Many of today’s wealthiest and most powerful chief executives are entirely self-made. They were born into modest circumstances and worked hard for everything they have. Others have come from much more desperate backgrounds, which, thankfully, many of us will never have to know.
Many were born into poverty and raised in violent neighborhoods with rampant crime. But thanks to a combination of resourcefulness, ingenuity and a strong work ethic, they managed to transcend their circumstances. Today, they thrive in business and head some of the most profitable companies in the world.
In most cases, these future CEOs started working early in life and took menial childhood jobs to help their families get by. However, many of their struggles provided them with a survival instinct and it fostered an eye for opportunities that less-desperate people might overlook. It also produced the ability to stretch a dollar past its breaking point, a handy skill for anyone trying to cobble together start-up costs. Poverty can often help cultivate qualities that are strong business assets.
Who are the American CEOs who went from rags to riches? Click ahead to find out.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 14 July 2011
Lloyd Blankfein is the chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs Group. He was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in a Brooklyn housing project by his father, a postal employee, and his mother, a receptionist. He went to work himself as a vendor at Yankee Stadium while he was still a boy.
Blankfein attended Harvard Univerisity and earned a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School. After working as a tax attorney, he joined J. Aron & Co., a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs and worked his way up to the position of CEO, earning a reported $73 million in 2007.
Until May 25, 2011, Oprah Winfrey was known as a popular talk-show host with a vast media empire. However, since The Oprah Winfrey Show went off the air that fateful spring day, she’ll just have to be happy with the vast media empire alone.
Apart from spending 25 years as the host of the highest-rated daytime talk show in TV history, Winfrey was ranked the richest African-American in Forbes magazine in 2009 and the ninth most influential U.S. liberal in 2007 by The Telegraph.
Winfrey’s dominant position in the world stands in stark contrast to her upbringing. She was born into abject poverty to a teenaged mother in Mississippi and raised in squalor in Milwaukee. After moving to Tennessee during high school, she got her foot in the broadcasting world’s door by taking a job in radio. Winfrey showed a preternatural talent as an on-air personality, and by the time she was 19 she was anchoring the evening news. She transitioned into hosting a daytime talk show in Chicago, and the rest is history.
John Paul Dejoria is the co-founder and CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems, a hair-care product manufacturer. His parents divorced when he was two years old, and he went to work at age nine to help support his family. He ended up in foster care nonetheless, and after graduating high school he served in the U.S. Navy and worked as a janitor.
Dejoria reached his lowest point when he joined the ranks of the homeless. Amazingly, he overcame these odds and co-founded John Paul Mitchell Systems with hairdresser Paul Mitchell in 1980. According to Forbes magazine, his net worth in 2009 stood at $4 billion, a remarkable achievement by almost any standard. However, in Dejoria’s case, it represents a triumph over almost unimaginable adversity.
Every morning, millions of Americans get caffeinated on Starbucks coffee, and they have its chairman and CEO Howard Schultz to thank for it.
He grew up in a housing project in Canarsie, Brooklyn, a neighborhood so poor that today it doesn’t even have a Starbucks. He was the first person in his family to attend college, and after graduating he took a job with Hammerpalast, a company that manufactured coffee makers. While on the job he met a representative from Starbucks, then a mere start-up.
Schultz was so taken with the product that he became their director of marketing, and from there he scaled the corporate ladder to its highest rung. This success allowed him to establish the Maveron venture capital firm and purchase the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team. However, he’s still best known for the coffee, which gave him his $29.7 million compensation package in 2011.
Sean Combs is a rapper, known variously as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Puff and Puffy. He was born in Harlem and raised by his mother, a schoolteacher living in public housing. His father was murdered when Combs was three years old, and the family relocated to Mount Vernon, just outside of the Bronx.
Combs attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., while simultaneously interning at Uptown Records in New York City. The internship won out, and he dropped out of college to focus on Uptown, where he was instrumental in developing such R&B artists as Mary J. Blige and Jodeci early in their careers. Aside from his own considerable success as a musician, he’s thrived in clothing design since starting his own apparel label, Sean John, in 1998. He serves as its CEO to this day.
Ursula M. Burns is the chairwoman and CEO of Xerox. She is the first female African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and the 20th most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes magazine.
She was born in New York City and raised in a housing project by a single mother. After earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, she took a job with Xerox and was promoted to executive assistant. By 1999, she was the vice president of global manufacturing, and 10 years later, she grabbed the reins of the company by succeeding CEO Anne Mulcahy.
Steve Jobs is the chairman and CEO of Apple, the same company that fired him in 1985 when it experienced a slump in sales. After the dismissal, he founded NeXT Computer and purchased the company that would one day become Pixar.
Meanwhile, Apple struggled without him, and after 10 years of sub-par performance the company brought him back, this time as CEO. Today, Jobs is credited with returning the company to profitability and ushering in its current market dominance. His current net worth is $8.3 billion.
If Jobs was unfazed by his dismissal from the company that he had co-founded, it may have been because he had experienced hard times before. He attended Reed College in Portland, Ore., and dropped out after completing just one semester, but stuck around to continue auditing classes. According to his commencement address to Stanford University’s class of 2005, he survived during this period by collecting discarded soda cans, sleeping on friends’ living room floors, and walking seven miles across town to get the occasional free hot meal at a Hare Krishna temple.
Chris Gardner is the CEO of Gardner Rich & Co., a Chicago stockbrokerage firm that he established in 1987. Prior to that, while training to be a stockbroker and living off of a $1,000 a month stipend, he and his son were homeless. Living in the seedy Tenderloin district in San Francisco, they sometimes found shelter in the mass transit system’s bathrooms. Eventually, they moved into a facility for the homeless and were able to get back on their feet.
If this sounds like it could be a Hollywood movie, it’s because it is. Gardner’s story formed the basis for his intentionally misspelled 2006 memoir, The Pursuit of Happyness. It was released as a major motion picture starring Will Smith that same year, and it went on to earn over $307 million at the worldwide box office.
Sheldon Adelson is chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands casino resort company, based in the appropriately named Nevada city of Paradise. Born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, he grew up in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. According to friend and business associate Irwin Chafetz, “Rich in our neighborhood then was having $3 in your pocket.”
He began his business career as boy, selling newspapers to help his family make rent. As an adult, he partnered with two friends and developed the computer trade show Comdex, which was profitable enough to allow him to purchase the Sands Casino. In 2008, it was the second most profitable casino in Las Vegas, beaten only by the Bellagio. As of March 2011, Adelson’s net worth is over $23.3 billion, and he occupies the number 16 spot on the Forbes list of billionaires.
Curtis Jackson is better known as the rapper 50 Cent. His 2003 album, Get Rich or Die Tryin', was the top-selling album of 2003 and sold eight million copies. Following that album’s success, Jackson formed his own label, G-Unit Records, whose first release was the double-platinum selling Beg For Mercy, by the rap group G-Unit.
Jackson was born in South Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., and raised by his grandparents after his mother was murdered when he was eight years old. Jackson himself almost met a similar fate when he was shot at the age of 25, but he defied the odds and survived. Two years later, he signed to Shady Records, the label established by rapper Eminem, and embarked on a highly successful music career from which he has never looked back.