15 Inspirational Rags-To-Riches Stories
by Eric Goldschein and Dana Eisenberg
Some of the world’s billionaires took themselves from the streets to the top of the Forbes’ list. Despite mounting evidence that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to build such wealth, these 15 incredible stories are proof that it is possible to overcome life’s toughest challenges and create something better for yourself.
This list includes just a handful of the many “rags-to-riches” stories out there. Let us know which ones we missed in the comments.
Guy Laliberté ate fire on the streets before introducing Cirque du Soleil to the world
The Canadian-born Laliberté began his circus career busking on the streets: playing accordion, walking on stilts and eating fire. He gambled by bringing a successful troupe from Quebec to the Los Angeles Arts Festival in 1987, with no return fare. The bet paid off, and the circus group was eventually brought to Las Vegas, where they became the world famous Cirque du Soleil we know today.
Today, Laliberté is the CEO of Cirque, a professional poker player and space tourist, with a total worth of $2.5 billion.
John Paul DeJoria lived in his car before John Paul Mitchell Systems took off
As a first generation American, DeJoria had it rough from the beginning. His German and Italian parents divorced when he was two, and he sold Christmas cards and newspapers to help support his family before he turned 10. He was eventually sent to live in a foster home in Los Angeles.
DeJoria spent some time as an L.A. gang member before joining the military. After trying his hand as an employee for Redken Laboratories, he took a $700 dollar loan and created John Paul Mitchell Systems. He hawked the company’s shampoo door-to-door, living out of his car while doing so. But the quality of the product could not be denied, and now JPM Systems is worth over $900 million annually. He also created Patron Tequila and has a hand in a variety of industries, from diamonds to music.
Ursula Burns grew up in a housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and now runs Xerox
Before the Lower East Side was cool, it was a hub for gangs. Burns was raised by her single mother in a housing project there. Her mother ran a daycare center out of her home and ironed shirts so that she could afford to send Ursula to Catholic school. She went to NYU, and from there became an intern at Xerox.
She’s now Xerox’s CEO and chairwoman. She’s the first African-American woman to be the head of a Fortune 500 Company.
Howard Schultz grew up in the Brooklyn projects before discovering, and now leading, Starbucks
Schultz grew up in the Bayview projects of Canarsie, Brooklyn. He always wanted to climb “over the fence” and go beyond the lifestyle provided by his truck-driving father. Despite destitution, he excelled at sports and earned a football scholarship to the University of Northern Michigan.
After graduating with a degree in communications, Schultz went to work for Xerox before discovering a small coffee shop called Starbucks. Enamored with the coffee, he left Xerox to become the company’s chief executive in 1987. After beginning with 60 shops, Starbucks now has over 16,000 outlets worldwide, giving Schultz a net worth of $1.1 billion. He even went on hiatus and came back as CEO to lead Starbucks out of a decline.
Source: Mirror News
Li Ka-shing quit school at 15 to work in a plastics factory and is now the world’s richest East Asian
The family of Li Ka-shing fled mainland China for Hong Kong in 1940, and Li’s father died of tuberculosis when he was just 15. Quitting school to work to support his family, Li made plastics and later plastic flowers for U.S. export.
By 1950 Li was able to start his own company, Cheung Kong Industries. While at first manufacturing plastics, the company later moved into real estate. Similarly, Li expanded his ownership of different companies, and today has his hand in banking, cellular phones, satellite television, cement production, retail outlets, hotels, domestic transportation, airports, electric power, steel production, ports and shipping, and investing in cool apps, among other industries.
Source: Harvard Business Publishing
Francois Pinault was a high school dropout who now leads luxury goods group PPR
Pinault quit high school in 1947 after being teased for his poor background. He joined his family’s timber trading business and in the 1970s began buying up smaller firms. His ruthless business tactics — including slashing jobs and selling his timber company only to buy it back at a fraction of the cost when the market crashed — gave him a reputation as a “predator.” He had similar tactics in the real estate business, and did well buying French junk bonds and taking government money to save businesses from bankruptcy.
His self-made worth helped him start PPR, a luxury goods group that sells brands like Gucci and Stella McCartney. At one point the richest man in France, Pinault is now worth a cool $8.7 billion, has historic homes around the world and is the father-in-law of actress Salma Hayek.
Leonardo Del Vecchio was an orphaned factory worker whose eyeglasses empire today makes Ray-Bans and Oakleys
Del Vecchio was one of five children who could not be supported by his widowed mother. After growing up in an orphanage, he went to work in a factory making molds for auto parts and eyeglass frames, where he lost part of his finger.
At 23, he opened his own molding shop. That eyeglass frame shop expanded to the world’s largest maker of sunglasses and prescription eyeware. Luxottica makes brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley, with 6,000 retail shops like Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters. His estimated net worth is now above $10 billion dollars.
Kirk Kerkorian went from boxer and Royal Air Force pilot to Las Vegas mega-resort owner
Kerkorian, who learned English on the streets, dropped out of 8th grade to become a boxer. His family was a casualty of the Great Depression, and Kerkorian went about finding skills to help bring income home. He became a daredevil pilot for the Royal Air Force during World War II, delivering supplies over the Atlantic on routes that would crash one in four planes.
From the money he made running supplies, Kerkorian became a high roller on the craps table and eventually a real estate magnate in Las Vegas: he bought The Flamingo and built The International and MGM Grand, stalwarts of the Vegas scene. His net worth today is at $16 billion dollars.
Source: Smart Money Daily
Sheldon Adelson is another Las Vegas hotels magnate who tried his hand at a few industries
Adelson grew up in tenement housing in Massachusetts, where he shared a bedroom with his parents and three siblings. His father was a Lithuanian taxi driver and his mother had a knitting store. When he was 12 years old, he started selling newspapers and a few years later ran a vending machine scheme on the same corner.
Adelson tried his hand at a few different industries, from packing hotel toiletries to mortgage brokering. His biggest break came from developing a computer trade show. He turned that wealth into a purchase of the Sands Hotel & Casino, and later the mega-resort The Venetian.
Ingvar Kamprad was born in a small village in Sweden and created a mail-order business that became IKEA
Kamprad lived the farm life growing up. But he always had a knack for business, buying matches in bulk from Stockholm to sell to his neighbors. He later expanded to fish, Christmas decorations, and pens.
Not satisfied with the small stuff, Kamprad took money from his father (a reward for good grades) and created a mail-order business that eventually became IKEA (the name comes from his initials plus those of his village and family farm). Furniture became the company’s biggest seller, and Kamprad’s use of local manufacturers kept his prices low. Once one of the world’s richest, his value has fallen recently to a still-amazing $6 billion.
Source: Smart Money Daily
Roman Abramovich was an orphan who turned an expensive wedding gift into an oil empire
After his parents died when he was just four, the Russian Abramovich was raised by his uncle and grandmother. Abramovich got his first break from an expensive wedding gift from his in-laws. He dropped out of college to pursue his entrepreneurial interests, which at first included selling plastic ducks out of an apartment in Moscow.
He managed a take over of oil giant Sibneft at a bargain price in 1995. He continued to flip his investments into even larger acquisitions, including Russian Aluminum and steelmaker Evraz Group. Over the years Abramovich has been accused of shady dealings, from paying out bribes and protection money to having a role in the gang feuds over aluminum smelters. It seems that being ruthless has paid off for the billionaire: he now owns the largest private yacht in the world, as well as a ton of other cool stuff.
Richard Desmond went from living above a garage to creating an empire that published magazines like Penthouse
Desmond grew up the son of a single mother after his parents divorced. The two of them lived above a garage, during which time Desmond described himself as “very fat and very lonely.” He quit school at 14 to focus on being a drummer, working as a coat-checker to help pay bills. Though he never became rich from his own musical talents, he later opened his own record shops.
Eventually Desmond published his first magazine, International Musician and Recording World. The Desmond magazine empire would expand to publications like a British version of Penthouse and Ok!, a worldwide favorite. He now owns publications around the globe and is involved in philanthropic work.
Source: The Observer
J.K. Rowling lived on welfare before creating the Harry Potter franchise
In the early 1990s, Rowling had just gotten divorced and was living on welfare with a dependent child. She completed most of the first “Harry Potter” book in cafes, as walking around with her daughter, Jessica, was the best way to get her to sleep.
The “Harry Potter” franchise has become a worldwide success and J.K. Rowling is now worth an estimated $1 billion.
Before Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart, he milked cows and sold magazines in Oklahoma
Walton’s family lived on a farm in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. In order to make ends meet, he helped his family out by milking the cow and driving the milk out to customers. He also delivered newspapers and sold magazine subscriptions.
By 26, he was managing a variety store after graduating from the University of Missouri with a B.A. in economics. He used $5,000 from the army and a $20,000 loan from his father-in-law to buy a Ben Franklin variety store in Arkansas. He expanded the chain, and then went on to found Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. He died in 1992, leaving the company to his wife and children.
Oprah Winfrey turned a life of hardship into inspiration for a multi-billion-dollar empire
Oprah spent the first six years of her life living with her grandmother wearing dresses made out of potato sacks. After being molested by two members of her family and a family friend, she ran away from home at age 13. At 14, her newborn child died shortly after he was born. She went back to live with her mother, but it wasn’t until her mother sent her to live with her father that she turned her life around.
She got a full scholarship to college, won a beauty pageant —where she was discovered by a radio station — and the rest is history. The Oprah name became an empire, and according to Forbes she is worth $2.7 billion.
Source: Academy of Achievement