How I Moved From Someone Without a College Degree to a University Creator

Hampshire College

For years I have beat myself up for not having a college degree, and I have been embarrassed at times to admit it.  After all, nearly everyone I consult with has at “least” a Bachelor’s Degree and many have advanced degrees as well. So,  who am I to give advice to those running  multi-million and billion-dollar companies?

These are the questions I’ve found myself asking, even as I set up “University Programs” for various companies around the country.  Clearly, I have a stigma firmly planted in my mind, placed there somewhat by others and their biases but mostly by myself. Others don’t critique me any harder than I do myself. But, I have chosen not to live in a box, but rather free myself of boundaries and see the possibilities

Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s and a high school dropout is quoted “you earn your reputation by the things you do every day.

Why Not

I finished in the top five of my class in Indiana, but I never filled out a college application. Why? I’m not sure. My older sister went to college, but it wasn’t stressed for me to go. I just wanted to get at my life and make my stamp. It wasn’t about being driven – it just wasn’t for me at the time. I still have no desire.

In my early days, I was often asked where I went to school, but not so much anymore. People just assume I have. What is different now is my age, I assume, but more so the things I have accomplished despite my “lack of higher education.” Don’t get me wrong – I value college education. I have three kids, of which two are now in college, and my youngest will attend when it’s time.

But my education was no less valid, even though I obtained it outside the classroom. In fact, it is BECAUSE of my “educational path” — which was achieved while working my way from the ground up in various industries —  that has created such demand for my consulting work.  I have not built a consulting business on academic theory or communication strategies that I learned from a professor.  I didn’t have to learn how to motivate employees at various levels within an organization from a world renown coach. And I didn’t have to be taught the importance of a company’s culture.  I lived each of these roles, and it has been THIS experience that has proven the most profitable of all.

“Talk to any corporate leader and you’ll hear a story about the shortfalls of today’s MBA programs, especially in terms of the real-world needs of companies in a global marketplace. In recent years I have emphasized the need for—and demand for—a more broadly educated business student, one who is gifted with critical thinking and a global perspective and able to excel in this competitive environment.

In some cases, corporations may have already decided that graduate business education in America is too bloated and bureaucratic to compete effectively, and that only by establishing their own graduate and executive business programs can they find and mold the right employees to fill jobs and take the reins of leadership.” 

My Education

My own education began by watching my parents run their businesses and work for others. My education continued as I ran side jobs and worked multiple jobs to support myself. I learned first-hand through my years with Marriott, then by working for other owners as their second-in-command, and now in the past decade while running my own business. I learned my lessons, not while sitting in class, but through experience and life, both good and tough. I love books — I read all the time. I research; watch others; stay up on the local, national and global events; and of course, study my craft.

So who cares if I didn’t go to college! Now I am creating universities for my clients inside their walls despite not having that piece of paper. I am teaching my clients to apply the principles I have learned for creating authentic and productive work environments where every individual can reach his and her true potential. While my own educational path doesn’t mirror that of the “typical” C-Suite executive, it is no less valuable and it is exactly what I am now called upon to share and teach to others.

No, I don’t have a college degree, MBA or PhD, but rather a degree in life, and that doesn’t stop me. I bet many of you have a similar story. Don’t have regrets – share your experience and knowledge from your degree in life.

Degree of Life

Through my degree of life, I have created a system (ACC), a methodology (IMPACT) and  two processes (EMM and AofWC). These all come to life in the universities I create (customize) for companies and for my Certified Professional Culture Curator program (CPCC).

The perspective I bring is from a person who has worked her way from line level, to mid-level, to senior level and, finally, to an owner. The universities represent an understanding of a company’s goals, mission, vision, values and, most importantly, its workplace culture.

I ask a lot of questions. I dig into intentions, measurements, processes, accountability, collaboration and timelines to make the magic happen. The magic shows up in greater retention and engagement; fully executed strategies; improved work flow; and teams with agility, accountability and low turnover. Companies that get ‘it’, understand the cash (profit) come from their people. They don’t just talk about succession planning, engagement, culture and retention – they live and breathe it.

Results Driven

I am a simple person, not a stuffed shirt. I speak easily and transparently. I deliver results you can depend on. I don’t mince words. Companies hire me for the results they have heard I deliver. They recommend and rehire me. It no longer matters what school I graduated from, but rather that I consistently perform.

Shelley D. Smith is a best-selling author, consultant and founder and CEO of Premier Rapport consulting firm. Her experience over the past 35+ years has earned her a reputation as the creator of the culture inquiry in businesses all along the East Coast and beyond. Her success stems from the strength of her personal approach, asking tough questions to hone in on pain points and areas of growth opportunity.


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