Every time you turn on the television, it feels like all you see are people flaunting power, money, and fame. Shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, the Real Housewives series and spinoffs, Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, and others seem to dominate the airwaves. This led me to think: Why are people so obsessed with shows about how much money other people have, and how they choose to live their lives?
I’d like to turn the tables and pay less attention to people who were born or married into wealth and instead focus on those who rose up and worked their way to success. These people made lemonade out of lemons and called upon skills they may have not even known they had.
Here are five successful people who started at the bottom, worked their way up the ladder, and now helm some of the most successful companies in the world.
Although his business is now worth anywhere from $3.2 to $4 billion dollars, John Paul DeJoria didn’t start out as the king of tequila. When he was younger, he worked a variety of jobs to help support his struggling family—selling everything from Christmas cards, to newspapers, and shampoo door-to-door. There was even a period of time where he was forced to sleep in his car.
He didn’t let those hardships stop him. DeJoria used his brief experience in sales to team up with Paul Mitchell in 1980 to help establish the Paul Mitchell brand of hair care, which currently makes about $1 billion a year in profit. He didn’t stop there: He took his success in the hair care industry and went on to invest in other markets, including high-end tequila.
The moral of the story is that DeJoria found a niche he was good at—helping customers—and worked diligently to develop himself into the successful businessperson he is today.
Shahid Khan has been referred to as “the face of the American Dream.” Born to a middle-class family in Pakistan, Khan came to the U.S. when he was 16 years old in order to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His first job was washing dishes for $1.20 an hour.
He then worked at automobile parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate while he continued his studies in the University of Illinois’ engineering program. When he graduated he became the company’s engineering director, and also started a small business developing customized bumper stickers for cars and trucks.
In 1980 he combined both jobs when he bought Flex-N-Gate. Some estimates place the company’s current revenue at around $3 billion dollars in revenue. Khan’s story shows that it doesn’t matter where you start out in life: With persistence and dedication, you can do anything. He didn’t settle for a life of washing dishes. He worked hard to graduate from college and turned an entry-level job into a billion-dollar company.
Ralph Lauren graduated from high school in the Bronx then went to college and eventually dropped out to join the Army. After serving his country, and without a lot of direction in life, he got a job as a sales clerk at popular retail chain Brooks Brothers.
He didn’t settle for a life of selling another brand’s clothes, however. He got creative and began to wonder how he could change the face of men’s clothing and fulfill a gap in the current market.
Now a household name that encompasses everything from clothes to fragrances, dining and home furnishings, Polo earned Lauren a fortune of nearly $6 billion dollars. Thanks to his creativity and unwillingness to be satisfied with mediocrity, Lauren can now boast that he’s one of the 200 richest people in the world. Not bad for a former clerk.
Karen Kaplan, CEO of advertising giant Hill Holliday, is a leader who shows that it pays to start out in the bottom. Her first job with the company was as a receptionist, where she took advantage of her ability to interact with many people in different positions within the company. She made connections and learned more about the field of advertising.
She had to fight to become a secretary, and at the time was underqualified for that position: Kaplan didn’t know how to type! She didn’t let that stop her, though, and spent extra time at the office on evenings and weekends in order to excel at her position.
In 2012 she was named the 14th most important woman in advertising, and worked her way through the company until she was named CEO in 2013. Hill Holliday is currently worth approximately $184 million dollars. Her story should inspire every mail clerk, receptionist, secretary, and entry-level office worker: Work toward the job you want, not the one you have.
Best known for her long-running talk show, Oprah Winfrey is also famous for her performances as an actress on television and in movies, as well as for her philanthropic work. Her success has earned her the status of billionaire, but this strong female leader certainly did not start out wealthy.
Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi to a single mother, but was raised primarily by her grandmother and father. She faced many life-changing challenges early on, such as abuse and the loss of her infant son, but Winfrey excelled in high school while simultaneously working in a grocery store. She eventually earned a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she studied communications.
She worked part-time at a local radio station in college; this experience, coupled with her strong will to succeed, led her to become the TV personality that she is today. Winfrey can proudly say that she had nothing handed to her except the support of her family; everything she has today is because she worked hard to overcome obstacles and earn her success. Her example should serve as a role model for anyone who grew up in difficult circumstances and is struggling to succeed.
A common thread between all these successful businessmen and women is that none of them let their humble beginnings dictate their future. Instead, they made the most of their situations to develop the skills necessary to succeed in difficult industries. They are all hardworking, driven, creative, and insatiable—qualities necessary in order to make it from the bottom of the corporate ladder to the top.
Hopefully their stories inspire you, regardless of where you came from and what you’re currently doing. Know that anyone can be successful with enough courage, tenacity, and heart.
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