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Rags to Riches: 10 Billionaires Who Started With Empty Pockets

The Wolf of Wall Street

Not everyone is born with a silver spoon. In fact, a significant portion of the world’s billionaires come from poor families, slums or orphaned at a young age. And here are ten of them:

Maria Das Gracas Silva Foster

Head of Brazilian oil giant Petrobas. Maria grew up in Morro do Adeus, an extremely poor shantytown. While her mother worked constantly, her father was an alcoholic. She collected cans and paper to make extra money.

In 1978, she became an intern at Petrobas then eventually became the company’s first female head of field engineering. Bloomberg says that her tireless work ethic has earned her the nickname Caveirao, for the armored police cars used to clean up the crime ridden Brazilian neighborhoods.

And oh, she’s also one of Forbes most powerful women of 2014.

Do Won Chang

Do Won Chang and his wife moved to America from Korea in 1981. He worked three jobs at the same time: janitor, gas station attendant and a cashier at coffee shop. Three years later, Mr. and Mrs. Chang used their earnings to open their first fashion store called – guess what – Forever 21.

Today, Forever 21 is a global brand with 480 stores and generates $3B in sales a year.

Harold Simmons

Harold Simmons grew up in a rural town in Texas where he lived in a shack with no electricity. Despite this, he graduated in the University of Texas with a B.A. and Masters in Economics. His first business venture was a chain of drugstores which he later on sold for $50M. After that, he made a series of buyouts. He currently owns 6 publicly listed companies including the largest titanium producer in the world

Zdenek Bakala

When he was 19 years old, he fled to US from Czechoslovakia with only a $50 bill wrapped in a sandwich plastic wrap. He washed dishes at a local casino until we was able to afford studying in UC Berkley, which later lead to an MBA at Dartmouth.

Zdenek went into banking then returned to his country where he opened Credit Suisse First Boston. He owns a coal company with a $2.52 billion market cap and eight production sites across Central Europe.

Guy Laliberté

Cirque du Soleil will not be born if not for Guy Laliberte. This Canadian-born talent started his circus career in the streets: playing accordion, walking on stilts and eating fire. In 1987, he brought a troupe from Quebec to the Los Angeles Arts Festival with no return ticket. This paid off and it eventually moved to Las Vegas where they became the world famous Cirque du Soleil we know today.

Guy Laliberte is worth $2.5B and is a professional poker player and space tourist.

John Paul DeJoria

John’s German and Italian parents divorced when he was just two years old. At ten, he had to sell Christmas cards and newspapers to support his family. He went to live in a foster home in LA where he became a gang member before joining the military. He later on tried working at Redken Laboratories, took a $700 loan and created John Paul Mitchell Systems. He lived in his car during this time. Today, his company is worth over $900M annually.

Howard Schultz

Howard grew up in Brooklyn and always want to climb “over the fence”. Because he wanted a better lifestyle than what his truck-driver father could give him, he word hard on getting a football scholarship at the University of Northern Michigan.

During his work at Xerox, he discovered a small coffee shop called Starbucks. Falling in love with the coffee, he left the Xerox and – after even more years of hard work – went on to become Starbucks’ CEO. Today, Starbucks has 16,000 outlets worldwide.

Li Ka-shing

Li Ka-shing’s family moved to Hong Kong from China in 1940. At age 15, his father died of tuberculosis. He quit school and supported his family by making and selling plastic flowers for US export.

Ten years later, he started Cheung Kong Industries which expanded his flower business but later on expanded to real estate. Today, he owns companies in banking, cellular phones, satellite television, cement production, retail outlets, hotels, airports, electric power, and steel manufacturing.

Leonardo Del Vecchio

An orphaned boy, Del Vecchio went to work in a factory making molds for auto parts and eyeglass frames where he lost part of his fingers. He opened his first molding shop at age 23, which slowly expanded to be the world’s largest maker of sunglasses and prescription eyewear. His company, Luxottica, makes brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley. His net worth is at $11.5 Billion.

Kirk Kerkorian

Being a casualty of the Great Depression, Kirk had to drop out of 8th grade to become a boxer. He became a daredevil pilot for Royal Air Force during WWII by delivering supplies over the Atlantic where one out of four planes crashed.

From the money he earned, he became a high roller on the tables and eventually a real estate magnate in Las Vegas. Among the establishments he owns are The Flamingo, The International and MGM Grand – stalwarts of the Vegas scene.


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