May 11, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

20 Billionaires Who Actually Started Off Poor


Rags To Riches

Most of the world's wealthiest people were born pretty darn wealthy to begin with. But the American Dream can come true—just ask any of these true self-made billionaires.

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Oprah Winfrey

Net Worth: ~ $2.8 billion

Oprah Winfrey isn't just the world's most beloved billionaire—she also started from the very bottom. Born to a single, teenage mom in Mississippi, Winfrey didn't even have basic amenities like running water or electricity at times in her childhood.

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Then came The Oprah Winfrey Show. By 2003, she became the world's first Black billionaire.

image of Oprah Winfrey walkingAlan Light, Flickr

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Howard Schultz

Net Worth: ~ $3.2 billion

Howard Schultz grew up in Brooklyn's Canarsie housing projects. He eventually got a university degree in communications, and at age 29, landed a job at a small Seattle coffee company called Starbucks as their director of retail operations and marketing.

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He revolutionized the company—and the coffee business in the US as we know it.

image of Howard SchultzGage Skidmore, Flickr

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Ralph Lauren

Net Worth: ~ $7.4 billion

Born to first-generation immigrants in the Bronx, Ralph Lauren loved clothes from a young age, but his family didn't have the money for them. He resented every hand-me-down he got from his brothers and wanted to make his own clothes.

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Lauren started working for a tie company at 28. He asked for—and got—his own line of ties immediately. His first full collection came the next year, and he never looked back.

image of Designer Ralph LaurenFashionStock.com, Shutterstock

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Larry Ellison

Net Worth: ~ $158.9 billion

Given up for adoption after contracting pneumonia at nine months old, Larry Ellison was adopted by a middle-class couple in Chicago. Though he never finished university, he attended, where he discovered he was a natural with computers.

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We still can't tell you what his software company, Oracle Corporation, does—but it made him a billionaire.

Larry Ellison having a speechOracle PR, Flickr

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Kenneth Langone

Net Worth: ~ $7.4 billion

Both of Kenneth Langone's parents had sturdy, working class jobs: His father was a plumber and his mother was a cafeteria worker. Maybe that's what inspired him, as a young financier, to invest in a store called Home Depot.

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image of Kenneth LangoneThomas Hawk, flickr

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David Murdock

Net Worth: ~ $3.4 billion

David Murdock's father was a struggling traveling salesman and his mother was a laundrymaid. By the time he left the army at age 22, he had no job, no prospects, and no money. He found himself forced to sleep in a park in Detroit. 

A man who happened to be a loan officer took pity on him and decided to help this veteran who was down on his luck.

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That man gave Murdock a $1,200 loan. Murdock, later the chairman of Dole Food Products, managed to turn that $1,200 into over $3.4 billion.

image of David H. MurdockNeshan H. Naltchayan, Wikimedia Commons

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Alan Gerry

Net Worth: ~ $1.5 billion

Alan Gerry was just one of countless children who often went hungry during the great depression, as his father struggled to earn enough to support his family.

Gerry eventually dropped out of high school to serve in WWII.

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When he got home, he got into TV repair. Then he started his own cable company. In 1996, he sold that company to Time Warner for $2.7 billion.

image of Alan GerryNewhouseSU, Flickr

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John Paul DeJoria

Net Worth: ~ $3 billion

After John Paul DeJoria's father left the family, his mother could barely make ends meet and had to send him to a foster home. As early as age 9, DeJoria started selling Christmas cards and newspapers to help his family put food on the table.

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He was 26 and living out of an old Rolls Royce when he started Paul Mitchell hair products. Then came Patron Spirits, House of Blues nightclubs, and more. From unhoused child of immigrants to self-made billionaire, many look at DeJoria as the ultimate example of the American dream.

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image of John Paul DeJoriaGage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Harold Hamm

Net Worth: ~ $25.2 billion

Harold Hamm was the 13th child born to Oklahoma cotton sharecroppers Leland and Jane Hamm. He started helping his parents pick cotton when he was still in diapers, and got his first job at 16 to help support his family. He eventually founded oil company Continental Resources—and let's just say he doesn't have to pick cotton anymore.

image of Harold HammDavid Shankbone, Flickr

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J.K. Rowling

Net Worth:

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~ $1 billion

Before Harry Potter, single mother J.K. Rowling remembers going hungry because she couldn't afford to feed herself and her daughter. By 2004, she became the first author ever to make a billion dollars. Then no one heard from her ever again.

image of  J.K. Rowlinglev radin, Sutterstock

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Guy Laliberte 

Net Worth: ~ $1.2 billion

If you saw the backpacking, accordion-playing, fire-eating Guy Laliberté in the 1980s, I know exactly what you'd think: This guy's a future billionaire!

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He founded Cirque Du Soleil in 1984, and today he's worth over a billion dollars.

image of Guy LaliberteNASA HQ PHOTO, Flickr

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Kenny Troutt 

Net Worth: ~ $1.5 billion

Kenny Troutt's single mother worked as a bartender in Mount Vernon, Illinois, where the small family lived in public housing. That didn't stop Troutt from founding telecom Excel Communications in 1988. By 1998, he sold his company and became a billionaire.

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Today he's mostly about breeding racehorses.

image of Kenny TrouttJamie Squire, Getty Images

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Do Won Chang 

Net Worth: ~ $3 billion

Be nice to that guy working as a janitor. Or in a coffee shop. Or in a gas station. Do Won Chang did all those jobs before he and his wife risked bankruptcy by stretching their credit to found a clothing store in Highland Park, Los Angeles.

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That store, Forever 21, eventually made them billionaires.

image of Do Won do ChangGobierno Danilo Medina, Flickr

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Stephen Bisciotti 

Net Worth: ~ $7.2 billion

After Baltimore-native Steve Bisciotti's father died of cancer when he was a boy, his single mother needed help from her husband's father to keep food on the table. He never forgot about going to Baltimore Ravens games with his family, though.

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I'm sure if his dad would be proud knowing his son got out of his circumstances, and now he owns the Ravens. 

image of  Steve BisciottiJay Baker, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Shahid Khan 

Net Worth: ~ $12.2 billion

Not many billionaires can say they ever worked for $1 an hour. Shaid Khan can. That was his pay-rate when he was working as a dishwasher soon after he immigrated to the US from Pakistan.

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Originally an engineer in the autoparts industry, Shahid evolved into a prolific businessman who today owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Premier League's Fulham FC, and All Elite Wrestling.

image of Shahid KhanMelissa Hillier, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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George Soros 

Net Worth: ~ $6.7 billion

Though once upper middle-class, George Soros's Jewish family had to forge documents that stated they were Christians in order to survive living in Nazi-occupied Hungary during WWII, eventually enduring the Siege of Budapest from within the city before the war ended and he went on to a career in finance.

image of George SorosHeinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Flickr

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Jan Koum 

Net Worth:

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~ $15.2 billion

Jan Koum's family had to split up when he immigrated to the United States from Ukraine. His mother and grandmother came with him, but his father had to stay behind. He was meant to join them, but he was never able to leave Ukraine, passing before he ever got the chance.

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Koum's mother still managed to support him with odd jobs until he became a computer program. Tragically, she succumbed to a long battle with cancer in 2000, long before Koum started WhatsApp and became a billionaire.

image of Jan KoumHubert Burda Media, Flickr

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Roman Abramovich 

Net Worth: ~ $9 billion

Roman Abramovich was born into a middle class family in Russia, but he was an orphan by age 2. Many relatives had to chip in to raise the boy—but it sure was worth it. Abramovich first started a toy company.

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Then he got into oil, right around the time the Soviet Union broke up. Now he's a billionaire.

image of Roman Abramovichmagicinfoto, Shutterstock

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Leonardo Del Vecchio 

Net Worth: ~ $27.3 billion at the time of death

Leonardo Del Vecchio lost his father, a poor street vendor, before he was even born. His mother, who already had four children, was forced to give him to an orphanage, where Del Vecchio grew up.

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He eventually became an apprentice tool and die maker, but he pivoted to make metal parts for glasses instead.

His company, Luxottica, is the largest manufacturer of eyeglasses in the world, and it made him one of the wealthiest Italians of all time.

image of Leonardo Del Vecchioviewworld, Shuttestock

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Francios Pinault

Net Worth: ~ $34.8 billion

Growing up in the countryside of France, by the time Francois Pinault went to high school, he had a strong rural accent and outdated clothes. French teenagers tormented him so mercilessly that he dropped out of school just to get away from them.

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Today he owns Gucci, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Creed, and Alexander McQueen. Guess he got the last laugh.

image of François-Henri PinaultRaphaël Labbé, Flickr

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