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    10 Famous CEOs Who Came From Nothing

    They started from the bottom now they're here.

    Henry Ford


    You know him as the inventor of the Model T and the man who set the standard for modern mass production, but Henry Ford was not always a titan of industry. He came from supremely humble beginnings, born to farmer parents in rural Michigan. While his father intended for young Henry to take over the family farm, the young man wanted no part of it. Then, a series of machinist jobs and a transformative meeting with Thomas Edison led Ford to design and build automobiles. His first car company failed, but it was the Ford Motor Company that he established in 1903 that would be his successful business. The Model T was introduced five years later, and the rest, as they say, is history.

    Sam Walton

    Luke Frazza / AFP / Getty Images / Via

    The founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club was born on a farm in Kingfisher, Oklahoma and came of age just as the crippling economic reality of the Great Depression set in. In order to survive, his family moved around a lot, and young Sam took it upon himself to earn money however he could to help support his parents and younger brother. A college degree in economics landed him a management job at JC Penney, but he soon left for World War II military service. After the war, he returned to buy a variety store, and then own a series of five and dimes. The first Walmart was opened in 1962, and it was so successful that by 1985, there were 800 such stores around the US.

    Suze Orman

    David Shankbone / Via

    Orman has become wildly successful by giving common sense financial advice to the masses. She’s a motivational speaker, a television personality, and a best selling author with an estimated net worth of over $35 million. Her childhood, though, was anything but glamorous; she grew up on Chicago’s south side with working class parents. After a stint as a waitress and another as a restaurant owner, she worked as a Merrill Lynch account executive, then landed a VP job at Prudential. Finally, in 1987, she opened her own financial group and began writing financial advice books. A show on CNBC followed in 2002, and things just took off from there.

    Larry Ellison

    Oracle Corporate Communications / Via

    The former CEO and co-founder of Oracle and world’s third wealthiest man was not always the picture of entrepreneurial success. He was born to a single mother and raised by his aunt and uncle in Chicago. He dropped out of not one but two colleges, but still managed to find work as a database engineer with various companies, including the CIA. The company he founded in 1977, which would eventually become Oracle, went on to become a software industry leader. Ellison stepped down as CEO last year, but he remains Oracle’s chairman and chief technology officer.

    Ingvar Kamprad


    You may not know his name, but you surely know what made Ingvar Kamprad so successful. As the founder of IKEA, Kamprad built an empire on creating attractive, flat-pack, affordable furniture. His beginnings were much less auspicious, though. Kamprad was raised in rural Sweden and did all sorts of things to earn money. He founded IKEA in 1943 as a mail order business. He started selling furniture five years later and opened his first store ten years after that. A great deal of success in Europe and Asia led to IKEAs opening up in North America, Australia, and even the Middle East. Kamprad’s success did not happen overnight, but it did happen through careful expansion and continued production of products that people love.

    Kevin Plank


    Plank founded Under Armour athletic wear out of sheer necessity: whenever he’d play football, he’d sweat right through whatever he was wearing. There has to be a better way, he thought, to make an athletic shirt. The child of middle class parents, Plank was always entrepreneurial, running small businesses throughout college and earning a degree in business administration. He started his fledgling company out of his grandmother’s home in the late 1990s, but tenacity and strong marketing helped to boost Under Armour’s visibility and sales. Currently, Plank is worth an estimated $3.5 billion.

    Mark Cuban


    The owner of the Dallas Mavericks and several entertainment companies, Cuban was not born into a family of media moguls. He’s from the working class city of Pittsburgh and held down several jobs in high school to earn money so he buy the things he wanted. He chose to go to college at Indiana University partly based on the ranking of its business department but mostly based on its affordable tuition. He founded his first company in the early 1980s after getting fired from his first job, sold it seven years later for a $2 million profit, and then did the same thing with his second company. He bought up large stakes in a handful of other companies, including a majority one in the Dallas Mavericks, and his diversified investments and high profile personality give him a reported net worth of $3 billion.

    Oprah Winfrey

    Alan Light / Via

    Very few entrepreneurs are at the point where they’re on a first name basis with the general public, but then again, very few entrepreneurs are as visible as Oprah Winfrey. You thought she was just a talk show host? Oh no. Winfrey did host her own wildly successful talk show, but she also established production company Harpo Studios, starred in major motion pictures, had a heavy hand in writing five books, and creating both a magazine and a radio channel in her name. Her upbringing was nothing like this, though. She was born in Mississippi to a poor, single, teenage mother, then later moved to Milwaukee, then to Nashville to live with her father. She was abused by family members, ran away from home as a teenager, and even became pregnant, but she never lost her drive. After graduating college on a scholarship for her outstanding speaking skills, Winfrey started climbing the media ladder at small news stations, relocating to Chicago in the early 1980s to host a morning show. She got her own syndicated show in 1986, and it went on for 25 years.

    Ralph Lauren

    Edgar de Evia / Via

    His Polo clothing is ubiquitous, and he’s even just opened a restaurant in New York City, but Ralph Lauren did not come from a fashion empire family. He was born in the Bronx to immigrant working class parents, though he always had big aspirations. After graduating from high school, he attended college for two years before dropping out, then joined the US Army for another two. While working as a salesperson for Brooks Brothers, he was inspired to redesign a popular menswear item: the necktie. Immediate interest, slow expansion, and a reputation for well made clothing with classic lines turned his homegrown necktie business into an international success. Currently an entrepreneur and a philanthropist, Lauren understands the importance of having tenacity in business and compassion for great need.

    Dr. Dre

    Jason Persse / Via

    It might not seem that a hip hop artist like Dr. Dre belongs on a list of successful business owners, but you might not know that he does a lot more than just rap. Dre, or Andre Young, was born in Compton, the same working class city that would inspire the controversial Straight Outta Compton LP his group NWA released in 1988. In the 1990s, Dre co-founded several record labels, worked as a producer on dozens of albums, and was instrumental in launching the careers of several successful artists. Since then, he’s made the move to the tech sector and the popular Beats by Dre line of headphones; the company was bought by Apple in 2014 for $3 billion. A tireless promoter and budding philanthropist in his own right, Dre shows that coming from a difficult past can still lead to a successful future.

    The ten entrepreneurs discussed here may not be true Horatio Alger stories, but they all prove a point: that you can make something from essentially nothing. There were undoubtedly a few lucky breaks and fortuitous meetings along the way, but all of these business owners created their own success using their own ingenuity, drive, and persistence. As many of them have been quoted as saying (particularly Mark Cuban, who used a version of this phrase as the title of one of his books), if they can do it, you can do it!

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