What 17 Successful People Did Their First Year Out Of College

OPRAH WINFREY  Promotional photo of US TV presenter in 1989. Photo Harpo/King World

By Aaron Taube

Many successful people count the first year after college as a defining moment in their young careers.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk founded his first company during that time; Stephen King published a short story that would later become a movie; and Sheryl Sandberg learned she wanted to pursue a career in business instead of law.

But while these people enjoyed success from the moment they left campus, others initially experienced frustration.

For instance, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's first post-grad job ended in failure when he was cut from a Canadian Football League team, and Albert Einstein spent his first two years without any job at all.

As an example of the many directions the road to success can take, we chose to highlight what Oprah Winfrey, Carlos Slim, and 15 other fascinating and successful people did the first year after they left college.

What 17 Successful People Did Their First Year Out Of College
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What 17 Successful People Did Their First Year Out Of College

Einstein spent his first two years out of the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School without a full-time job, in large part because the professors whose classes he cut refused to recommend him for teaching posts.

Though Einstein's degree was for teaching physics and math, his first job came when his friend Marcel Grossmann hooked him up with a clerking job at the Swiss patent office in 1902.

Einstein's father died shortly afterward, thinking that his son was a failure.

Before he was "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment," Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was a backup defensive lineman on the University of Miami football team.

He tried to go pro after he graduated in 1995, but he was cut from the CFL's Calgary Stampeders two months into the season. "That was my absolute worst time," he later told The Hollywood Reporter.

Johnson responded by persuading his father to train him in the family business of professional wrestling soon after, and he made his World Wrestling Federation debut as Rocky Maivia the following year.

Shortly after giving a controversial commencement speech at Wellesley University, the future Secretary of State struck out for Alaska, where she spent a summer washing dishes at Mt. McKinley National Park and working in a salmon-processing factory.

Clinton wrote in her book "Living History" that the salmon processing job required her to "wear knee-high boots and stand in bloody water while removing guts from the salmon with a spoon."

She was ultimately fired for telling one of her supervisors that some of the fish looked bad, but she later joked that the work was great training for her time in Washington.

The following fall she enrolled at Yale Law School, where she met her future husband, Bill.

The SpaceX and Tesla CEO enrolled in Stanford University's PhD program for applied physics, but he left after two days to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities on the internet.

Later that year, he and his brother founded Zip2, a startup that sold online business directories and maps to media companies like The New York Times. Musk made $22 million in 1999 when the company was sold to Compaq for more than $300 million.

A year later, Musk's second startup, X.com, acquired the company that would later be known as PayPal.

Sandberg's thesis adviser and economics professor Larry Summers recruited her to be his assistant at the World Bank, where he took on the job of chief economist shortly after Sandberg graduated from Harvard in 1991.

There, Sandberg spent most of her time putting together data and helping Summers with his speeches and papers. In her book, "Lean In," Sandberg writes that she had originally intended to be a lawyer but that Lant Pritchett, another World Bank economist, persuaded her to go to business school instead.

As Pritchett told The Guardian earlier this year: "I tried to convince her that what lawyers did was get deals done for people who were making deals, and she should be in charge of the deals and have lawyers work for her. She should go and get a business degree that would prepare her to run the world. It took about three or four weeks to realize that this young woman was going to surpass me very fast."

Sandberg would work for Summers again after graduating from Harvard Business School, becoming his chief of staff while he served as Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

The man who would later be known as Puff Daddy (and P. Diddy, and Diddy) made a bet on his career in 1990 when he dropped out of Howard University to take a full-time talent scouting job at Uptown Records, where he had previously been interning.

In his first post-college job, Combs oversaw the career of Mary J. Blige, and, at age 22, he produced her hit album "What's the 411?"

That same year, Combs signed the young rapper Biggie Smalls, who would later be known as The Notorious B.I.G.

Combs returned to Howard in 2014 to receive an honorary degree and give a commencement speech.

Shortly after graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996, the future BuzzFeed founder went to work as a schoolteacher in New Orleans.

There, Peretti taught sixth graders how to use Microsoft Office, program games, and build websites.

He presented his lesson plans at technology and education conferences, which ultimately led him to pursue a master's degree at the MIT Media Lab.

It was there that he created his first viral hit, an email he wrote to Nike after it refused to print the word "sweatshop" on a pair of custom sneakers.

Oprah Winfrey left Tennessee State before graduating to anchor the 6 o'clock news at a Baltimore TV station in 1976. It was there that she met lifelong best friend Gayle King.

It was also a time of extreme difficulty for Winfrey. In 2011, she told The Baltimore Sun she was "humiliated" when she was demoted from the anchor job just seven months after starting — and that she was sexually harassed by disrespectful male coworkers.

But her time at WJZ was not without its silver linings. Winfrey learned the important lesson that she didn't want to be a reporter, and she got her first taste of the job that would make her famous during a five-year stint as co-host of the talk show "People Are Talking."

In 1984, Winfrey left Baltimore for the Windy City to host the half-hour morning talk show "AM Chicago." The program was later extended to an hour and renamed "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

The JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO spent his formative years in the Boston area, where he graduated from Tufts in 1978.

He spent the next two years working at the Boston consulting firm Management Analysis Center before enrolling at Harvard Business School.

Dimon would later look down on the industry as "substitute management," telling his biographer Duff McDonald that consultants could become "a disease for corporations."

After graduating from Boston College in 1993, the "Broad City" producer and "Parks and Recreation" star moved to Chicago for its world-renowned improv comedy scene.

There, she joined the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, which today runs three improv theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The improv shop also became an early stop in the careers of Aziz Ansari, Ed Helms, and Nick Kroll.

While in Chicago, Poehler met BFFL and frequent collaborator Tina Fey in a class at the ImprovOlympic Theater. Later, Fey would persuade Poehler to join her on "Saturday Night Live."

Because of his two-year Mormon mission, Romney was already a 24-year-old father when he became one of 12 people to enroll in Harvard's joint MBA/JD program in 1971.

NPR reports that the future Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential nominee stood out not only for his smarts, but for his conservative outlook at a time when Harvard was embroiled in anti-Vietnam demonstrations.

"He was living a life that almost seemed like a throwback to what the '60s and '70s counterculture had rebelled against," classmate Howard Brownstein told NPR, adding that Romney had a degree of self-awareness and a sense of humor about his straight-lacedness.

In the end, Romney's business degree won out over the law degree, and he went to work at Boston Consulting Group after graduation.

By the time Carlos Slim graduated from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 1961, the future Mexican magnate already had something of a business resume.

His father, who owned a general store in Mexico City, taught him the basics of business, and Slim began investing when he was 12 years old.

After college, he became a stockbroker alongside a group of friends who called themselves "Los Casabolseros," Spanish for "The Stock Market Boys." While his friends were partiers, the more reserved Slim remained focus on his desire to own companies.

In 1965, at age 25, Slim created the holding company Inversora Bursátil and acquired the bottling company Jarritos del Sur. Today, he owns more than 200 companies and is worth about $80 billion, making him the world's richest person.

While it perhaps wasn't always obvious that Mary Barra was destined to run the company, General Motors has been a part of her life for almost all of it.

Her father spent 40 years working as a die maker at a GM plant, and she attended college at the General Motors Institute. At GMI, the company paid her tuition in exchange for her working for them half the year. By 18, she was inspecting hood and fender parts at a Pontiac factory.

Barra graduated from General Motors Institute in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering and took an engineering job with the company at a Pontiac Fiero plant.

The company soon noticed her potential as a manager and gave her a fellowship to attend business school at Stanford University.

Tim Lee, Barra's manager at the Fiero plant and later the company's head of global manufacturing, told Fortune he knew Barra would be successful from the very beginning.

"She was determined, confident and passionate, and these traits continue to define her and drive her," he said.

The current McDonald's CEO earned an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University in 1984 and went to work in the defense systems department of the aerospace company Northrop Grumman shortly after.

Six years later, McDonald's contacted him about an engineering job, but Thompson thought he was being called by a recruiter from McDonnell Douglas, a rival defense contractor. 

After Thompson asked when he should come to McDonnell Douglas' St. Louis headquarters for the interview, the recruiter explained that the job was with McDonald's Hamburgers. Thompson famously responded, "You got the wrong guy, because I'm not flipping hamburgers for anybody."

Following a visit with a McDonald's engineer, Thompson ultimately took a job with the company designing robotic equipment for food transportation.

The German chancellor applied to be an assistant professor at an engineering school in East Berlin, but she was rejected after she told the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, that she would not serve as an informant on her coworkers.

Instead, she entered the German Academy of Sciences, where she spent 12 years earning a doctoral degree in quantum chemistry and working as a research associate.

A 2013 Businessweek story notes that the decision proved crucial to Merkel's future career as a politician, given how Stasi ties led to the downfall of fellow East German politician Wolfgang Schnur.

It was also while at the German Academy of Sciences that Merkel first became active in politics and met her second (and current) husband, Joachim Sauer. 

King earned his teaching certificate shortly after graduating from the University of Maine in 1970, but he couldn't find a job by the time school started that fall.

Instead, he worked at an industrial laundry facility in Maine, supplementing his income with his college girlfriend's student loans and the occasional sale of a short story to a men's magazine.

One of those short stories, "Graveyard Shift," was made into a movie of the same name 20 years later.

The following year, King and his girlfriend Tabitha Spruce were married, and King started working as a high school English teacher at the Hampden Academy in Maine. The job paid $6,400 a year.

King quit after two years, when the paperback sale of "Carrie" allowed him to write full time.

The future Supreme Court justice moved to Oklahoma after graduating from Cornell in 1954 to be with her husband, Martin, who was drafted to the Army and stationed at Fort Sill.

While working as a clerk at the local Social Security office, Ginsburg became pregnant with their first child, Jane. However, her supervisors demoted her after she told them she was with child.

Later in life, she would hide the fact that she was pregnant from her colleagues while working as a professor at Rutgers Law School.

After Martin Ginsburg was discharged from the Army, the couple moved to Boston, where they both attended Harvard Law School.

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