You don’t have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to achieve great things in life — though it certainly helps. Still, many of today’s billionaires had very humble beginnings. Growing up poor didn’t stop these CEOs, celebrities and business experts from reaching the pinnacle of success — and it shouldn’t stop you, either.
Whether you’re in need of some inspiration to start your own business, or you want to learn how to become a billionaire, take a look at how these famous folks made it to the top.
1. Oprah Winfrey
Family wealth isn’t the secret to this billionaire and media maven’s unparalleled success. Now worth an estimated $3.1 billion, according to Forbes, Oprah Winfrey was born to a teenage single mother in Mississippi. In an interview with Barbara Walters, she talked about not having running water or electricity growing up.
By focusing on school, participating in beauty pageants and then working at a radio station, Winfrey was able to enter the media world. She got her big break in television as a host for the local Baltimore talk show, “People Are Talking.” Later came “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which entered national syndication in 1986.
In a 2001 taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Winfrey shared some tips on making the shift to a wealth mindset.
“The whole idea, I think, of having wealth is not letting wealth use you but you use it,” she said. “Being a person who has come from an outhouse, and very poor circumstances, I can assure you that the more money you get, it really doesn’t change you — unless you are the kind of person who is defined by money.”
From Daytime to Big Time: Oprah Winfrey’s Net Worth and Legacy
2. Howard Schultz
Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz helped Starbucks become the company it is today — a giant coffee retailer with 23,000 retail stores in 73 countries and a market value of about $85 billion, according to Forbes. However, this successful businessman, who boasts a net worth of $2.9 billion, wasn’t born into wealth.
In an interview with Dr. Mukund Rajan of the Group Executive Council, Schultz discussed his childhood and what it was like growing up with less.
“When I was 7 years old, I experienced something that deeply affected me that I carry with me every single day,” he said. “And that is the scar and the shame of being a poor kid living in government-subsidized housing.”
Schultz said his father became a “broken man” after working in many dead-end jobs that offered neither money nor respect. But, this hardship seemed to motivate Schultz to become the success he is today.
“I never dreamed I would be in a position one day to be part of a company where I would have authority — let alone build a company,” said Schultz. “What I’ve tried to do is build the kind of company that my father never got a chance to work for.”
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3. Ralph Lauren
Known for its polo shirts and high-end ties, the Ralph Lauren fashion brand is easily recognizable. But did you know that there was a time when the iconic fashion designer couldn’t even afford clothes?
“As a kid, I was always into clothes, but I didn’t have the money to buy them,” Lauren told fellow billionaire Oprah Winfrey in a 2002 interview. “When I’d get my brothers’ hand-me-downs, there was an energy in me that made me say, ‘I want to get my own things, to make my own statement.’ Somewhere along the line, that energy — coupled with my exposure, through movies, to a world I hadn’t known — turned into something.”
That “something” is now a fashion brand with a market value of nearly $8 billion, according to Forbes. As for Lauren, he’s worth a cool $5.9 billion and is considered one of the richest fashion icons.
4. Larry Ellison
Oracle founder and former CEO Larry Ellison was born in New York City but grew up in a lower-middle-class community on the South Side of Chicago.
“I’ll never complain again about living in a bad neighborhood, after moving from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to a still-worse neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago,” said Ellison in an interview posted on the Academy of Achievement website. “After my ninth month, I kept my mouth shut about the neighborhood.”
A 1997 Vanity Fair profile on Ellison described his childhood home as a “cramped walk-up apartment.” According to the article, Ellison was raised by his great-aunt and great-uncle, who was once successful in real estate but lost everything in the Depression.
Although he came from modest beginnings, Ellison is now a multibillionaire worth $61.8 billion. And Oracle has a market value of almost $183 billion, reports Forbes.
“Everyone who works hard, and maybe a little cleverly, has the opportunity to make almost anything possible,” said Ellison in the Academy of Achievement interview. “That’s the American Dream, that anything here is possible.”
Ellison might be a college dropout, but like many billionaires, he has career advice to share.
5. Kenneth Langone
Self-made billionaire businessman and investor Kenneth Langone, who helped create Home Depot, had humble beginnings.
In a 2013 interview with OneWire, posted on Business Insider, Langone said he had a “charmed life” as a child — but not because of his material possessions. In fact, his mother was a cafeteria worker. Still, Langone enjoyed unconditional love, which later helped him get over his failures and not let them bring him down.
“When you’re in the risk-taking business at the level that I am, not everything you’re going to do is going to work,” he said. “Where you really lose is when it doesn’t work, and you start being abusive to yourself in terms of your qualities and your abilities.”
Today, Langone has a net worth of $3 billion, according to Forbes. And, he’s proud of that fact, he said in an interview for “Street Smart” on Bloomberg.
“I worked like hell to become part of the 1 percent,” said Langone.
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6. Sheldon Adelson
He’s the chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, the largest casino company in America, but Sheldon Adelson had to earn his $35.2 billion fortune the old-fashioned way. Born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a tough neighborhood of Boston, sharing a one-room tenement with his parents and three siblings.
In a 2010 “Nightline” interview, Adelson explained how his rough upbringing helped him become a shrewd businessman.
“My parents were poor,” he said. “When they died in 1985, 11 days apart, they didn’t have as much as $100 in the bank. Their whole life. They gave everything to their children. So, I’m talking not from a white shoe background or from a privileged background. I’m talking [as] somebody who wore his skin down on his fingers trying to climb the ladder of success.”
To honor his heritage, he has donated more than $50 million to Jewish schools in the Las Vegas and Boston areas, and another $50 million to the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center, according to The New York Times.
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7. Alan Gerry
While he has a net worth of $1.4 billion today, Alan Gerry grew up in Liberty, N.Y., during the Depression. A frozen food distributor, Gerry’s father often struggled to feed the family on his salary.
Gerry later dropped out of high school to serve in the Marines during World War II. He used his GI Bill benefits to become trained in television repair and, in 1956, he invested $1,500 to start a cable company in his hometown. Decades later, his business evolved into 64 cable systems in 18 states. He sold the company to Time Warner in 1996 for a reported $2.7 billion — including $900 million in personal profit.
Gerry used the money to start his venture capital fund Granite Associates and has continued to give back to the community where he was raised, including building the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
“You grow up in a country and see that now so much has evaporated around you,” said Gerry in a 2011 interview with the Times Herald-Record. “So, you try to keep your eyes open and see what needs help.”
8. John Paul DeJoria
Founding high-end tequila company Patrón Spirits Co. and haircare company Paul Mitchell Systems turned John Paul DeJoria into a mogul with a net worth of $3.3 billion. In a 2011 interview with Forbes, DeJoria — who was once in foster care — discussed growing up poor in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“We didn’t know that we were really going through tough times, because everybody was going through the same thing,” he said. “I remember once in junior high school, on a Friday, my mom came home from work and said to my brother and I, ‘You know, between us, we have only 27 cents, but we have food in the refrigerator, we have our little garden out back and we’re happy, so we are rich.’”
A true rags-to-riches story, he was homeless twice before joining forces with Paul Mitchell in 1980 to create the billion-dollar haircare brand. He now uses his fortune to give back, and was even named Variety’s 2017 Philanthropist of the Year.
9. Harold Hamm
The youngest of 13 kids, Harold Hamm was raised by Oklahoma sharecroppers, who put him to work picking cotton barefoot as a child. The founder, chairman and CEO of oil company Continental Resources now has a net worth of $10.1 billion, but at age 16 he had to take a job at a gas station to support his loved ones.
Despite his family’s financial struggles, in a 2014 interview with Forbes, Hamm revealed that he drew inspiration from fellow Enid, Okla., residents. One was a local potter who spoke to Hamm and his classmates at a school assembly.
“He had this lump of clay that he was slapping like a baby,” Hamm said. “It was clear that he did well because that was his passion, his art, and the message was that all of us could do well if we followed our passion in life.”
10. J.K. Rowling
In a 2013 interview with the London-based Daily Mail, J.K. Rowling shared her struggles as a single parent, before the Harry Potter books turned her into the world’s highest-paid author.
“I remember 20 years ago not eating so my daughter would eat,” she said. “I remember nights when there was literally no money.”
Those days are long past, as the author earned $95 million between June 2016 and June 2017, according to Forbes. Now a philanthropist, Rowling enjoys giving back so much that an estimated $160 million in charitable giving contributed to her fall from billionaire status in 2012.
Today, Rowling’s fortune is back up to $1 billion, according to Celebrity Net Worth.
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Net worth figures are according to Forbes, unless otherwise noted. Sabah Karimi contributed reporting to this article.
About the Author
Laura is a writer with nearly 10 years of experience in marketing and personal finance. She is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in personal finance, higher education, legal matters and marketing. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the University of Pittsburgh and an MBA from Robert Morris University.