Rags-to-riches: 5 Billionaires Who Started from the Bottom

Graphic showing a male and female entrepreneur high-fiving, with a positive trend line in the background, representing their successful journey from the bottom to the top.

The world keeps telling us that in order to succeed we need more and more education. We have to do well in high school so we can go to college and get a bachelor’s degree; do well in college so we can get accepted into a Master’s program, and so on, and so forth. But some entrepreneurs abandoned schoolbooks and seized an opportunity to rise above the formalities. And in doing so earned an incredible fortune and became billionaires.

It’s through these people that we should remember that sometimes all it takes is experience, vision and determination to succeed in life. Here are five such individuals: rags to riches 5 billionaires who started from the bottom.

Dhirubhai Ambani

Dhirubhai Ambani, born as the son of a schoolmaster, grew up in a very humble family. And though Ambani had no financial backing or educational experience, like many others he dreamed of making his mark in the world. It was during his time as a petrol pumper (gas station attendant) in Aden, Yemen that he formulated a plan to start a polyester business.

Ambani grew his business from these meagre beginnings, turning it into what is now known as Reliance Industries. Not only one of the largest companies in India, it has helped paved the way for India to become self-sufficient in petroleum refining. Reliance Industries has a sales turnover of more than $73 billion.

Kenneth Langone

Kenneth Langone, who went on to become an investment banker known for his association with Home Depot, was once the proud son of a plumber and a cafeteria worker. After his parents took out a second mortgage on their home, he worked through the day as a butcher’s assistant, golf caddy and a ditch digger, while going to school at the New York University Stern School of Business at night.

Over the next decade, Langone began to study the home improvement business and eventually bought stock in Handy Dan, a home improvement chain. In time, Langone would organise financing to found Home Depot with a few other successful entrepreneurs. Now a national chain with over 300,000 employees, Langone’s drive to succeed has definitely paid dividends.

Oprah Winfrey

Born in Mississippi in 1954, Oprah Winfrey’s beginnings were humble. The daughter of a single mother who worked as a housemaid, Oprah spent her first six years in the guardianship of her poverty-stricken maternal grandmother. She was often mocked for having no shoes and wearing potato-sack dresses because she was penniless and without basic necessities of the time. After enduring sexual abuse at the hands of extended relatives and a family friend, she left home at 13. At 14 she would become pregnant but lose the baby after only a week’s time.

By 19, she would turn her life around, winning multiple beauty pageants and even a scholarship to Tennessee State University for academics. She would become the first African-American TV correspondent and has since become one of the most recognised and powerful women on the planet. Known for her very popular talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she has even developed her own television network.

Joanne Kathleen “J.K.” Rowling

J.K. Rowling lived a fairly low-key life before she created the world-wide phenomenon known as Harry Potter. Once a secretary and school teacher, she fell on hard times after she and her husband divorced shortly after the birth of their daughter. Despite being unemployed and living on government assistance, Rowling determinedly set out to achieve success.

Living in a small flat, Rowling remained dedicated to writing the story that had been building up inside her. Throughout cold winter days—she couldn’t afford to pay for heat in her flat—she’d carry her daughter to a nearby cafe where she’d write in two-hour blocks on napkins and used paper. It was here that she developed the first book in one of the most popular and successful children book series ever created.

Kirk Kerkorian 

In order to help sustain his Armenian-immigrant family through financial straights, Kirk Kerkorian dropped out of school in the eighth grade to make money doing odd jobs. He would moonlight as a boxer, winning the Pacific amateur welterweight championship. During World War II, Kerkorian worked for Britain’s Royal Air Force where, in two and a half years with RAF Ferry Command, Kerkorian delivered 33 planes, logged thousands of hours, travelled to four continents and flew his first four-engine plane.

It was this kind of bravado and initiative that helped him join the elite crowd in Las Vegas, where he turned his passion for construction into many of the areas biggest resorts and hotels. Kerkorian is known as one of the important figures in shaping Las Vegas and, along with architect Martin Stern, Jr is known as the “father of the mega-resort.”

When people see a Forbes list of richest people in the world, they often don’t see the regular person that worked hard to make it big. They don’t see the risks and the failures, either. It’s easy to say that ‘so-and-so’ had it easy, that their parents had a hand in the outcome, that they’re lucky; but the reality is that more than 70% of the top 100 billionaires are self-made.

The defining factor of being one of these self-made billionaires has little to do with how smart they are, what school they attended or what secret knowledge they may hold about an industry—they simply worked hard to succeed.

Just like any success in life, it takes hard work and a never-give-up attitude to reach success. Time for you to be part of that 70%.