Many CEOs have changed the way their companies operate. But the most important CEOs have transformed not just their businesses, but also people’s lives, including how they live, work, play and love. Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
It’s little surprise that Jobs, Apple’s founder and former CEO, had an almost immeasurable cultural and technological impact on people’s day-to-day lives. Similarly, other top CEOs have taken steps to leave their marks on the world.
Last updated: July 15, 2021
Steve Jobs, Apple
Age: 56 when he died in 2011
Net worth: $10.2 billion at the time of his death
How he changed the way we live: Apple created the iPhone, selling its billionth unit in July 2016. The company sold 58.55 million iPhones in the first quarter of 2021 alone.
Steve Jobs was an American entrepreneur who co-founded Apple Computer Inc. in his family’s garage in 1976. During his second tenure as the company’s CEO, Jobs helped revolutionize the way we use both phones and computers and ushered in the era of the smartphone.
The Apple iPhone is also notable for popularizing touch screens and eliminating push buttons.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon
Net worth: $213.9 billion
How he changed the way we live: Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, which announced sales of over $386 billion for 2020, up 38% over 2019 — an increase due in part to the pandemic that saw Americans locked down and largely shopping from home.
Bezos stepped down as CEO on July 5 — the 27th anniversary of Amazon’s incorporation, according to Business Standard — and was replaced by Andy Jassy, founder and CEO of Amazon Web Services. Bezos currently serves as Amazon’s executive chair.
In just a couple decades, Amazon has completely changed the way people shop. The searchable platform makes it easy to find countless items at different prices, giving shoppers millions of buying options without leaving their couches.
Elon Musk, SpaceX
Net worth: $167 billion
How he changed the way we live: Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, is best known for creating reusable space stuff. It’s privately funded, but the company is believed to be worth $74 billion following $1.16 billion in equity funding raised earlier this year.
Tesla Inc., Musk’s electric vehicle company, has a market capitalization of over $648 billion. Tesla stock hit an all-time high of $880 in January and is currently trading above $650.
A South African-born entrepreneur, Musk became a millionaire when he sold his first company at the age of 27. He’s the co-founder of a fintech company called X.com, which merged with Peter Thiel’s Confinity to form PayPal. In addition to Tesla and SpaceX, Musk owns companies focused on infrastructure and tunneling and artificial intelligence.
Although SpaceX and Tesla haven’t quite changed day-to-day life yet, they’re already making their mark.
In addition to its mission to colonize Mars, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service has already begun providing internet access to remote areas cable can’t reach.
Here on Earth, Tesla has revolutionized EVs. Musk’s ultimate goal with his car company is to make self-driving cars a routine mode of travel while easing the world toward sustainable energy.
Oprah Winfrey, Harpo Studios and OWN
Net worth: $2.7 billion
How she changed the way we live: Among her many accomplishments, Oprah Winfrey inspired a cultural phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “the Oprah Effect.” When it went off the air in 2011, her eponymous show boasted an estimated 48 million viewers per week.
From humble beginnings, Oprah became one of the wealthiest women in the world through her self-named brand. Television pioneer, magazine founder, actress, producer, philanthropist and Broadway producer are just a few of the roles she’s held over the years.
Although her beloved show is no longer on the air, Winfrey changed the way we live by inspiring people to work toward self-improvement. Additionally, she influenced the purchasing habits of millions of Americans through her show and magazine.
Larry Page, Alphabet
Net worth: $110.6 billion
How he changed the way we live: Larry Page is responsible for PageRank, the proprietary search algorithm used by Google. Today, Google is estimated to process 5.6 billion searches daily — compared to 1 billion searches per year in 1999.
Page started Google with another Stanford student, Sergey Brin, in 1998. He served as the company’s first CEO and then took on the role of president of products before becoming CEO again in 2011. In 2015, he became CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
Like other billionaire CEOs, Page is investing in space and air travel. He is a founding investor in the space exploration company Planetary Resources, according to Forbes, and is backing Kitty Hawk, an aviation startup working to develop autonomous electric aircraft.
Google has impacted our lives by literally putting a world of information at our fingertips, changing the way we learn, think and communicate.
Howard Schultz, Starbucks
Net worth: $5.5 billion
How he changed the way we live: Howard Schultz helped launch Starbucks, growing the chain to over 30,000 stores worldwide.
Schultz is a self-made man who grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1987, he bought Starbucks, then an artsy coffee shop in Seattle.
By the time Schultz stepped down from his role as executive chairman in 2018 — he currently serves as the company’s chairman emeritus — he had established Starbucks as an integral part of American coffee culture.
Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo
Age: 85 when he died in 2013
Net worth: $4.2 billion at the time of his death
How he changed the way we live: Hiroshi Yamauchi created the Nintendo Entertainment System. The company’s DS systems are its most popular to date, with the original Nintento DS selling more than 154 million units and nearly 1 billion software units before it was discontinued, and the newer Nintendo 3DS selling over 75 million units and nearly 400 million software units as of early 2021.
Yamauchi was a Japanese businessman who dropped out of college in 1948 to take over his grandfather’s business, then a card game manufacturer called Nintendo Koppai. If you are a gamer, you have Yamauchi to thank for making the industry what it is today by introducing Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros. and the landmark Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985.
Reed Hastings, Netflix
Net worth: $5.3 billion
How he changed the way we live: In 1997, Reed Hastings co-founded Netflix, which boasts 208 million paid subscribers in 190 countries.
Hastings is an American entrepreneur who helped revolutionize the way people around the world consume media, especially television and movies. Netflix also changed the way networks produce and deliver content and spurred the end of the video store era.
Travis Kalanick, Uber
Net worth: $2.8 billion
How he changed the way we live: Travis Kalanick helped launch theUber rideshare service. Uber took a hit during the pandemic but saw a 24% increase in bookings in the first quarter of 2021, signaling that consumers are ready to ride again.
Kalanick and co-founder Garrett Camp thought of the idea for Uber when they couldn’t get a cab in Paris one night in 2008. Since then, the company has evolved from a small car order service to a technology company offering millions of rides in cities around the globe. As of Q1 2021, Uber had 3.5 million drivers and couriers — 22% fewer than a year earlier.
Although Kalanick stepped down as CEO in 2017 and resigned from from the board of directors at the end of 2019, his impact is indelible. Uber is responsible for launching the ride-sharing revolution and pushing aside traditional taxi services by making paying for rides easy, convenient and cheap. It also helped to revolutionized meal delivery services with Uber Eats, and created a cottage industry for people with a car and a desire to earn some extra cash.
Bill Gates, Microsoft
Net worth: $129.5 billion
How he changed the way we live: Bill Gates is responsible for developing the Windows operating systems. The latest of those systems, Windows 10, is running on more than 1.3 billion devices.
Gates is the fourth-richest person on Earth in 2021, and he is now known for his global philanthropy as much as for changing the way people use computers. With his user-friendly Windows interface, Gates helped even the least tech-savvy consumers empower their lives through personal computers. After briefly losing the top spot Android[original text said Android only recently had surpassed Windows], Windows is once again the world’s most-used operating system.
In addition to his contributions to personal computing, Gates has donated $35.8 billion worth of Microsoft stock to the Gates Foundation, which works globally to eradicate poverty, disease and inequity.
Frederick W. Smith, FedEx
Net worth: $6.5 billion
How he changed the way we live: Frederick Smith created the FedEx package delivery service. The company, which processes about 3.3 million packages a day, took in $22.7 billion in revenue in 2020. Its assets include 609 aircraft, 43,000 vehicles and 143,000 employees, and it operates in over 220 countries.
Smith earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale and served in the Marines before starting a small shipping company called Federal Express in Arkansas in 1971. Today, the global transportation, business services and logistics company delivers packages to customers all over the world in as little as one day.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
Net worth: $125.7 billion
How he changed the way we live: Mark Zuckerberg is the mastermind behind Facebook. The king of social media, Facebook boasts 2.8 billion monthly active users, and its $870.5 billion market capitalization makes Facebook the sixth-largest company the world.
Harvard dropout Zuckerberg started Facebook from his dorm room. His project brought social media to the masses, united the world and revolutionized advertising — and made him incredibly rich. And for a while, Zuckerberg made the hoodie the standard uniform of dot-com moguls everywhere.
Ted Turner, CNN
Net worth: $2.3 billion
How he changed the way we live: Ted Turner started CNN, the original 24-hour cable news network, paving the way for Fox News, MSNBC and other all-news networks.
American businessman Turner is one of the original media moguls of the modern age. The billionaire has a simple secret to success: “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.”
The founder and former CEO of CNN is responsible for the 24-hour cable news cycle, which revolutionized the way the world consumes information, particularly breaking news. Whereas viewers once had to wait until 6 p.m. for edited news segments, the advent of 24-hour cable gave viewers access to relatively unfiltered news 24 hours a day
Meg Whitman, eBay
Net worth: $6.4 billion
How she changed the way we live: Meg Whitman helped build eBay, which boasts 182 million users and 1.3 billion listings, according to Oberlo, a digital retail platform.
Although Whitman — who went on to helm Hewlett Packard and was formerly CEO of Quibi — didn’t create eBay, she took the company from 30 to 15,000 employees and helped make it into a global phenomenon. The first successful person-to-person selling platform of its kind, eBay gave people a way to sell new and used items to people far and wide.
The company has had to evolve with the changing marketplace, but the eBay of Whitman’s day not only kept up with consumer demands, but also created them in the first place.
Walt Disney, The Walt Disney Company
Age: 65 when he died in 1966
Net worth: $5 billion at the time of his death
How he changed the way we live: Walt Disney is the brain behind the Disney brand. In 2020, Disney took in $14.71 billion in revenue despite pandemic-related closures of Disney parks, according to data cited by CNBC, and had over 73 million paid subscribers to its Disney+ streaming service.
Disney pioneered film animation and reinvented the American vacation. He was the driving force behind Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio, as well as the original Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif.
From theme parks and cruise lines to cash-churning franchises like “Frozen,” Disney has no shortage of revenue streams. It’s the world’s 23rd-largest company by market cap.
Larry Ellison, Oracle
Net worth: $113.6 billion
How he changed the way we live: Larry Ellison is responsible for Oracle business software, which provides services and products to 430,000 companies. in 175 countries.
American billionaire Ellison founded Oracle in 1977 and was its CEO until 2014. He now serves as chairman and chief technology officer and as Forbes reports, is the world’s seventh-richest person due to his company’s success.
His company changed the way people do business by creating huge, searchable databases that allow multiple computer systems to store and access information.
Marc Benioff, Salesforce
Net worth: $9.3 billion
How he changed the way we live: Marc Benioff created Salesforce business software, which had $17.1 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2020.
If Larry Ellison changed the way businesses communicate with customers, Benioff pushed the envelope further with his cloud-based customer relationship management software. Benioff actually worked for Ellison at Oracle before leaving to co-found Salesforce in 1999. The two companies work so well together that in 2013, they created a technology partnership.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter
Net worth: $13.7 billion
Since computer programmer Dorsey founded Twitter in 2006, the company has changed the way people communicate in real time, expanding water cooler talk into transnational conversations.
Twitter also brought the word “hashtag” into the global lexicon and transformed customer service, marketing, breaking news, celebrity gossip and politics.
Dean Kamen, DEKA Research
Net worth: $540 million
How he changed the way we live: Kamen has had a significant impact on medical technology.
One of the most prolific and successful inventors of his era, Kamen holds more than 1,000 U.S. and foreign patents, including several for medical advancements that make people’s lives better every day. Despite his life-changing advancements in chemotherapy, dialysis and robotics, he will likely always be best known for inventing the Segway personal scooter.
Sam Walton, Walmart
Age: 74 when he died in 1992
Net worth: $100 billion at the time of his death
How he changed the way we live: Sam Walton founded the Walmart stores. The chain has a market cap of $395.19 billion and is still No. 1 in sales both in the U.S. and across the world.
Walton opened a small store in Arkansas with the idea to draw customers by offering the lowest prices on goods. He followed 10 signature rules for building a business, which included profit-sharing, controlling expenses for the store and the consumer and defying conventional wisdom.
The strategy worked for Walton, who created one of the most successful business models of all time and revamped the in-store retail experience for consumers around the globe. Today, the Waltons are the richest family in America, with a combined net worth of $235 billion, according to Forbes.
Arianna Huffington, Huffington Post
Net worth: $100 million
How she changed the way we live: Arianna Huffington created the Huffington Post, which redefined blogging.
Launched in 2005, the Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize and made Huffington one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential women. The one-time California gubernatorial candidate — she lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger — is a major proponent of the value of sleep, particularly in America’s hectic corporate culture.
Huffington sold her eponymous publication for more than $300 million in 2011 and currently serves as CEO of Thrive Global.
Tony Hsieh, Zappos
Age: 46 at the time of his death in 2020
Net worth: $850 million at the time of his death
How he changed the way we live: Online footwear juggernaut Zappos not only changed the way we buy footwear, but it also put a new spin on corporate structure.
Before Tony Hsieh sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009, he worked hard to break every rule of corporate America. He fired all the managers so employees could supervise themselves and offered workers one month’s salary to quit if they didn’t love their jobs. He also spent $350 million of his own money on revitalizing Downtown Las Vegas, where Zappos is headquartered.
Hsieh died in a house fire during a holiday visit with relatives in November 2020.
Peter Thiel, PayPal
Net Worth: $4.5 billion
How he changed the way we live: In 1998, Peter Thiel and Max Levchin founded Confinity, a digital payment platform that became PayPal after merging with Elon Musk’s X.com. Thiel served as PayPal’s CEO until 2002.
PayPal rose to prominence as the payment method for eBay users, ushering the move from checks and money orders to digital payments via email.
PayPal’s financial transaction platform paved the way for the expansion of online commerce, transforming the way consumers pay for purchases and exchange money.
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Daria Uhlig contributed to the reporting for this article.