Who says you need a college degree to be one of America’s top chief executive officers (CEOs)? Well, the law of averages does. While there are a few exceptions, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, having a formal education is standard requirement 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 often includes a stop at one (or two) of the country’s colleges or universities.
While a bachelor's 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 a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Keep reading to discover the undergraduate and graduate degrees of some of the country’s top CEOs.
- Undergraduate and graduate degrees are common for some of the world's top CEOs.
- Many CEOs earn an MBA which hones their business acumen while helping build a foundation of management and leadership skills.
- Notable exceptions to this rule include Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
Doug McMillon: President and CEO
- Company: Walmart (WMT)
- Undergraduate Degree: B.S. Business Administration, University of Arkansas
- Graduate Degree: MBA, University of Tulsa
A native of Jonesboro, Arkansas, McMillan 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 the company's Sam’s Club division, and then Walmart International. McMillon is also a member of the Business Roundtable and serves on a number of boards including the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.
Darren Woods: Chair and CEO
- Company: ExxonMobil (XOM)
- Undergraduate Degree: B.S. Electrical Engineering, Texas A&M
- Graduate Degree: MBA, Northwestern University
Born in Wichita, Kansas., Darren Woods has a long history with ExxonMobil. Woods joined the company in 1992, working 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 and a member of the board of directors in January 2016. He succeeded Rex Tillerson as chair of the board and CEO in January 2017.
While there are a few exceptions, having a formal education is standard for the top tier of the business world.
Warren Buffett: Chair and CEO
- Company: Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A)
- Undergraduate Degree: B.S. Business Administration, University of Nebraska
- Graduate Degree: M.A., Economics, Columbia University
Almost everyone has heard of Warren Buffett, the man behind Berkshire Hathaway. Investing is a family trait that Buffett inherited in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska from his father, a stockbroker and U.S. congressman. At the age of 11, Buffett 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)
- Undergraduate Degree: B.S. Industrial Engineering, Auburn University
- Graduate Degree: MBA, Duke University
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Tim Cook took the reins as head of Apple in August 2011. Before joining the company, he served as the North American fulfillment director at IBM (IBM) and as chief operating officer (COO) at Intelligent Electronics. He was also vice president of corporate materials at Compaq Computer Corporation.
Dave Wichmann: CEO
- Company: Unitedhealth Group (UNH)
- Undergraduate Degree: B.S. Accounting, Illinois State University
Dave Wichmann is another company man. Joining the health services and insurance company in 1988, Wichmann served as senior vice president of Corporate Development, president and chief financial officer (CFO) of the company, before being named CEO in September 2017.
Brian S. Tyler: CEO
- Company: McKesson (MCK)
- Undergraduate Degrees: B.A. Economics, University of California Santa Cruz
- Graduate and Post-Graduate Degrees: Master's and Ph.D. Economics from the University of Chicago
Brian Tyler has over twenty years of experience with McKesson, having served in many leadership roles. Tyler became CEO in 2018 after having led several major businesses within McKesson. He was also the COO, overseeing the company’s global business operations, CEO of McKesson Europe, as well as president of McKesson U.S. Pharmaceutical and Specialty Health.
Mohamed El-Erian: Inside Track
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, Larry Merlo has been with CVS since the company acquired Peoples Drug in 1990. Merlo made his way through the ranks at CVS before being named CEO in 2011. Merlo was president of CVS—a position he still holds—directly preceding his appointment as CEO.
Jeff Bezos, Founder: Chair, and CEO
- Company: Amazon (AMZN)
- Degree: B.S. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Princeton University
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Jeff Bezos and his family moved to Miami when he was a teenager. Bezos launched his first business, the Dream Institute—an educational summer camp for fourth through sixth graders—while he was still in high school. Bezos also purchased The Washington Post in 2013.
Randall L. Stephenson: Chair and CEO
- Company: AT&T (T)
- Undergraduate Degree: B.S. Accounting, University of Central Oklahoma
- Graduate Degree: M.A. Accounting, University of Oklahoma
Randall L. 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 CFO in 2001, and then COO in 2004. In 2007, AT&T announced that Stephenson would assume the roles of chair and CEO of the company.
Mary Barra: CEO
- Company: General Motors (GM)
- Degree: B.S. Electrical Engineering, Kettering University
- Graduate Degree: MBA, Stanford University
Born in Waterford, Michigan, Mary Barra’s first job at GM was as a co-op student in the Pontiac Motor Division. She was also senior vice president (SVP) and executive vice president (EVP) of global product development, vice president of global human resources, and vice president of the company's global manufacturing engineering division.
Sundar Pichai, CEO
- Company: Alphabet (GOOG)
- Undergraduate Degree: B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur
- Graduate Degrees: Master’s in material sciences and engineering, Stanford University and MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania
Pichai was born in Chennai, India, and took over as CEO of Google's parent Alphabet in 2019 following the decision by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to step down. Pichai was the CEO of Google since 2015. With his education and early work experience at Applied Materials, Pichai joined Google in 2004 as a product manager. Pichai became a project manager leading initiatives on Google Chrome, Chrome OS, and Google Drive. He 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.