In many cases, extremely wealthy individuals already come from wealth. After all, it is a whole lot easier to start your own company if you have a super-sized trust fund as capital, or possible to make a few wise investments if you have an inheritance to wager in the stock market. Wealth can help individuals obtain even more wealth, and allow them to add to the family fortune.
However, that doesn’t mean that all successful individuals come from affluent backgrounds. There are many, many examples of entrepreneurs and businessmen who started without two pennies to rub together, and through hard work and dedication managed to build themselves hugely successful businesses. They started with nothing and are now worth millions, or even billions, of dollars.
The individuals on this list have many traits in common – they’re willing to work harder than anyone else, they’re willing to take a risk on an idea they believe in, they’re willing to follow their gut even if everyone else is telling them they’ll never make it. And, of course, they all started from very humble backgrounds and had to raise themselves up by their bootstraps in order to make it – and make it they did.
Here are 15 extremely successful people who started with nothing. Talk about inspirational!
15. Howard Schultz
It’s easy to assume that Howard Schultz must have come from an affluent background. After all, he’s responsible for selling the world expensive lattes and caffeinated beverages that they don’t really need. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Schultz actually grew up in a low-income housing complex, but he always aspired to raise himself up from his surroundings. As he told the Mirror, “I knew the people on the other side had more resources, more money, happier families. And for some reasons, I don’t know why or how, I wanted to climb over that fence and achieve something beyond what people were saying was possible.” He went to college on a football scholarship, entered the workforce, and eventually took over a small coffee chain called Starbucks, which had around 60 shops at the time. He grew that chain to the international phenomenon it is now with tens of thousands of locations.
14. Oprah Winfrey
Nowadays Oprah Winfrey is an absolute legend, someone who managed to take a daytime talk show and transform it into a hugely profitable brand including a magazine, a television network, and countless other business ventures. However, she certainly didn’t have a trust fund to fall back on – she was born to an extremely poor family in rural Mississippi, and suffered countless tragedies while she was a young girl. Eventually, the determined Winfrey snagged a scholarship to Tennessee State University, and at just 19, was the first African-American television correspondent in the state. In the early 80s, she moved to Chicago to further her career on an AM talk show, and in 1986, got her own show – The Oprah Winfrey Show. The rest, as they say, is history. She was a millionaire by 32, when her hugely successful talk show went into syndication, and is now a multi-billionaire – and she’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
13. John Paul DeJoria
DeJoria was a first-generation American whose parents immigrated to America when he was just a baby. As his family struggled to make ends meet, DeJoria tried to help out the household by selling newspapers and Christmas cards when he was just a child. Despite his and his family’s efforts, DeJoria was eventually forced to enter the foster care system because his family could not support themselves. From there, he bounced around for many years, getting involved in crime, joining the military, and working as a regular employee for Redken Laboratories. Back when he barely had a few dollars to his name and was living out of his car, DeJoria snagged a $700 loan to create the John Paul Mitchell Systems. He believed in the product, and even though he had to make a lot of sacrifices, he went door-to-door selling his wares – and built a brand that is now worth multi-millions. As if that weren’t enough, he also expanded into the liquor industry and created Patron tequila, which most have heard of. DeJoria is now worth billions and dabbles in many industries, but just think – it all started with a teeny loan and a determined entrepreneur selling hair care products out of his car.
12. Do Won Chang
When Do Won Chang and his wife immigrated to America from Korea in 1981, he certainly didn’t have tons of cash in the bank to fund his new American lifestyle. No, Chang actually had to work three less than glamorous jobs (as a janitor, gas station attendant, and barista) to try to support himself and his wife in their new home. He put in long hours and worked endless shifts, and by 1984, the couple had enough saved to open up a small clothing store. Admirable, but certainly nothing that will propel you into millionaire status, right? Well, except that one tiny store ended up growing into the Forever 21 retail empire, which has hundreds of stores around the world and is worth billions. Chang’s daughters help with the company their father built, and the entrepreneurial immigrant couldn’t be more proud of his success story. As he told the LA Times, “Forever 21 gives hope to people who come here with almost nothing, and that is a reward that humbles me.”
11. J.K. Rowling
Okay, even if you aren’t a big reader, chances are you’ve heard of J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series is without question one of the most successful book series of all time. It is beloved by children and adults alike, and continues to grow in popularity because of the film franchise and the huge Harry Potter theme park based on the books. However, she didn’t write it while she was lounging around in luxury, being supported by family money. No – when she created the first book, she was an impoverished single mother living on welfare and struggling with depression over her situation in life. She was rejected several times when she pitched her first book, but eventually one publisher decided to take a risk on the unknown author – and it turned out to be their best business decision to date. She was the first author who officially became a billionaire simply due to her novels, although Rowling’s income frequently dips to below billionaire status because of how much the charitable writer gives away.
10. Leonardo Del Vecchio
This businessman certainly didn’t have an easy start in life. The young boy had four siblings, and because his widowed mother just couldn’t manage to support her young brood of children, Del Vecchio ended up growing up in an orphanage. He tried to support himself by working in a factory (where he was injured — factory work isn’t easy, and Del Vecchio lost part of his finger in an accident). However, one positive thing came from the situation – the factory he was working at made eyeglass frames, and it apparently sparked some inspiration, because he ended up opening a molding shop at just 23. A respectable living, but certainly not something that’ll earn you billions, right? Well, that shop ended up expanding and becoming the world’s largest prescription eyewear and sunglasses manufacturer, snagging deals with luxury brands like Oakley and Ray-Ban. Now, Del Vecchio is a comfortable multi-billionaire who doesn’t have to worry about injury on the factory floor anymore.
9. Shania Twain
There are plenty of musicians who didn’t exactly grow up in the lap of luxury, but Shania Twain’s story takes things to an entirely different level. The country superstar grew up in rural Canada, and her family was so poor that the young Shania would sing in bars in order to make money for food. The family struggled immensely and had a hard time moving beyond their poverty. Then, just as it was beginning to look like Twain’s career could actually take off, her mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident, and Twain moved back home to care for her siblings by performing at a resort. Through it all, she just kept performing and pursuing her passion, and though she didn’t become a superstar in her teenage years like many others in the industry today, she quickly became a country sensation. Now, she doesn’t have to worry about her family going hungry – she’s a best-selling artist with a net worth in the hundreds of millions. She’s gone through a lot of devastations over the years, including some issues with her voice, but she always continues to come out on top – and that kind of hustle and grit is what success is all about.
8. Richard Branson
School wasn’t exactly Richard Branson’s forte. The energetic Brit struggled academically, and ended up dropping out at a young age. For some, that would be a decision that led to a string of minimum wage jobs and a lifetime of financial struggle. Not for Richard Branson. The determined entrepreneur started a small music magazine aimed at students, and eventually turned that into a small record label (with the help of a loan – and not from the bank of mom and dad). The label – Virgin Records, chances are you’ve definitely heard of it – became a huge business, and Branson later ventured into the world of airlines and more. Now, he basically has enough money that he can invest in or fund whatever excites him, which is a pretty amazing way to live life. Branson himself has said that, if he had the funds to attend college and decided to go down that route, his life would have ended up looking very, very different.
7. Shahid Khan
Shahid Khan has quite the success story. When he was a teen, he immigrated to the United States from Pakistan to attend college at the University of Illinois. While he undoubtedly worked hard academically, he also needed to work hard in order to earn some money to support himself – so he made a measly $1.20 an hour as a dishwasher. It’s certainly not a glamorous job, but Khan was willing to do whatever it took to ensure his survival in the country. He continued with his never quit mentality, and is now the owner of Flex-N-Gate, and also an owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL and a Premier League soccer club. Many owners of huge, multi-million dollar companies and owners of professional sports teams are individuals who inherited masses of wealth through their families, and simply found something to spend it on. The fact that Khan’s money was all self-made makes him a huge success story.
6. Guy Laliberté
Laliberté didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth – he knew early on that he was a creative, so he started his career in the entertainment industry by playing the accordion, eating fire, and stilt-walking on the streets for whatever change people would give him. In 1987, he invested the little money he had by bringing a Quebec entertainment troupe to the Los Angeles Arts Festival. At the time, Laliberté didn’t even have enough money to buy them a return fare home. However, he believed in them, and saw something in them – and his instincts were right. That unknown Quebec troupe? Cirque du Soleil. Yeah, the hugely successful troupe that tours internationally and brings in the big bucks. Now, Laliberté isn’t performing on the streets for quarters – he’s the CEO of Cirque, and also makes some money as a professional poker player in his spare time. His gamble certainly paid off!
5. Ralph Lauren
Nowadays, Ralph Lauren is associated with luxury fashion — but he certainly didn’t grow up amongst the affluent clientele he sells to now. Lauren was raised in the Bronx, and dropped out of college to join the Army. His first entry into the fashion world wasn’t as a designer, but rather as a regular clerk working in retail at Brooks Brothers — he was selling ties to men. Some people might be content to stick to that position for years on end, but Lauren had bigger dreams. He eventually started to question whether his clientele would like the option of brighter ties with a slightly different, wider design. He believed in himself, pursued his entrepreneurial ideas, and within a year made $500,000 — just by selling ties! Lauren then expanded to create the Polo Ralph Lauren empire, and all the other lines involved with the Ralph Lauren brand. Now, he’s a hugely successful billionaire who shows no signs of slowing down.
4. Jan Koum
This entrepreneur came to the United States from his home country of Ukraine when he was a teenager — 16, to be specific. The Koum family struggled to make a living in their new country, living on food stamps and scrimping and saving. However, Koum was technologically savvy, and in 2009, ended up teaming up with Brian Acton to launch a messaging app designed to help people connect without the charges and restrictions text messaging can sometimes impose. They called it WhatsApp. Now, there are hundreds of millions of users of WhatsApp around the world, and with a buyout in the billions of dollars (and with Koum having a nearly 50% stake in the company), that catapults his net worth into the billions. One thing is for sure – no member of his family will have to use food stamps again with an income like that. It’s quite the success story and just proves that with hard work and perseverance dreams do come true.
3. Ursula Burns
Ursula Burns is a super inspirational woman who was facing a whole lot of odds — and overcame them all. She grew up in a housing project in New York, raised by a single mother. There was virtually no extra money kicking around, yet Burns’ mother was determined, always trying to ensure Ursula was attending good schools. Burns started at Xerox as an intern, and after hustling her way into a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering, eventually began moving her way up the ranks at Xerox. After over two decades with the company, Burns now has a very different title — CEO. That’s right — this powerful woman managed to work her way from an intern position to the very top of the corporate ladder. It just proves that not all CEOs come from wealthy families and get dropped right into the position — sometimes, it’s possible to pay your dues and work your way to the top.
2. Roman Abramovich
Today, you may recognize Roman Abramovich from his business dealings, or his involvement with the Chelsea Football Club (he owns it – no small investment). However, he didn’t come from a wealthy family. He was born in Russia, and at two, was orphaned. He ended up being raised by extended family members, but never really had much money. What he did have, however, was determination. After attending the Moscow Auto Transport Institute, he was inspired to start a small company that made plastic toys, and from there, created an oil company. He developed his business savvy and after years into his career, his company underwent a merger that put billions in Abramovich’s pocket. Now, he has enough funds to do just about anything, from starting a new company to buying another sports team. He also has the distinction of owning the world’s largest yacht – not too shabby for someone who grew up in poverty in a remote part of Russia.
1. George Soros
Soros is probably one of the most well known rags-to-riches stories in the business world – and for good reason; his success story is hugely inspirational. The businessman survived the Nazi persecution and ended up in London as a broke college student. He worked less than glamorous jobs – as a waiter, and a railway porter – in order to put himself through the prestigious London School of Economics, at a time when many of his classmates were likely being funded by their wealthy parents. He worked in retail at a humble souvenir shop after graduating, and eventually snagged a job as a banker in New York. His first enormous win was when he bet against the British pound in 1992 and made a staggering one billion dollars, and since then, he’s continued to increase his net worth year after year. Currently, the business tycoon is worth over 20 billion.
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