How an ex-bartender now earns more than $150,000 working in AI - without a bachelor’s degree

Morgan Smith
Hannah Maruyama earns $US100,000 working in AI without a bachelor degree.
Hannah Maruyama earns $US100,000 working in AI without a bachelor degree. Credit: Instagram

Hannah Maruyama took her first college class when she was 16 — and quickly decided she never wanted to go back.

She enrolled part-time at Georgia Southern University in Savannah as a high school junior at the encouragement of one of her teachers.

“He could tell I was bored in high school, but I didn’t find college much more stimulating, either,” Maruyama, now 29, tells CNBC Make It.

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“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to go into debt for this?’”

She left Georgia Southern after a couple of semesters.

For a while, Maruyama thought her career options without a college degree would be limited to low-wage jobs or becoming an entrepreneur.

Throughout her 20s she worked as a lifeguard, bartender and even a deckhand on a dolphin-watching boat, never earning more than $US30,000 a year.

Now on the cusp of turning 30, Maruyama is making over $US100,000 ($155,000) working in AI without a bachelor’s degree and coaching 16-to-20-year-olds on how to design their own degree-free careers.

Tattooing to tech

In 2018, Maruyama and her husband Ryan moved from Savannah to Honolulu, Hawaii to pursue their childhood dream jobs: becoming a cosmetic tattoo artist and a firefighter.

“I saw a documentary in school about a woman in Saudi Arabia that did cosmetic tattoos for women who had been acid burned and I always thought it was the most amazing thing,” she recalls.

Cosmetic tattoo artists, who need to complete classes and acquire a license, tattoo permanent makeup and can camouflage bald patches and tattoo full scalps to create the appearance of hair.

Maruyama obtained her cosmetic tattoo artist license in 2018 while living in Savannah.

The couple opened their own cosmetic tattoo studio, Yama Studios, in Honolulu at the end of 2018, taking turns running the shop outside their day jobs.

Ryan worked at the Honolulu Fire Department while Maruyama worked full time at a call centre for a tourism company.

Most mornings, she would wake up at 4.30 am and commute to her call centre gig where she’d work from 6 am until 3 pm, come home, and then work at Yama Studios from 5 to 10 pm.

“I loved it, but it was a grind,” Maruyama recalls.

“I’d curl up under my desk at the call centre if I had time before my shift and take a quick nap because I was that tired.”

Hannah Maruyama earns US$100,000 working in AI without a bachelor degree.
Hannah Maruyama earns US$100,000 working in AI without a bachelor degree. Credit: Instagram

Then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The Maruyamas had to shut down Yama Studios, and Hannah was furloughed from her job at the call centre, with no definite timeline as to when the job would return.

“At that point, I knew it was time to look for a new job,” she says.

“We had two rents to pay, on our house and the studio, and Hawaii isn’t cheap.”

Most of the open jobs Maruyama saw online were in tech and required skills she had never heard of.

“Comp TIA, AWS, CISSP, all these different acronyms were foreign to me,” she recalls.

“But I spent hours on Reddit, Quora, all of these different internet forums reading up on which tech certifications were popular right now and could help me find a job.”

She landed on becoming a Salesforce certified administrator, a certification that would take about four weeks to complete, and promised — according to what she read on Reddit — to pay at least $US70,000, more than double what Maruyama was earning at the call centre.

Salesforce’s course cost about $US300 and took Maruyama all of April 2020 to finish. Three months later, she landed her first tech job as a remote Salesforce developer at a business management consulting firm in Honolulu. The role paid $US70,000.

Most of the jobs Maruyama applied for did not require a bachelor’s degree and instead emphasised the technical and soft skills needed to fulfill the job’s responsibilities.

“Even if I didn’t meet the educational requirements, I applied and would note in my application or during the interview that I’ll learn anything I need to as quickly as I can,” she says.

“I think the exact phrase I used was, ‘I’m a shiny new penny!’”

At the same time, Maruyama started sharing her experience looking for — and landing — a job without a college degree on TikTok under the username @degreefree.

The videos received upwards of 500,000 views each and the comments were flooded with teens and 20-somethings asking Maruyama for advice on carving out a career path without college.

“People loved the content, it just took off,” she says.

“I remember staring at my phone, watching the likes and comments roll in and thinking, ‘There’s something here.’”

Helping others find degree-free careers

In October 2021, the Maruyamas permanently closed Yama Studios and in November launched Degree Free, an online platform offering career coaching and free educational resources to young people interested in careers that don’t require a college degree.

That same month, Maruyama left her job at the business consulting firm and joined Neo License, a startup that builds AI software, as their head of operations, a job that came with a $US100,000 salary.

“I could see there was a ceiling at the company that I was at and thought I would have more hands-on experience and a greater impact working for a startup,” Maruyama says, adding that consistent upskilling has been “the biggest advantage” in helping her advance her tech career.

She now has certifications in data analytics and project management, among others.

The Maruyamas left Honolulu for Houston in 2022, citing lower taxes and cost of living.

Hannah continues to work remotely at Neo License full time while Ryan left his firefighting career to run Degree Free.

By all measures, the move has paid off: In 2023, Degree Free generated about $128,000 (almost $200,000) in profit from its coaching services and brand partnerships, which the Maruyamas share evenly, according to financial documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.

Maruyama says it’s a far cry from where she thought she’d end up in her career 10 years ago.

“Growing up, I was often told that college was the end-all-be-all, that you couldn’t be successful without it,” she says.

“But that’s just not the world we live in anymore. There are a million different degree-free paths you can explore and I count myself lucky to have found one that makes me really, really happy.”



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