Who says you need a college degree to be one of America’s top CEOs? Well, the law of averages does. While there are a few exceptions, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, a formal education is standard for the top tier of the business world. The path to becoming a Fortune 500 CEO can include more than a college degree, but make no mistake—it most often includes a stop at one (or two) of the country’s colleges or universities.
However, while a bachelor's degree and a graduate degree are common for top CEOs, there is no single major or graduate degree that they all share. Although business and computer science degrees are solidly represented, there are some less common inclusions. And of course, roughly half of the CEOs obtained an MBA.
Keep reading to discover the undergraduate and graduate degrees of some of the country’s top CEOs.
Mohamed El-Erian: Inside Track
Doug McMillon, President and CEO
Company: Walmart (WMT)
Degree(s): B.S. Business Administration from the University of Arkansas; MBA, University of Tulsa
McMillon, a native of Jonesboro, Ark., began his career at Walmart as a summer associate at the company’s distribution center. He was also an assistant manager and a buyer trainee. Before he took the reins as CEO of Walmart, McMillon led Walmart's Sam’s Club division, and then Walmart International.
Darren Woods, Chairman, and CEO
Company: ExxonMobil (XOM)
Degree(s): B.S. Electrical Engineering, Texas A&M; MBA, Northwestern University
Born in Wichita, Kan., Darren Woods has been a company man for ExxonMobil. Having been with the company since 1992, Woods has worked both domestically and internationally in positions for Exxon Company International, ExxonMobil Chemical Company, and ExxonMobil Refining and Supply Company. He was elected president of Exxon Mobil Corporation and a member of the board of directors in January 2016. He succeeded Rex Tillerson as chairman of the board and CEO in January 2017.
While there are a few exceptions, a formal education is standard for the top tier of the business world.
Warren Buffett, Chairman, and CEO
Company: Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A)
Degrees: B.S. Business Administration, University of Nebraska; MA, Economics, Columbia University
Investing is a family trait that Warren Buffet inherited from his father, a stockbroker and U.S. congressman, in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. At the age of 11, Buffet made his first investment, and by the age of 13, he was selling horse racing tip sheets and operating a paper delivery service. Buffett has a long history of operating success and an incredible investing track record that's made him one of the best value investors of all time.
Tim Cook, CEO
Company: Apple (AAPL)
Degrees: B.S. Industrial Engineering, Auburn University; MBA, Duke University
Born in Mobile, Ala., Cook’s prior stints include North American fulfillment director at IBM (IBM) and COO at Intelligent Electronics. He was also vice president of corporate materials at the Compaq Computer Corporation.
Dave Wichmann, CEO
Company: United Healthgroup (UNH)
Degree: B.S. Accounting, Illinois State University
Wichmann is another company man. Joining the health services and insurance company in 1988, Wichmann served as senior vice president of Corporate Development, president of United Healthcare and CFO of the company, before being named CEO in September 2017.
Brian S. Tyler, CEO
Company: McKesson (MCK)
Degrees: Ph.D. and master’s degree from the University of Chicago, Department of Economics; B.A. in Economics at the University of California Santa Cruz
Brian Tyler has over twenty years experience with McKesson, having served in a many leadership roles in the company. Brian became CEO in 2018 after having led several major businesses within McKesson. Tyler was also the Chief Operations Officer overseeing the company’s global business operations, (CEO) of McKesson Europe, as well as the President of McKesson U.S. Pharmaceutical and Specialty Health.
Larry Merlo, President, and CEO
Company: CVS Health (CVS)
Degree: B.A. Pharmacy, University of Pittsburgh, School of Pharmacy
Born and raised in the Greater Pittsburgh area, Merlo has been with CVS since the company's 1990 acquisition of Peoples Drug. Merlo made his way through the ranks at CVS before being named CEO in 2011. Directly preceding his appointment as CEO, Merlo was the President of CVS, a position he still holds.
Jeff Bezos, Founder, Chairman, and CEO
Company: Amazon (AMZN)
Degree: B.S. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Princeton University (summa cum laude)
Born in Albuquerque, N.M., Bezos and his family moved to Miami when he was a teenager. While in high school, Bezos launched his first business, the Dream Institute, which was an educational summer camp for fourth through sixth graders. Bezos also purchased The Washington Post in 2013.
Randall L. Stephenson, Chairman, and CEO
Company: AT&T (T)
Degrees: B.S. Accounting, University of Central Oklahoma; M.A. Accounting, University of Oklahoma
Stephenson started his career with the information technology company Southwestern Bell Telephone in 1982. He worked his way up the ranks, moving through a series of leadership positions in finance in the company, before being named chief financial officer in 2001, and then a chief operating officer in 2004. In 2007, AT&T announced that Stephenson would be chairman and CEO of the company.
Mary Barra, CEO
Company: General Motors (GM)
Degrees: B.S. Electrical Engineering, Kettering University; MBA, Stanford University
Born in Waterford, Mich., Barra’s first job at GM was as a co-op student in the Pontiac Motor Division. She has also been senior vice president and executive vice president of global product development, vice president of global human resources and vice president of global manufacturing engineering.
Sundar Pichai, CEO
Company: Alphabet (GOOG)
Degrees: B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur (IIT Kharagpur); Master’s degree in material sciences and engineering, Stanford University and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania
Pichai was born in Chennai, India and took over as CEO of Alphabet (Google's parent) in 2019 following the decision by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to step down. Pichai had been the CEO of Google since 2015.
With his education and early work experience at Applied Materials, Sundar joined Google in 2004 as a product manager. Pichai became a project manager leading initiatives on Google Chrome, Chrome OS, and Google Drive. Sundar oversaw product development for Gmail and Google Maps as well as the debut of Chrome OS and the Chromebook in 2011.
The Bottom Line
America’s top CEOs have degrees in a number of majors. Each leader has a strong academic background that helped them develop discipline, inventiveness, and analytical skills. Those who pursued an MBA increased their business acumen while honing their management and leadership skills.