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. Keep reading to learn about 20 self-made billionaires who were poor.
20 Self-Made Billionaires Who Were Poor
No matter the journey, whether they dropped out of college or were born into poor circumstances before they started grinding their way to the top, these billionaires went from rags to riches in a multitude of ways:
- Oprah Winfrey
- Howard Schultz
- Ralph Lauren
- Larry Ellison
- Kenneth Langone
- David Murdock
- Alan Gerry
- Jean Paul DeJoria
- Harold Hamm
- J.K. Rowling
- Guy Laliberte
- Kenny Troutt
- Do Won Chang
- Stephen Bisciotti
- Shahid Khan
- George Soros
- Jan Koum
- Roman Abramovich
- Leonardo Del Vecchio
- Francois Pinault
1. Oprah Winfrey
- Estimated net worth: $2.8 billion
Family wealth isn’t the secret to this billionaire and media maven’s unparalleled success. 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 before moving to Chicago and starting The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“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.”
2. Howard Schultz
- Estimated net worth: $3.2 billion
Howard Schultz helped Starbucks become one of the biggest coffee companies in the world. Schultz joined Starbucks in 1982 after attending university in Northern Michigan and worked his way to the top.
On his experience as a self-made billionaire who was poor, he has said: “When I was 7 years old, I experienced something that deeply affected me that I carry with me every single day. And that is the scar and the shame of being a poor kid living in government-subsidized housing.”
“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. What I’ve tried to do is build the kind of company that my father never got a chance to work for.” Schultz said.
3. Ralph Lauren
- Estimated net worth: $7.4 billion
Known for its polo shirts and high-end attire, 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 new 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.”
4. Larry Ellison
- Estimated net worth: $158.9 billion
Oracle co-founder, chairman and chief technology officer, Larry Ellison, was born in New York. He grew up in a lower-middle-class community on the South Side of Chicago before becoming a self-made billionaire.
5. Kenneth Langone
- Estimated net worth: $7.4 billion
Self-made billionaire businessman and investor Kenneth Langone, who helped create Home Depot, had humble beginnings as a third-generation American.
“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. I worked like hell to become part of the 1%.”
6. David Murdock
- Estimated net worth: $3.4 billion
The former chairman of Dole Food Products, David Murdock was raised in Wayne, Ohio. He is the son of a traveling salesman father and a mother who did other people’s laundry and scrubbed their floors to bolster her husband’s unsteady income.
He got a job at a gas station before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. When he was discharged at age 22, he had no money and slept in a park in Detroit. This was his life until he met a man who worked at a loan company who wanted to aid the homeless veteran. The man helped him acquire $1,200 to buy a diner, which Murdock sold 18 months later for a $700 profit. This set him on the path to success.
7. Alan Gerry
- Estimated net worth: $1.5 billion
Alan Gerry grew up in Liberty, New York, 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.
“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
- Estimated net worth: $3 billion
Founding high-end tequila company, Patrón Spirits Co., and cofounding hair care company, John Paul Mitchell Systems, turned John Paul DeJoria into a mogul. This was a long way from when he sold Christmas cards and newspapers as a child.
“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.'”
9. Harold Hamm
- Estimated net worth: $25.2 billion
The youngest of 13 kids, Harold Hamm was raised by Oklahoma sharecroppers. This self-made billionaire started out by picking cotton barefoot as a child. The founder, chairman and CEO of oil company, Continental Resources, now has a net worth of $25.2 billion, but at age 16 he had to take a job at a gas station to support his family and loved ones.
10. J.K. Rowling
- Estimated net worth: $60 million
J.K. Rowling has shared her struggles as a single parent before the Harry Potter books turned her into the world’s highest-paid author. Though some current estimates have her dipping below the billion-dollar mark due to donations she’s made, she still holds the Guinness World Record for being the first $1 billion author.
“I remember 20 years ago not eating so my daughter would eat,” she said. “I remember nights when there was literally no money.”
11. Guy Laliberte
- Estimated net worth: $1.2 billion
The co-founder and CEO of Cirque Du Soleil was a former street performer before reaching his billionaire status. He went from being a fire-eater for spare change to selling his stake in Cirque Du Soleil for a fortune. He then founded Lune Rouge, which helps develop and fund projects in arts, technology and entertainment.
12. Kenny Troutt
- Estimated net worth: $1.5 billion
Trout grew up in public housing in Mount Vernon, Illinois with his single mother who bartended for a living. This self-made billionaire who was poor went on to found the phone company, Excel Communications, in 1988. He took the company public in 1996. After selling the company in 1998 for $3.5 billion, he invested the profits in horses and a variety of stocks.
13. Do Won Chang
- Estimated net worth: $3 billion
Before founding the clothing company Forever 21, Won Chang worked a few odd jobs. He was a janitor and worked in a coffee shop and at a gas station. Though the retail company has had its ups and downs in the market, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Won Chang rose from near poverty to becoming a self-made billionaire.
14. Stephen Bisciotti
- Estimated net worth: $7.2 billion
Stephen Bisciotti was raised by a single mother in Baltimore. He worked his way through high school before starting Allegis Group in 1983 in a basement with his cousin. It is now one of the biggest staffing firms in the United States and brings in about $12.3 billion in revenue annually.
15. Shahid Khan
- Estimated net worth: $12.2 billion
Before establishing himself as a prolific businessman, Shahid Khan worked as a dishwasher for just around $1 per hour. His ticket to success was his design of the one-piece truck bumper for his auto parts company, Flex-N-Gate. Among other business ventures, he is now the owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
16. George Soros
- Estimated net worth: $6.7 billion
There are humble beginnings and then there are tragic ones which can be all the more inspiring. George Soros survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary before moving to London without a penny to his name. This self-made billionaire who was poor is now a respected and celebrated hedge fund tycoon.
17. Jan Koum
- Estimated net worth: $15.2 billion
Jan Koum and his mother moved from Ukraine to the U.S. when he was 16 and secured an apartment through government assistance. He went on to found the world’s largest mobile messaging service, WhatsApp. In 2014, he got a massive payday when Facebook bought the startup for $22 billion.
18. Roman Abramovich
- Estimated net worth: $9 billion
Roman Abramovich was born into poverty in southern Russia where he was orphaned by age two. After starting a small plastic toy company, he went into the oil industry. This self-made billionaire who was poor eventually was able to sell a 73% stake in a Russian oil firm to a gas titan for $13 billion.
19. Leonardo Del Vecchio
- Estimated net worth: $27.3 billion at the time of death
Leonardo Del Vecchio’s mother had to give him to an orphanage as she couldn’t afford to care for him. From these poor beginnings, he rose to open and be the chairman of EssiloLuxottica, the largest retailer and producer of prescription glasses and sunglasses. Del Vecchio amassed a fortune before his death in 2022.
20. Francios Pinault
- Estimated net worth: $34.8 billion
High school is hard for many people, but Francois Pinault was bullied so much that he dropped out in 1974. From this, on his path to becoming a self-made billionaire, Pinault founded Kering. The company started as a building materials company and then transitioned into a luxury group that owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen. Today that company is run by Pinault’s son and is estimated to be worth $22 billion.
Final Take To GO
Whether you’re in need of some inspiration to start your own business, or you want to learn how to become a billionaire, judging from this list, there is not just one path from rags to riches. These aspirational tales can serve as a blueprint for what you could do next.
FAQHere are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding billionaires.
- How many billionaires grew up poor?
- Many billionaires had humble beginnings. Some billionaires who grew up poor are Oprah Winfrey, Howard Schultz and Ralph Lauren.
- Has there ever been a billionaire that went broke?
- Yes, some billionaires have gone broke. One such example is Mark Cuban -- he found himself in troubled financial waters at age 27. He went on to become a millionaire years just a few later and is now worth an estimated $5.2 billion.
Net worth figures are according to Forbes, unless otherwise noted.
Data is accurate as of Sept. 11, 2023, and is subject to change.
Our in-house research team and on-site financial experts work together to create content that’s accurate, impartial, and up to date. We fact-check every single statistic, quote and fact using trusted primary resources to make sure the information we provide is correct. You can learn more about GOBankingRates’ processes and standards in our editorial policy.
- CNBC. 2023. "Mark Cuban nearly went broke at age 27—and became a millionaire 5 years later."
- Guinness World Records. "First billion-dollar author."