These Famous Billionaires Have Humble Origin Stories

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

When you think of the world's richest people, you might see their houses and cars and assume they’ve always lived like kings. In some cases, they inherited the money and have never known hardship, but that’s often not the case.

In fact, some of the most well-known billionaires had it pretty rough when they were young and started as adults with nothing. They relied on passion, work ethic and perseverance to get them where they are today. Check out these 30 billionaires who rose from humble beginnings to build their own billion-dollar empires.

Howard Schultz

As the former CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz has a net worth of $4.2 billion, but he certainly didn't have riches growing up. He grew up in a public housing project in Brooklyn, and his family barely made ends meet. Schultz went to Northern Michigan University on an athletic scholarship and worked as a bartender to help pay expenses.

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Photo Courtesy: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

After graduation, Schultz got a job in sales at Xerox and later became the manager of U.S. operations at Hammerplast. In 1982, he became director of marketing for Starbucks and worked his way up to serve as CEO (the first time) from 1986 to 2000. He served as CEO again from 2008 to 2017.

J.K. Rowling

Before the mega success of her Harry Potter novels and the subsequent movie franchise, J.K. Rowling was a single mom struggling to pay her bills. She and her husband split after 13 months, leaving her with a young daughter to raise by herself.

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Photo Courtesy: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Although she had a passion for writing, she struggled to finish her now-cherished book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. After losing her mother in 1991, Rowling battled depression and suicidal thoughts while working on Harry Potter. After the book was completed and published, she quickly became one of the most successful and beloved writers in the world. Her net worth currently stands at $1 billion.

Mohed Altrad

Scaffolding mogul Mohed Altrad has a net worth of $2.6 billion, despite coming from very humble beginnings. His grandmother raised him after his young mother died, leaving him with a Bedouin father in the Syrian Desert who abandoned him.

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Altrad eventually went to school and graduated with a degree in physics and math before earning a Ph.D. in computer science. After spending some time working for a tech firm and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Altrad bought a scaffolding manufacturer in France along with a partner. Together, they started the Altrad Group, one of the world's leading manufacturers of scaffolding and cement mixers.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey was born to a teenage mom in rural Mississippi. She won a scholarship to Tennessee State University and became the first African American TV correspondent in the state. She was eventually fired from that job, but she refused to let that stop her.

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In 1983, Winfrey moved to Chicago to work for an AM talk show that would later become The Oprah Winfrey Show. She grew the hit show into a giant media and business empire that includes her own magazine and TV channel, OWN. With all her achievements, Winfrey has built her net worth to around $2.9 billion.

Shahid Khan

Shahid Khan has a true rags-to-riches story. The businessman emigrated from Pakistan at the young age of 16 with dreams of becoming an architect. He attended the University of Illinois while supporting himself as a dishwasher.

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Determined to earn more money, he abandoned the idea of becoming an architect and earned a degree in industrial engineering from the UIUC College of Engineering. He started his first job at automotive manufacturing company Flex-N-Gate and worked his way up through the ranks, eventually purchasing the company. With a net worth of $7 billion, Khan also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and the soccer club Fulham.

John Paul DeJoria

John Paul DeJoria is a first-generation American. Before the age of 10, he sold Christmas cards and newspapers to help support his family. He was eventually sent to live in a foster home and was initiated into a gang before joining the military.

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With only $700, DeJoria later created John Paul Mitchell Systems with his partner Paul Mitchell in 1980. Before the business took off, he sold the products door-to-door while living out of his car. Now, he runs that business and also has a stake in tequila maker Patrón. DeJoria's net worth currently stands at $3.2 billion.

Do Won Chang

Do Won Chang and his wife, Jin Sook, are the co-founders behind the popular Forever 21 fashion chain. Before the successful business made him $3 billion, Chang struggled to make ends meet. He worked three jobs simultaneously — coffee shop server, gas station attendant and janitor — to support his family.

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In 1984, the Changs started Forever 21 in a 900-square-foot store in Los Angeles with $11,000 in savings. Thanks to finding deals on closeouts, they bought clothing at cheap prices and made $700,000 in first-year sales. Before the popularity of shopping malls started to die, Forever 21 had 790 stores in 48 countries.

Stephen Bisciotti

When he was only 8 years old, Stephen Bisciotti and his family suffered a great tragedy when his father, Bernard, died of leukemia. His mother, Patricia, became a single mom with three kids to raise, and Bisciotti worked as a teen to help support his family.

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At the age of 23, he started recruitment and staffing agency Aerotek with his cousin in a basement. In the first year, they earned a shocking $1.5 million. Aerotek later changed its name to Allegis Group and became a multi-billion-dollar company with almost 500 offices worldwide. Bisciotti is also part-owner of the Baltimore Ravens and has a massive net worth of $4.5 billion.

Alan Gerry

Before becoming a successful businessman and billionaire, Alan Gerry was born to Russian immigrants in the United States. He eventually dropped out of high school to become a Marine. After his service, he went on to start a small television repair business.

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In 1956, Gerry took the money he saved from the business — around $1,500 — and founded his own cable company. The company expanded and became known as Cablevision, which was bought by Time Warner for an estimated $2.7 billion in 1996. As a result, Gerry now has a net worth of $1.4 billion.

Harold Hamm

Oil tycoon Harold Hamm's parents were cotton shareholders in Oklahoma. The family was so poor they had no indoor plumbing or electricity. As a young boy, Hamm often skipped school to help his dad pick cotton, and he later got a job pumping gas. He didn't go to college.

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Instead, he began studying geology on his own and launched his own trucking company. Surrounded by oil in the state of Oklahoma, he drilled a well and struck oil in the early 1970s. That led to a career in the oil business as the owner of Continental Resources, which has earned him $14.1 billion.

Zhang Xin

Chinese billionaire businesswoman Zhang Xin grew up with her mother in China during the Cultural Revolution. When Xin was 14 years old, they both became factory workers to pay the bills. At 19, she traveled to England to learn English and worked at a fish and chip shop to make money.

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Xin studied at Sussex and Cambridge before starting a job at Goldman Sachs. In 1995, she and her husband founded property development company SOHO China, which has developed more than 60 million square feet of land. Her hard work has helped her achieve an estimated net worth of $3.6 billion.

Guy Laliberté

At the beginning of his career, Cirque du Soleil co-founder and CEO Guy Laliberté was a street performer. The Canadian-born entertainer played the accordion, walked on stilts and ate fire for audiences to earn money.

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Seeing the potential in these forms of entertainment, Laliberté flew a circus troupe from Quebec to Los Angeles on one-way tickets. They eventually traveled to Las Vegas and established the popular Cirque du Soleil performance group. The shows have been performed for more than 180 million spectators in more than 400 cities on six continents. Outside of his other investments, Cirque du Soleil alone has earned him $1.2 billion.

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos may be the richest person in the world with a net worth of $154 billion, but he certainly didn't come from wealth. His mother was just 16 when she became pregnant with Bezos. His father belonged to a unicycle troupe and worked at a retail store making $1.25 an hour, so the family barely made ends meet.

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When Bezos was 17 months old, his mom divorced his biological father. She eventually remarried Miguel Bezos, who adopted Jeff at 4 years old. Years later, after attending college at Princeton, Bezos got the idea to launch Amazon — and the rest is history.

Kenny Troutt

Billionaire Kenny Troutt was born to a single mother who worked as a bartender. They lived in public housing in Mount Vernon, Illinois. After graduating from high school, he studied at Southern Illinois University, paying his tuition by selling insurance.

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In 1988, Troutt founded long-distance phone company Excel Communications. He took the company public in 1996 and then sold it to Teleglobe in 1998 in a $3.5 billion deal. After the sale, he reinvested in stocks, bonds and horses, and the profits allowed him to retire with a $1.4 billion fortune. He now owns WinStar Farm in Kentucky and breeds horses.

Jan Koum

Computer programmer and billionaire Jan Koum worked his way up to the top. As a teen, he moved to California with his family, who relied on food stamps to eat. He helped contribute to his struggling family’s finances by sweeping floors.

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At 18, Koum became interested in programming and enrolled at San Jose State University. After working for years at Yahoo, he developed the instant messaging app WhatsApp, which was so successful that Facebook bought it for $19 billion. The huge deal earned him a massive net worth of $9 billion and a seat on the Facebook board of directors.

George Soros

Hedge fund tycoon George Soros was born in Hungary and is of Jewish descent. In his early teens, he posed as the godson of an employee of the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture during the Nazi invasion of the country in order to survive. He later worked as a waiter and railway porter while studying at the London School of Economics.

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After graduation, Soros worked at a souvenir shop before getting a job as a banker in New York City. In 1992, he shorted the British pound and made a profit of a billion dollars. His investments and assets are currently valued at $8 billion.

Ken Langone

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Ken Langone had a father who worked as a plumber and a mother who ran an elementary school cafeteria. In high school, his principal told his parents not to waste money sending the "unpromising" student to college. His parents disagreed and mortgaged their house so he could study economics at Bucknell University.

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After two years in the U.S. Army, Langone worked on Wall Street and took Electronic Data Systems public in 1968. In 1978, he coordinated the financing that led to the founding of U.S. retail giant The Home Depot by Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcus. His current net worth is around $3.6 billion.

Jay-Z

Rapper and media mogul Jay-Z truly knows the meaning of "hard knock life." He grew up in a single-parent household in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York. Before getting into music, Jay-Z admitted that he sold drugs as a teenager to make money.

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His music led to the co-founding of the Roc-A-Fella music label. He went on to buy D’Ussé, a cognac he co-owns with Bacardi, and music-streaming service TIDAL, and he launched entertainment agency Roc Nation. His multiple ventures led him to become the first billionaire in hip hop history, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion.

Larry Ellison

After contracting pneumonia at nine months old, Larry Ellison was given away by his biological mom and adopted by his aunt and uncle. He didn't see his biological mom again until he turned 48. In his younger years, he didn’t excel in school and ended up dropping out of college.

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Ellison had a few jobs before he began his first software company, SDL, in 1977. Later renamed Oracle, the company has created giant databases for companies like IBM, American Airlines and Ford. With Oracle and other investments, Ellison is the 10th richest person in the world, with a net worth of $60.2 billion.

Roman Abramovich

Orphaned at a young age, business tycoon Roman Abramovich was raised by his grandparents in Komi, a region in Siberia. He made money by selling gasoline, rubber ducks, perfumes and automotive parts as well as from business ventures such as pig farming and bodyguard recruitment.

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Abramovich eventually founded an oil business and made a name for himself within the oil industry. After acquiring Sibneft, he sold the oil company to state-run gas company Gazprom Neft in 2005 for $13 billion. He also acquired the Chelsea Football Club in 2003. His investments have earned him a net worth of $11.5 billion.

David Murdock

David Murdock is dyslexic and dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. He worked at a gas station before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. Although he served in World War II, he came back from the war with nowhere to live and no money.

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Murdock borrowed $900 and bought a diner in Detroit, which he flipped for a nice profit. He used the money to buy a car and drove to Arizona, where he started the real estate company Castle & Cooke. That company grew to eventually include Dole Food Company. Those ventures, along with his other properties, have earned Murdock $2 billion.

Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren was born the youngest child of Jewish immigrants. His mother was an artist, and his father was a house painter, and the family had very little money. Lauren graduated from high school, but he later dropped out of college to join the U.S. Army.

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Photo Courtesy: Taylor Hill/WireImage

Lauren eventually went to work as a clerk at Brooks Brothers department store. In 1967, he started making his own ties in a small office in New York, and the Ralph Lauren Corporation was born. The business ultimately grew into a massive fashion brand with apparel and fragrances, earning Lauren a net worth of $7.2 billion.

Francois Pinault

French tycoon and fashion mogul Francois Pinault was actually severely bullied in school because he and his family were so poor. He eventually dropped out, but he didn't give up on his dreams of owning a business.

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In 1963, Pinault started his first business, a company that made wood and building materials. In the 1980s, he changed the direction and the name (PPR) of the business to focus on luxury goods after buying a controlling stake in Gucci Group. Eventually becoming known as Kering, the company now owns brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and PUMA. Pinault serves as the honorary chairman of the company and has a net worth of $32.7 billion.

Frank Lowy

Frank Lowy was born in Slovakia in 1930 and lived in Czechoslovakia for a time. At the start of World War II, he and his family moved to Hungary to avoid being arrested by the Nazis. Lowy spent time in a detention camp in Cyprus and fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War before moving to Australia with one suitcase and no money.

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In Australia, Lowy was able to reunite with his family, and he met fellow immigrant John Saunders. The two established Westfield Corporation and began developing shopping centers across Australia. The business has earned Lowy a net worth of $5.8 billion.

Amancio Ortega

Amancio Ortega came from very humble beginnings in Spain. At the age of 14, he left school, moved to A Coruña and started working as a shop hand at a local shirt maker. Years later, Ortega and his wife launched their own textile manufacturing company and opened their first store, Zara, which produced popular fashions at low prices.

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Zara became a popular fashion chain, and the couple formed Inditex to serve as the parent company for Zara and other fashion brands like Massimo Dutti, Bershka and Oysho. Now, Ortega is the sixth richest person in the world with a net worth of $70 billion.

Lakshmi Mittal

Lakshmi Mittal had a humble start in the state of Rajasthan in India. He was born to a poor family with very little money and few opportunities. He worked for more than two decades in the steel industry, slowly building his experience and finances with his own company, Mittal Steel.

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In 2006, Mittal Steel merged with Arcelor of Luxembourg, and the combined company now has offices in more than 60 countries. Now the world's largest steelmaker, ArcelorMittal brings in billions of dollars in revenue each year, and Mittal personally has a net worth of $17.8 billion.

Li Ka-shing

Li Ka-shing is respected as one of the most influential businessmen in Asia. However, his early life was far from easy. He and his family left mainland China for Hong Kong in the 1940s. Ka-shing's father died when he was 15, and he became responsible for supporting his entire family.

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Although it was very difficult, Ka-shing started his own company, Cheung Kong Industries, in 1950. The company was a manufacturing enterprise at first but later expanded into real estate. Through his company, Ka-shing has earned a massive net worth of $33.1 billion.

Leonardo Del Vecchio

Born in Italy, Leonardo Del Vecchio (pictured on the right) was one of five children in a very poor family. He and his siblings were eventually sent to an orphanage because his parents couldn’t take care of them. He eventually began working as an apprentice at a car factory to put himself through design school.

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At the age of 25, Del Vecchio opened his own molding shop, Luxottica. The company has evolved over the years to become the world’s largest maker of sunglasses and owns Sunglass Hut, LensCrafters, Ray-Ban and Oakley. In fact, Luxottica makes glasses for almost every fashion brand. Del Vecchio has a net worth of $23.5 billion.

Thomas Peterffy

With a net worth of $20.3 billion, Thomas Peterffy is definitely the richest person in Florida. However, he was born in Budapest, Hungary, in a hospital during a Russian air raid. He immigrated to New York when he was 21 years old, with no money and no knowledge of English. Nonetheless, he eventually got a job as an architectural draftsman.

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Peterffy managed to save enough money to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, enabling him to electronically trade securities. He started leading securities firm Interactive Brokers, which now has more than $6 billion in equity capital.

Sheldon Adelson

Sheldon Adelson was born in the rough Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. His father was a taxi driver, and his mother ran a knitting group. He always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and at just 12 years old, he borrowed $200 from his uncle to purchase a license to sell newspapers locally.

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After spending some time in the U.S. Army and as a journalist, Adelson opened multiple businesses, including those to sell toiletry kits and run charter tours. In the late 1980s, he started his own casino business that ultimately expanded into the global Las Vegas Sands Corporation. Adelson is now worth $38.1 billion.