Overcoming The Odds: These Billionaires Used To Live In Poverty

Billionaires aren’t all born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In fact, many came from nothing at all. The “rags-to-riches” story may sound cliché, but for some of the most famous billionaires, it’s reality. Through extraordinary grit and perseverance, individuals across the globe have beat the odds and achieved extreme success. They used to be ditch-diggers, janitors, and even a circus performer, but now they are some of the wealthiest people on the planet.

J.K. Rowling Lived in Poverty

Ferdaus Shamim/Sygma/ Getty Images
Ferdaus Shamim/Sygma/ Getty Images

In 1990, J.K. Rowling was waiting for a late train when she came up with the idea for her series of novels, Harry Potter. Her first book of the series wasn’t published until 1997. During the seven years in between, Rowling underwent massive personal upheaval that included her mother’s death, the birth of her first child and a divorce from her first husband.

She lived in poverty and was receiving state benefits until her novel became a bestseller. Rowling became the world’s first billionaire author, however, she has since given away much of her money to charity. Rowling is one of the richest people in the world.

Billionaire Francois Pinault Used to be Teased for Being Poor

Alexis DUCLOS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Alexis DUCLOS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Francois Pinault was born in France to a poor family. He allegedly left school because he was treated so horribly by his peers for his low economic status. His poor status was a driving force for Pinault. He became the majority shareholder and honorary chairman of Kering, which owns brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen.

He became known for being a ruthless businessman. When the market crashes, he buys smaller firms at a low price and turns them into a success. Pinault is worth a reported $28.5 billion and is also the owner of Christie’s, a world-renowned auction house. His son, Francois-Henri Pinault, is notable for marrying Mexican film star Salma Hayek and runs the business today.

Lakshmi Mittal Took Hold of the Steel Industry

Neville Elder/Corbis/Getty Images
Neville Elder/Corbis/Getty Images

Lakshmi Mittal is an Indian entrepreneur, born in the state of Rajasthan. His family was poor but that didn’t stop Lakshmi from overcoming obstacles and gaining massive wealth. He attended school in Calcutta and managed to open his first steel factory by age twenty-six years old.

The BBC reported that Lakshmi, “established the foundations of his fortune over two decades by doing much of his business in the steel industry equivalent of a discount warehouse.” He now has an estimated net worth of $18.5 billion and runs the world’s largest steelmaking company. In 2008, he was awarded the Forbes Lifetime Achievement award.

Guy Laliberté Acrobatic Beginnings

Chris Polk/FilmMagic/ Getty Images
Chris Polk/FilmMagic/ Getty Images

Guy Laliberte is best known as the founder and CEO of Cirque de Soleil, the outrageously successful traveling circus group. Despite Laliberte’s net worth now being listed as $1.19 billion, he didn’t start from a place of wealth. Laliberte was born in Canada and became a circus performer as a young man.

In the circus, he played the accordion, was a fire-eater and walked on stilts. After gaining experience, Laliberte decided to start a circus troupe. He flew the group from Quebec to Los Angeles on a one-way ticket and never looked back. The group made their way to Las Vegas, re-named themselves Cirque de Soleil and became internationally known.

Do Won Chang & Jin Sook Founded Forever 21

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

In 1981, Do Won Chang and his wife Jin Sook arrived in the United States from South Korea. At the time, there was much discord in the country and the couple went to America in search of a better life. Jin Sook worked as a hairdresser, a trade she learned back home.

Do Won worked multiple jobs to pay the bills, including washing dishes, working at a gas station, and cleaning offices. After Do Won worked at a retail store, the couple decided to start their own retail company and Forever 21 was born. The store is now international, and they have a net worth of around $3.1 billion.

The Truth Of George Soros

Pool APESTEGUY/SIMON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Pool APESTEGUY/SIMON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

We often hear the name of George Soros as a mysterious Democratic donor but not many people know the story of the man behind the name. Now 87 years old, Soros’ early life was anything but easy. Born into a Jewish family, he escaped the Holocaust when Germany occupied Hungary. His family posed as Christians and Soros posed as the godson of a Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture employee.

In the late 1940s, he escaped and went to London to live with relatives. Soros became a waiter and also worked as a railway porter to put himself through school at the London School of Economics. After graduating he got a job as a banker in New York City. He’s best known for his famous bet against the British pound which made him $1 billion. He is now worth an estimated $8 billion.

Mohed Altrad: The Ultimate Rags To Riches Story

PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images

Mohed Altrad has one of the most amazing rags-to-riches stories on the list. Born into a nomadic tribe in the middle of the Syrian desert, his birth was the product of rape. His mother was very young and died just years later. He was raised by his grandmother who was less than keen on the idea of education. Despite the odds, he thrived in academics while attending school in Raqqa, a town now held by ISIS. After graduating he moved to France to attend university.

Altrad had no money and didn’t know the language, yet he still managed to find success. He completed his PhD in computer science and worked for a few different companies before buying a failing scaffolding company. He managed to transform the company into one of the world’s leading manufacturers of scaffolding and cement mixers, Altrad Group. He has been named French Entrepreneur of the Year and World Entrepreneur of the Year.

Ralph Lauren’s Humble Bronx Roots

JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images
JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images

Ralph Lauren was born as Ralph Lifshitz in The Bronx, New York. His parents were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, and his father Frank worked as a house painter. Lauren briefly attended college at the City University of New York before dropping out. He joined the Army and became a clerk at Brooks Brothers. It was there that Ralph became interested in fashion, especially ties.

He thought men’s tie fashion could stand to brighten up. In 1967, Ralph launched his fashion business and sold $500,000 worth of ties. He started Ralph Lauren Polo the next year and his name is now synonymous with fashion in the United States. Lauren is now worth a reported $6.3 billion.

Ken Langone Attended School While Working, Then Founded Home Depot

Joe Kohen/Wire Image/ Getty Images
Joe Kohen/Wire Image/ Getty Images

Ken Langone was born in New York City to Italian working-class parents. His father was a plumber and his mother was a cafeteria lady. Langone studied at Bucknell University while working various positions including a butcher’s assistant, a caddie, and a ditch digger. His parents mortgaged their home to help him get through school. Their sacrifice was not a waste, he finished school in just three years.

Afterward, Ken attended the Stern School of Business at night while working full time. Upon graduating, he worked with former presidential candidate Ross Perot. Two years later he partnered with Bernard Marcus and the two started Home Depot. Today his net worth is a reported $3.3 billion. Also, as a true nod to his success, the part-time evening school he attended at NYU is now known as the “Langone Program”.

John Paul DeJoria: From Homeless To Shampoo Mogul

Amy Graves/ Wire Image/ Getty Images
Amy Graves/ Wire Image/ Getty Images

John Paul DeJoria has a recognizable face, but many might not recognize the name. (People often identify him as the name of his brand, “John Paul Mitchell”.) A first-generation American, DeJoria was introduced to business management early on. He sold Christmas cards and newspapers by the time he was ten years old. However his home life was unstable, and DeJoria was sent to live in foster care.

He was working odd jobs when he received a $700 loan to start “John Paul Mitchell Systems.” The first product he chose to sell was shampoo, which he sold door-to-door while living out of his car. The hair company became a success, and DeJoria used his entrepreneurial skills to found a new company, Patron tequila. He is now worth an estimated $3.4 billion.

Shahid Khan Worked His Way Up

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images Sport
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images Sport

Shahid Khan left his home country of Pakistan and immigrated to the United States. Although he was born to a middle-class family, Shahid came to the U.S. with next to nothing. He attended the University of Illinois and got a job washing dishes. He also worked at a company called Flex-N-Gate.

Khan graduated with an engineering degree, and in 1980 he bought the company where he once was an employee. Nowadays Shahid is worth a reported $7.2 billion and owns the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team, as well as the Fulham soccer club.

Self-Taught Computer Programmer Jan Koum

LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images
LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images

Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan Koum, is another immigrant success story. When he was sixteen he and his mother made the big move to the United States. They were able to get government assisted housing, and Koum, still a teenager, got himself a job sweeping floors at a store.

Koum taught himself various computer programming skills and in 2009, he co-founded the WhatsApp application. In 2014, the app was purchased by Facebook for $22 billion and is now the world’s largest mobile messaging service. Koum is now worth a reported $9.2 billion.

From Poverty To Big Oil: Roman Abramovich

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Roman Abramovich is Russian businessman who is reportedly a good friend of President Vladimir Putin. Abramovich was born in poverty in Southern Russian and was an orphan by age two. His uncle and other family members stepped in to help raise him and moved to a subarctic region of northern Russia. He attended school at the Moscow Auto Transport Institute and started a small company producing plastic toys.

Abramovich made the transition into the oil industry and acquired Sibneft. Soon the company merged with another to become the fourth biggest oil company in the world. In 2005, Roman sold the company to the state-run Gazprom for $13 billion. He is worth an estimated $11.5 billion and enjoys flaunting his wealth. He owns the Chelsea football club as well as the world’s largest yacht.

The Starbucks Secrets Of Howard Schultz

TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images
TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images

You may or may not know Howard Shultz by name, but you know his product. Shultz is the CEO of Starbucks. Born in New York, his father was a former Army paratrooper, turned truck driver. His family was poor, and he and his three siblings grew up in New York City’s housing authority. As a relatively successful high school athlete, Shultz managed to get a scholarship to the University of Northern Michigan.

Not long after, he took over a small chain of coffee shops which he quickly turned into a worldwide company. In an interview with the Mirror, Howard said, “Growing up I always felt like I was living on the other side of the tracks. I knew the people on the other side had more resources, more money, happier families. And for some reason, I don’t know why or how I wanted to climb over that fence and achieve something beyond what people were saying was possible.”

Oprah Winfrey’s Rise From Poverty

Marcus Ingram/WireImage/Getty Images
Marcus Ingram/WireImage/Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey’s is one of the most famous rags to riches stories in the world. She was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother. While Oprah was a good student, she too became a single mother in her teens. However, the baby boy died. She ended up earning a scholarship to Tennessee State University.

She was the first African American TV correspondent in the state of Tennessee at only age nineteen. After a stint in Baltimore, she landed a hosting role on a morning show in Chicago. This show later became known as the Oprah Winfrey Show. Of course, the rest is history. Oprah has a reported net worth of $2.7 billion.

Leonardo Del Vecchio Went From Factory Worker to Business Owner

Stefania D’Alessandro/Getty Images Entertainment (Leonardo Del Vecchio, left)
Stefania D’Alessandro/Getty Images Entertainment (Leonardo Del Vecchio, left)

Leonardo Del Vecchio was born in Italy in 1935. One of five children, his family was impoverished and his father died when he was still a child. Del Vecchio’s mother could no longer afford to care for all the children, and he was sent to an orphanage. As a teenager, he worked in a factory where they made molds of auto parts and eyeglass frames.

By twenty-three years old, Leonardo opened his own molding shop which later became a world-renowned maker of sunglasses and eyewear. His business was responsible for making the brands Ray-Ban and Oakley. Leonardo now has a net worth of $22.9 billion.

Kenny Troutt’s Long Distance Success

Jamie Squire/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images (Kenny Troutt, left)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images (Kenny Troutt, left)

Kenny Troutt was born in Mount Vernon, Illinois to very humble beginnings. His father was a bartender throughout his childhood years. Kenny later left home to attend college and managed to pay for his tuition to Southern Illinois University by selling life insurance. In 1988, he founded a long distance phone company called Excel Communications.

Teleglobe purchased the company for $3.5 billion. Nowadays, Kenny is retired and owns WinStar Farms a thoroughbred horse farm and invests in racehorses. He is also said to be a significant donor to the Republican party including politicians Mitch McConnell and Rick Perry.

Li Ka-Shing: The Billionaire Who Started As A Refugee

IRA CHAPLAIN/AFP/Getty Images
IRA CHAPLAIN/AFP/Getty Images

Born in China, Li Ka-Shing fled the country in the 1940s and arrived in Hong Kong. His father died when he was only fifteen years old and Ka-Shing became responsible for supporting his family. At age twenty-two, he had his first foray into business with plastic manufacturing.

He then moved into real estate and has since been involved with all kinds of business ventures including banking, construction, cellular phones, satellite television, retail outlets hotels, domestic transportation, airports, electric power, steel production and more. In March of 2018, the eighty-nine-year-old announced his retirement. His son, Victor, will run his business empire, and he’ll advise. Li Ka-Shing has a reported net worth of $35 billion.

Sheldon Adelson Started His First Business at 12 Years Old

MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

Sheldon Adelson was born in 1933 as the son of immigrants. His family was poor and lived in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. His mother ran a knitting shop and his father drove a taxi. The entrepreneurship bug bit Sheldon early and he set off to start his first business while still a child. At age twelve, Sheldon borrowed $200 from his uncle in order to purchase a license to sell newspapers. Four years later, he borrowed $10,000 from his uncle to start a candy-vending-machine business.

After a brief stint in the Army, he began selling a product that helps clear frozen windshields. The company was called De-Ice-It. In the 1960s, he started a charter tours business. By thirty, he lost most of his money in the Great Recession but managed to regain his fortune. He currently runs the Las Vegas Sands. He is also a high profile political donor and donated $25 million to Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Larry Ellison: From Orphan to Owner of Oracle

James Leynse/Corbis/ Getty Image
James Leynse/Corbis/ Getty Image

Larry Ellison was born to a single mother in Brooklyn, New York. At just nine months old, Ellison became ill with pneumonia. Unable to care for him, his mother gave him to an aunt and uncle to raise in their Chicago middle-class home. The couple was immigrants who adopted the last name Ellison as a nod to Ellis Island.

He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign but dropped out after his adoptive mother died. Ellison briefly attended the University of Chicago where he was introduced to computer design. He dropped out of school again and moved to California. In the early 1970s, he developed a computer database called “Oracle” which later became the name of his company. The company remains one of the largest technology companies in the world. Ellison is worth a reported $64.1 billion.