10 Inspiring Rags-to-Riches Stories –
Many social reformers and revolutionaries have criticized the concept of “rags to riches” calling it a story that causes an illusion of survivorship bias preventing the working class from agitating against inequality. But, there have been people who have, against all odds, worked hard to achieve their dreams becoming very wealthy in the process. Here is a list of ten inspiring rags-to-riches stories that are lesser known and of people who turned their struggles into small ladders, connecting them with each another, climbing towards success. These people have seen the worst and emerged stronger out of the storm.
1. Julia Stewart was a waitress at IHOP when she started out at 16. She became the President at Applebees through years of hard work, and when she was passed over to be the CEO there, she became the CEO at IHOP and then led IHOP to acquire Applebee’s.
When Applebee’s, the largest casual dining brand in the world, was acquired by IHOP under the leadership of Julia Stewart, she said, “Make the minnow swallow the whale.” Stewart began as a waitress pouring coffee and delivering flapjacks at Applebee’s when she was 16 years old and worked hard on her way up. She was passed over as the CEO at Applebee’s after which she became the CEO of IHOP and then acquired Applebee’s forming Dine Brands Global, America’s largest casual dining company in 2007. In that year, she ranked 49 on the Forbes list of “The 50 Most Powerful Women.”
When she was young, her parents were skeptical about her joining the restaurant business, but it was her passion that made her skip the decision of getting an MBA like the others and get some real experience. When she was working as a waitress, she said that she always knew that she was going to run something. (source)
2. Jim Carrey, the actor who now has a net worth of $150 million, lived out of a van at 12 and dropped out of school at 16. He worked nights with his family at an Ontario warehouse and did an 8-hour shift of custodian work after school.
The Mask actor Jim Carrey has worked hard to become what he is today. Now popular and very wealthy, Jim Carrey was rendered homeless at the age of 12 when his father lost his job. Then followed the traumatic period of living out of a van with his family. He was 28 when his career in Hollywood launched with the TV series In Living Color. Before that, he was a stand-up comedian known for energetic slapstick performances.
Carrey worked as a janitor after school for eight hours and dropped out of school at 16 to pursue full-time work. He used to work at night with his family to clean a warehouse in Ontario to earn a living. (1,2)
3. Henry Ford was born into a farmer’s family and left home at the age of 16 working as an apprentice machinist, then as a farm hand, while simultaneously running a sawmill. At the age of 38, he founded the Ford Motor Company that is worth about $257 billion today.
Born on a farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan on July 30, 1863, Henry Ford was just 13 when his mother passed away leaving him devastated. After that, his father expected him to take over the farm work, but Henry Ford once said, “I never had any particular love for the farm—it was the mother on the farm I loved.” Three years after his mother passed away, Ford left home to work as an apprentice machinist in Detroit. But in 1882, he returned home to work on the farm where he became an expert at handling the Westinghouse portable steam engine, eventually being hired by Westinghouse to service them. In 1888, Ford got married and supported his family by farming and running a sawmill.
In 1891, he became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company, and when he was promoted two years later, he began his experimentation with gasoline engines. He developed the first Ford quadricycle in 1896, and in the same year, he was introduced to Thomas Edison who encouraged him to continue with his automobile experimentation. Ford resigned eventually and founded his own company called Detroit Automobile Company in 1899 backed by lumber baron William Murphy. Unhappy with it, he dissolved it to start the Henry Ford Company in 1901 with stockholders who made Ford the chief engineer. But Ford left the company due to differences, formed Ford & Malcomson, Ltd with only $28,000 capital. It was later renamed the Ford Motor Company, and it is worth at least $257 billion today. (source)
4. Born to a weaver’s family in a one-room house, Andrew Carnegie was a telegraph operator before he became one of the richest people in America with a worth of over $350 million in the 1900s. His first job was that of a bobbin boy in a mill where he was paid $1.20 a week.
A business magnate and a philanthropist who gave away almost 90% of his fortune, Andrew Carnegie had meager beginnings. He was born in Scotland in a typical weaver’s cottage which was shared with another family. When he was 13, his family had seen very hard times and the country was also in starvation. His mother assisted her brother who was a cobbler and sold sweetmeats to support the household. For the prospect of a better life, they moved to Pennsylvania in the US in 1848. The town was full of life and had a great industrial promise, but Carnegie’s father couldn’t sell his products which compelled the father and son to join a cotton mill as workers.
Carnegie spent 12 hours a day, 6 days a week changing spools of thread in a cotton mill at the age of 13 earning $1.20 a week at the start which was increased to $2 after his father quit the job. A year later, in 1849, he took up work as a telegraph messenger boy earning $2.50 a week and then eventually taking up a railroad job. He had made ample connections in all his jobs, and one of which was Thomas A. Scott who helped him in his initial days. He taught him how to do insider investing in railroad-related companies from which Carnegie earned and then re-invested accumulating wealth. He made the rest of his fortune in the steel industry. Whatever Carnegie earned over $50,000 a year, he would give away to those in need. (source)
5. Colonel Sanders lost his father when he was five, left home at 13 painting horse carriages for a living, and at 14 began working as a farm hand. Nearly 50 years later, he founded KFC and had a net worth of $3.5 million when he died in 1980.
Colonel Harland David Sanders founded Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in 1952 when he was 62 years old which is now present in 123 countries globally. He also acted as its brand ambassador. In his early life, Sanders held a lot of jobs like steam engine stoker, insurance salesman, conductor, railroad laborer, lawyer, wagoner in the US army, farm hand, and filling station operator. His first job was to paint horse carriages after he left home at the age of 13 due to a rough relationship with his stepfather. The title “Colonel” is not a military title but an honorary one. Even though he sold KFC at the age of 73, his face still appears on the logo.
Sanders began by selling fried chicken from his roadside restaurant in North Korbin, Kentucky during The Great Depression. This is when he developed his “secret recipe” and patented his style of cooking chicken in a pressure fryer. The first franchise of KFC opened in Utah in 1952, and since then there has been no end to it. (source)
6. Growing up in a housing complex for the poor, Howard Schultz, who has a net worth of $3.1 billion, worked as a salesman for Xerox after graduation, left Starbucks after they refused his idea to create a cafe, started his own cafe, bought Starbucks, and renamed his own cafe “Starbucks.”
Howard Schultz’s father was once a US army trooper and then a truck driver. Schultz escaped from poverty by playing sports such as football and basketball, and also became the first person from his family to attend college. After graduation, he worked as a salesman with the Xerox Corporation, but it was after he joined Hammarplast, a Swedish drip coffee maker manufacturer, that things began to change. The Starbucks Coffee Company of Seattle was only a coffee-bean shop when Schultz visited them as they were a client of Hammarplast. He was interested in working with the company, and a year later, he joined as its Director of Marketing.
When Schultz went to Milan, Italy, he saw how cafes lined the streets and served excellent espresso, serving as meeting spaces. He tried to convince the founders of Starbucks Coffee Company to start serving espresso and roll-out a cafe concept. Later, the company refused to roll out the cafe concept company-wide and said they did not want to get into the restaurant business. This is when Schultz resigned and collected money from his friends to start a coffee store, “Il Giornale.” Eventually, he bought Starbucks’ retail unit for 3.8 million dollars, opened more stores, and expanded it internationally. (source)
7. Ralph Lauren dropped out of college to work in the army and then took up a job as a sales assistant selling ties at a store. He started his own line of ties at 28, worked out of a single “drawer” from a showroom, and made deliveries himself. Now he has $7.2 billion.
Born to an Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant family in New York, Ralph Lauren did not complete his college education. He served in the US Army from 1962 to 1964 and then left to work as a sales assistant for Brooks Brothers selling ties. Thereafter, he worked as a salesman for a tie company, and when he was 28, he convinced the president of Beau Brummell, the tie manufacturer he was working for, to let him start a line of his own.
In 1967, the Ralph Lauren Corporation began with selling ties, and a year later, Lauren launched his line of menswear naming it “Polo” after his love for sports. He worked out of a single drawer from a showroom in the Empire State Building and made deliveries on his own. He was so good at his work that the Manhattan store of Bloomingdale’s, for the first time, gave a designer their entire in-store boutique and sold his line exclusively. Seven years later, his clothes were already being worn by actors in the movies. From then onwards, the sky was the limit for him. (source)
8. Leonardo Del Vecchio grew up in an orphanage and worked at a factory making molds for eyeglasses and auto parts. At 23, he opened his own molding shop, expanding it to become the world’s largest maker of sunglasses with brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley. He now has a net worth of $21.9 billion.
The founder of Luxottica, the world’s largest producer and retailer of sunglasses and lenses, Leonardo Del Vecchio was born to an impoverished family. His widowed mother sent him and his siblings away to an orphanage as she could not take care of them. Later on, he was working in a factory as an apprentice tool-and-die maker where, in an accident, he lost a part of his finger. He decided to use his metalworking skills to create spectacle parts and moved to Agordo in Italy which was the hub of the Italian eyewear industry.
At 23, he started his own molding shop, and in 1971, he entered the contract manufacturing business establishing the Luxottica brand. Today, the company has over 77,000 employees and 7,000 stores. (1,2)
9. Jan Koum, who has a net worth of $9.2 billion, was the son of a construction laborer in Ukraine. He immigrated to California with his mother at 16, swept grocery floors, and stood in line to collect food stamps. At 18, he was an expert computer hacker, and at 33, he founded WhatsApp.
Jan Koum got a small, two-bedroom apartment with the help of a social-support program where he lived with his mother and grandmother in California while his father lived in Ukraine. He was 21 when his father died, and 24 when his mother died after a long battle with cancer. He worked as a cleaner at a grocery store and eventually developed an interest in programming. He worked as a security tester at Ernst & Young as he studied at San Jose State University and then joined a group of hackers going by the name of “w00w00” in 1996. It was at Ernst & Young that he met Brian Acton. In 1997, Yahoo! hired him as an infrastructure engineer, after which he quit school where too he worked along with Acton.
In 2007, they both took a year off to travel to South America and played in an ultimate frisbee league. They both applied to work at Facebook, and they were both rejected! In 2009, Koum discussed his idea of WhatsApp with the name inspired from the common phrase “What’s up?” with his friend Alex Fishman. Acton later joined WhatsApp and was given the “co-founder”’ status after he brought in seed funding. Approximately seven years after Facebook rejected them, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, invited Koum to have dinner at his home. Ten days later, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion. (source)
10. Kirk Kerkorian, the owner of MGM movie studio and three popular hotels in Las Vegas, was born to Armenian-immigrant parents, dropped out school, learned English on the streets, and became a boxer to earn a living. He had a net worth of more than $4 billion when he died in 2015.
Described as “the father of the mega-resort,” he has built the world’s largest hotel three times, every time beating his own record. He first built the International Hotel in 1969, then the MGM Grand Hotel in 1973, and finally the MGM Grand in 1993. In 1969, he purchased the MGM movie studio.
Born to parents of Armenian origin, he dropped out of school in the eighth grade and became a fairly skilled amateur boxer fighting under the name “Rifle-Right Kerkorian.” Later, he learned to fly in the Mojave desert, not wanting to join the infantry sensing the onset of World War II. Pioneer aviator Pancho Barnes agreed to give him flying lessons in exchange for Kerkorian’s services in milking and looking after his cattle. In six months, Kerkorian gained his commercial pilot’s license. He used his savings to buy a plane and then operated a chartered airline which gave him enough money to buy 80 acres of land in Las Vegas. Nothing stopped him after that. In 2000, he was named the “10th largest donor in the US” by Time. (source)