After his father lost his job, this Scottish-American industrialist started to work at a cotton mill for 12 hours and six days a week when he was only 13 years old. Hired later as a telegraph messenger at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, he was able to climb the corporate ladder where he used his earnings to invest in ventures that led him to build an empire in the steel industry, including his large-scale philanthropic legacy.
Born to unwed teenage parents in Mississippi, this media mogul wore dresses that her grandmother made out of potato sacks. After being molested, she ran away at the age of 13 and became a mother at 14, but her son died in infancy. Sent to live with her father, a barber in Tennessee, she got a full scholarship in college, won a beauty pageant, and was discovered by a radio station. Her empire is now worth $2.7 billion which she shares with the world through her philanthropic works.
Maria Das Gracas Silva Foster
Born in the poverty-stricken shantytown of Morro do Adeus, Brazil to an alcoholic father, she earned extra money by collecting cans and paper to continue her studies. She broke the barriers of the corporate ladder when she was hired as an intern at Petrobras, an oil company, in 1978 and became the first female head of the department of engineering. Foster also became one of the world’s most influential people as the first female CEO of Petrobras.
During the Great Depression, Sam Walton and his family lived on a farm in Oklahoma where he milked the family cow and delivered bottles to customers to make ends meet. He joined J.C. Penney three days after graduating from the University of Missouri with a Bachelors in Economics. After World War II, with capital of $25,000 that he borrowed from his father along with the $5,000 that he saved from the U.S. Army, he bought a Ben Franklin variety store which he expanded into the retailer giant Walmart and the membership-only retailer warehouse Sam’s Club.
Born without knowing his real father, he was driven out of his home by his abusive stepfather. He enlisted in the Navy and later became a medical supplies salesman. Due to the slump in his job and with his own family to support, he became interested in stock broking after seeing a stockbroker with a Ferrari. His travails of sleeping in a subway station bathroom, being homeless, passing the licensing exam for stockbrokers, and becoming employed by Bear Sterns was documented in his memoirs, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which became a hit movie as well.
Living on a farm for most of his early years, this Swedish business magnate had always been known for enterprising at a young age as he bought matches in bulk and sold them individually to his neighbors. This expanded to fish, pens, and Christmas decorations. He also used the cash reward that his father gave him for good grades to create a mail-order business that became the retail company IKEA. Furniture became the company’s biggest seller, which made him one of the richest men in the world at a net worth of $3 billion before his death.
Joanne Rowling, a native of Yate, Gloucestershire in England moved to Porto, Portugal in 1990 when her mother died. The seven-year period that followed entailed a divorce from her husband in 1993, a move to Edinburgh, Scotland, and a life with a daughter living on welfare while suffering from clinical depression. During this turbulent chapter in her life, she managed to write “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in 1997. She was able to finish it by writing on scraps of tissue paper from the numerous cafes they visited to let her daughter sleep. With over 400 million books sold and the worldwide success of the Harry Potter franchise, J.K. Rowling’s net worth is now roughly $1 billion.
James Eugene Carrey was born in Ontario, Canada to a middle-income family where his musician father worked as an accountant. Things took a turn for the worse when his father lost his job and they all had to move to Scarborough. Carrey worked at the Titan Wheels Factory for eight hours a day while attending school, but never finished high school. While living in a camper van, he started doing stand-up routines and eventually landed a gig in the sitcom “The Duck Factory.” He first gained recognition in ’90s when he became one of the casts in the sketch comedy “In Living Color.” He later moved on to movies and became one of the highest paid comedians in America.
The son of a Lithuanian immigrant taxi driver, Sheldon Adelson’s mother ran a knitting store from their home. He grew up in a tenement where he shared a bedroom with his parents and three siblings, started selling newspapers at the age of 12, and started his candy-vending machine business at the age of 16. Though he tried his hand at various enterprises from packing hotel toiletries to mortgage brokering his biggest break came from developing a computer trade show. He purchased the Sands Hotel & Casino and later the mega-resort, The Venetian, from the profits of his ventures pegging his net worth today at $21.8 billion.
The Armenian-born Kirk Kerkorian grew up at the time of the Great Depression, where he learned English on the street and dropped out of 8th grade to become an amateur boxer. He became a daredevil pilot for the Royal Air Force during World War II and delivered supplies over the Atlantic flying some of the most perilous routes. After quitting gambling in 1947, he bought some charter planes and also engaged in real estate in Las Vegas in 1962. He became the “father of the mega-resort” when he bought The Flamingo and built the stalwarts of the Las Vegas scene, The International and MGM Grand, which made him worth a few billion dollars.
John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller might have inherited his good business sense from his father, a traveling salesman who used all the tricks to get out of decent hard work and taught his son to always get the best deal. His mom struggled to raise him and his five sibling, and though they moved a number of times, he was able to finish school and get his first job as a bookkeeper where he earned $50 in three months. He decided to put up a firm and built an oil refinery with his friend Maurice B. Clark in 1859. He later bought out the Clark brothers’ refinery firm and renamed it Rockefeller & Andrews. After founding the Standard Oil Company, Rockefeller became the world’s first billionaire and the richest person in history.
Leonardo Del Vecchio
Del Vecchio was sent to an orphanage when his widowed mother could not support all five of her children. He worked in a factory that made molds for auto parts and eyeglass frames where he lost part of his finger during an accident. Del Vecchio opened his first molding shop called Luxottica at the age of 23 which expanded to be the world’s largest maker of sunglasses and prescription eyeglasses. Luxottica, the known maker of Ray-Ban and Oakley eyewear, also owns 6,000 Sunglass Hut and Lenscrafters retail shops. The second richest man in Italy is now worth $11.5 billion.
Born to a family that fled mainland China for Hong Kong in 1940, his father died of tuberculosis which made him quit school at the age of 15 to support his family. He worked 16 hours in a factory that made plastics and plastic flowers for U.S. export. Li founded Cheung Kong Industries in 1950, which manufactured plastics at first but later on ventured into real estate. The 9th richest person in the world, Li Ka-shing has ownership in a number of multi-range companies from cellular phones, banking, satellite television, and steel industries.
Howard Schultz came from a poor family living in the Canarsie Bayview Houses, a housing project in Brooklyn, New York, which made him want to have a lifestyle beyond what his truck-driver father could provide. He became a football scholar at the University of North Michigan where he graduated with a degree in communication, the first in his family to do so. While working for Xerox, he discovered a small coffee shop called Starbucks and became captivated by it. He left Xerox and became the first CEO of Starbucks in 1987, which he expanded from its first 60 shops to over 16,000 outlets worldwide, giving him a net worth of $1.5 billion.
Ursula Burns grew up in a housing project in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a hub for gangs. She was raised by her Panamanian-immigrant single mother who ran a daycare center at her home and ironed shirts for a fee so that she could send Ursula to Cathedral High School. She earned her Mechanical Engineering degree at NYU and became an intern at Xerox. Ursula Burns became the first African-American woman to ever lead a Fortune 500 Company and the 14th most powerful woman in the world.
John Paul DeJoria
Before John Paul Mitchell Systems became a success, its founder, John Paul DeJoria had a rough life. After his parents divorced when he was just two years old, he sold newspapers and Christmas cards to help his family. At the age of 10, he was sent to live in a foster home and became an LA gang member before joining the military. Mitchell was later employed by Redken Laboratories. He loaned $700 and founded JPM Systems to sell his company’s shampoo door-to-door while living out of his car. Today JPM Systems’ annual profit is nearly $900 million.
Before Cirque du Soleil came to life, its founder, Canadian-born Laliberté started his acts in circus as a fire-eater that walks on stilts. His venture paid off when he brought his successful troupe in 1987 from Quebec to the Los Angeles Arts Festival with no guarantee of a return fare for the cast. He now commands a total net worth of $2.5 billion.
Do Won Chang
Do Won Chang had to work three jobs as a janitor, gas station employee, and coffee shop attendant to support his family when they moved from Korea to America in 1981. After three years of thrift-spending, he was able to open his first retail store Fashion 21, which grew to be the retail clothing giant, Forever 21, a pioneer in fast fashion. The multinational clothing empire with over 480 outlets worldwide generates an annual income of $3 billion.
After surviving the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1947, George Soros escaped the country to stay with his relatives in London. He supported his studies by working as a waiter and railway porter and then sold goods at a souvenir shop after graduating. Soros also wrote every merchant bank in England until he gained an entry-level job at Singer & Friedlander. He became “the man who broke the bank of England” due to his famous bet against the British pound in 1992, where he earned more than a billion dollars in profit in one plunge in the Black Wednesday UK currency crisis.
With just a $50 bill wrapped in plastic and hidden in a sandwich, Zdenek Bakala fled communist Czechoslovakia in at age 19 and made it to Lake Tahoe. He worked as a dishwasher at Harrah’s Casino while studying for his undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and an MBA from Dartmouth. Bakala later ventured into banking, opening his first company, Credit Suisse First Boston, in Prague after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He also presided over a coal company that has a $2.52 billion market.
Harold Simmons grew up in a shack in the poor rural town of Golden, Texas with no plumbing or electricity. Despite his humble origins, he still managed to graduate with a B.A. and masters in Economics from the University of Texas. His first venture was a series of drugstores which were almost entirely funded with a loan. This became a 100-store chain which he sold to Eckerd for $50 million. He became famous as a master of the corporate buyout and owned six companies that trade on the NYSE including the world’s largest producer of titanium, Titanium Metals Corporation.
Richard Desmond was raised by a single mother living on top of a garage. He quit school at the age of 14 to focus on being a drummer while working as a coat-checker to help pay bills. Though he never became famous for his musical abilities, he later opened his own record store and published his first magazine, “International Musician and Recording World,” and expanded the Desmond magazine empire with publications such as the British version of “Penthouse” and “OK!”. He now owns a number of publications around the world and was listed on the 2011 Sunday Times Rich List with a net worth of £950 million.
Harry Wayne Huizenga
Harry Wayne Huizenga was born in Chicago, Illinois to an abusive father. His family moved to Florida to save his parents’ marriage but his father never changed. He moved back to Chicago to go to college but soon dropped out and signed up to be a reserve in the Army. Huizenga went back to Florida after basic training and bought his first dump truck to start a trash disposal business. This venture became highly profitable so he purchased more garbage trucks and later built his company, the Waste Management Inc, which became well-known all over the US. He also purchased Blockbuster stores, later merging with Viacom. Huizenga is credited for founding three Fortune 500 companies.
Born to a family of lawyers in Blackheath, London, he had poor academic performance due to his dyslexia. As a result, he focused more on his business which included growing Christmas trees and raising parakeets. Branson later started his own record mail-order business at the age of 16. In 1972, he established the record store, Virgin Records, which prospered in the 1980’s with a number of outlets. He also created Virgin Atlantic Airwaves, which expanded Virgin Records into a music label, making him the 245th richest person in the world today.
An orphan at the age of four, this Russian business tycoon was raised by his uncle and grandmother. His first break came from an expensive wedding gift given by his in-laws. He dropped out of college to pursue his business, which included selling imported plastic ducks from his Moscow apartment. Abramovich then ventured into managing the oil giant Sibneft after taking it over in 1995. He continued to flip his investments with profitable ventures such as Russian Aluminum and the steelmaker Evraz Group. Now the 5th richest person in Russia, he owns the $1.5 billion yacht “Eclipse,” the largest private yacht docked in New York City and the Chelsea Football Club, among others.