not to put pressure on themselves, and to enjoy their youth.

Tracy Cull, 40s, is business development manager for United Biscuits Snackfoods. Married to Peter, she has two children, Louis, 15, and Grace, 8.

When I left school in 1986, I did a one-year community care course at Ballyfermot Senior College, after which I worked full-time in the cash

office in Dunnes Stores, Kilnamanagh. I moved to London in August 1988 on a one-way flight ticket, with no plan, no job lined up, and a very temporary place to stay on a friend's floor, much to the shock and horror of my parents. I managed to secure a maternity cover position at United Biscuits through a recruitment agency, initially working as a sales statistics assistant at the lowest grade within the company, running reports for the sales managers.

I was made permanent, and got an internal position supporting one of the account managers as an account co-ordinator, a role I carried out for about 10 years. I was then promoted to account executive, and in 2008, was delighted to be offered the opportunity to move home to work at the Dublin office that United Biscuits had opened in 2004. As business development manager, I work in the sales team, managing two accounts of my own and supporting one of our managers on two others.

Having worked for the company for 25 years this September, I'm most proud of the fact that I've managed to find and sustain a career within the same company that I really enjoy, while achieving a good work/life balance. I think the benefits of not studying for a degree came in terms of gaining both life and work experience.

 

Tenacity

I guess it's really about having a positive outlook and getting out there and starting at the bottom if needs be, as you never know where these things will lead you. I'd say the disadvantages are that I have often felt a little insecure and inadequate in the company of others who had been through university and gained degrees, particularly in the area of business and marketing. With or without a degree, I think the best predictors of success in business are good communication skills, tenacity, conscientiousness, dedication, and an ability to work as a team while being a strong leader and strategist.

Marissa Carter, 30s, is the owner of Carter Beauty in Blackrock, and creator of Cocoa Brown tan, www.cocoabrown.ie. She is married to Ronan, and they have a one-year-old son, Charlie.

After I left school, I started a four-year management and marketing with French degree in DIT, Aungier Street. I felt trapped, so decided to take a year out after first year, but I never went back. I got a job working in the office of a beauty school in the city centre. As part of my salary remuneration, I was given the opportunity to take the part-time beauty course, and I used to help out in the beauty salon, so I was immersed in that world and loved it.

I started to feel left out because my friends were all having so much fun in college while I was working. I used to take time off work to go on rag trips with them, and had a fake student card I'd flash around. I also regretted not continuing with college because, in the early days, I felt my CV wasn't what I wanted it to be. I had no way of knowing I would start my own business and that it would be a success. I have another confession. When I got a job working for a beauty distribution company, I failed to mention that I didn't complete my degree on my CV. Aidan, if you're reading this, I'm sorry!

I opened a beauty salon in Blackrock, Carter Beauty, in 2009, which employs six people and has a reputation as one of the best places to go for HD Brows and spray tanning. Last year, I created my own brand of fake tanning products, Cocoa Brown, which are now available in just under 1,000 pharmacies nationwide.

As I had no real education on how to run a business, I learned the hard way a lot of the time, through experience and my mistakes.

My advice to people embarking on college is that there's plenty of time to grow up and be successful. Enjoy your college years and don't be too hard on yourself if you don't get the exact college course you want.

I have found that if you really want something and are persistent, you will find a way, even if it's not the most direct path.


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