There’s no easy shortcut to entrepreneurial success, and looking for one is simply a waste of time. A much better use of time is studying how other people achieve their success and learning important lessons from them while letting their stories inspire us as we embark on our own journey. There are many stories of individuals who, against the odds, became great leaders, and individuals who went against the grain to champion a brilliant idea.
Below are the stories of some celebrated entrepreneurs and businesspeople whose companies you know, even if their names aren’t familiar.
Born in New York City on the Lower East Side, Ellison was sent to the South Side of Chicago at a young age after he contracted pneumonia and his mother was no longer able to care for him. His aunt and uncle raised him, and he did not know that they were not his actual parents until he was fully grown. Despite these early challenges, he pursued a passion for programming and co-founded Software Development Laboratories, a database management company, in 1977. Two years later, the company changed its name to Relational Software and then again to Oracle in 1982. Now, Oracle boasts annual revenues of $38 billion. Ellison stepped down from his role as Oracle CEO only a few years ago.
John Paul DeJoria
As a young child, DeJoria sold newspapers and Christmas cards to help support his family. His parents, who immigrated to America from Greece and Italy, divorced when he was two. The instability of his early life led to his entrance into the Los Angeles foster care system. Later, DeJoria was briefly involved with a gang before turning to the military to get him out of that life. After, he became an employee at Redken Laboratories and applied for a $700 loan to launch his own company, John Paul Mitchell Systems. While selling his shampoo door-to-door, he lived out of his car. Today, however, his company is worth more than $1 billion—a fortune built on the pure quality of the product. DeJoria rolled his success into another successful venture, Patron Tequila.
Born in New York, Schultz was raised in the Bayview projects of the Carnasie neighborhood in Brooklyn. Aspiring for greater things, he worked hard at school and sports and earned a football scholarship to the University of Northern Michigan, where he studied communications. After graduation, he worked for Xerox and fell in love with a tiny coffee shop called Starbucks. In 1987, Schultz decided to leave Xerox and become CEO of Starbucks. At the time, the brand had only 60 shops. Now, Starbucks has more than 21,000 stores and Schultz is worth more than $3 billion.
A talented computer programmer, Omidyar began auctioning off extraneous items that he owned on his own personal website in the mid-1990s. People seemed to like the idea, and what started as a side project required him to upgrade to a business Internet account to handle the increase in web traffic. As other people wanted to list their items on his AuctionWeb, he began charging fees to cover the new expenses. Eventually, he was forced to hire an employee to handle the payment checks as the site continued to grow. This site is still in operation today—although now under the name eBay.
John Ferolito and Don Vultaggio
These two friends lived in Brooklyn together and launched a beer distribution company out of the back of their Volkswagen bus in the 1970s. Slowly, the pair grew the business and gained experience over time. Because the company was not taking off in the way they expected after two decades, they looked at other successful beverage companies and were inspired by Snapple. Deciding to refocus their efforts on soft drinks, they founded AriZona Green Tea. This brand is now a number-one seller in the United States and boasts a worldwide distribution. Ferolito and Vultaggio still jointly own AriZona.
Do Won Chang
Chang moved from Korea to the United States with his wife, Jin Sook, in 1981. To make ends meet, he worked three jobs as a gas station attendant, a barista, and a janitor to keep the family financially solvent. The couple saved money and realized their dream of opening a clothing store in 1984. This store became the iconic fashion trendsetter Forever 21, which now boasts more than 480 stores that collectively produce $3 billion in sales annually. Despite the size, Forever 21 continues to be a family-run business. Now, Chang’s two daughters, Linda and Esther, help manage operations.
Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when it was still overrun by gang activity, Burns lived in a small housing project with her mother. To afford the tuition at a local Catholic school, her mother ran a daycare out of the apartment and ironed shirts on the side. Her mother’s sacrifice paid off when Burns secured acceptance to New York University, which gave her the opportunity to intern at Xerox. Today, she is the chairwoman and CEO of Xerox and honored as the first African American woman to head a Fortune 500 company.