The United States of America is known throughout the world as the Land of Opportunity. It’s where “rags to riches” isn’t just a myth but a reality, so long as you’re willing to dream big, work hard and be receptive to opportunity. American history abounds with examples of men and women who pulled themselves up from humble beginnings to become wealthy, respected entrepreneurs and innovators—think Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and many more.
That proud tradition lives on today. Read on to learn more about 10 of the most successful living, self-made American billionaires!
1Do Won Chang, founder of Forever 21
In 1981, Do Won Chang and his wife made the journey from South Korea to the U.S., arriving penniless. After working three jobs simultaneously—as a dishwasher, gas station attendant and janitor—Do Won decided to open his own retail clothing store. In 1984, he opened a small store in Los Angeles called Fashion 21, which made $700,000 in sales the first year. Today, Forever 21, as it’s now known, rakes in $4.4 billion in annual sales among its 790 stores worldwide.
2Howard Schultz, former Starbucks CEO
Growing up poor in the Brooklyn projects, Howard Schultz always had ambitions to “climb over that fence” and “achieve something beyond what people were saying was possible.” After college, he went to work at Xerox but was a huge fan of a coffee shop called Starbucks. He became its CEO in 1987 at the ripe old age of 34, growing its number of locations from 60 to nearly 24,500 worldwide today. In December 2016, Schultz, 63, announced he was stepping down as CEO to help raise awareness for homelessness and possibly pursue a political career, having reportedly been on Hillary Clinton’s shortlist for vice president.
3Oprah Winfrey, media mogul
Oprah Winfrey’s childhood was the very definition of abject poverty. Born in rural Mississippi to a single teenage mother, she ran away from home at 13 and, at 14, lost her baby during childbirth. Oprah’s fortune reversed when she received a full college scholarship and drew the attention of a radio station. She got her own TV show in 1983 at the age of 30 and, in 1988, founded Harpo Studios, which gave rise to her media empire now consisting of TV shows, magazines, films and the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Many investors might be familiar with the “Oprah Effect,” referring to the effect one of Oprah’s endorsements can have on a company’s stock, such as when sheinvested in Weight Watchers in October 2015.
4Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of Spanx
One of the recipients of the Oprah Effect is Sara Blakely, founder of the popular undergarment company Spanx. While she was working as a struggling door-to-door fax machine salesperson in the sweltering heat of central Florida, Blakely conceived the idea of underwear that would hide women’s panty lines. After a year and a half’s worth of research and ideation, Blakely, 44, launched Spanx in her apartment in 2000, so broke she had to write her own patent without the help of an attorney. That same year, Oprah named Spanx one of her “Favorite Things,” turning the form-fitting hosiery into an overnight sensation. Today, the company does an estimated $400 million in annual sales, with its CEO as the youngest self-made billionaire woman.
5Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands
The son of a Jewish taxi cab driver, Sheldon Adelson grew up in the low-income Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. At the age of 12, he began selling newspapers on the streets, and at 16, he was running his own vending machine business. Over his long career, he’s built nearly 50 businesses, but what Adelson, 83, is best known for is Las Vegas Sands, the world’s largest casino and resort operating company, which calls the Venetian, Palazzo and Marina Bay Sands among its properties. In 2016, he purchased The Las Vegas Review-Journal and was the top donor to fellow casino magnate Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
6George Soros, investor and chairman of Soros Fund Management
George Soros was only 13 when the Nazis invaded his native Hungary. As a Jew, he escaped persecution by posing as the Christian godson of a Hungarian government official. He managed to flee to England, where he studied at the London School of Economics, and in 1956 he moved to New York City and worked as a European stock specialist in a number of investment banks. In 1970, he founded Soros Fund Management, whose Quantum Endowment fund is often cited as the world’s most successful hedge fund, having generated $40 billion since its inception in 1973. Nicknamed “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England” for his 1992 short sell of the British pound, Soros, 86, is also a prominent philanthropist and political donor, currently contributing to Facebook’s efforts to combat “fake news.”
7Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp
At 16, Jan Koum immigrated to the U.S. from his native Ukraine and, with his mother, lived in public housing and relied on food stamps. Even though he didn’t own a computer, Koum devoured computer manuals and became proficient at hacking, a skill that helped him land a job at Yahoo! in 1997. But he grew restless, and within a year of leaving the company, he developed an instant messaging app for smartphones that he named WhatsApp. Facebook acquired the app in 2014 for more than $19 billion in stock, turning Koum, 40, into an overnight billionaire. Today, WhatsApp is the most popular chat app in the world, used by more than 1 billion people.
8Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources
Harold Hamm grew up in rural Oklahoma, the youngest of 13 kids of two cotton sharecroppers. He often missed school to help pick cotton, and at 17, he quit school altogether to take a job at a local gas station, fixing flats and pumping gas. After buying his own truck, he began an oil field services company in 1967, finding oil on his second drill. Since then, Hamm, 71, has served as CEO of what is now Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources, which has large holdings in the prolific Bakken formation, among others. In 2012, Hamm was named one of TIME’s Most Influential People in the World and served as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s energy advisor.
9Larry Ellison, cofounder and former CEO of Oracle
Larry Ellison was born in New York City to an unwed Jewish mother, who gave him up for adoption when he contracted pneumonia at nine months. He was raised by his adoptive family in Chicago’s South Shore. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but had to drop out after his stepmother died. He spent the next few years working odd jobs but, while working at electronics company Ampex in Northern California, he founded Software Development Laboratories (SDL) in 1977 with an investment of only $2,000. By 1982, the company had officially renamed itself Oracle, which today is the world’s second-largest software maker, following Microsoft. In September 2014, Ellison, 72, announced he would be stepping down as Oracle CEO.
10John Paul DeJoria, cofounder of John Mitchell Systems
At the age of nine, John Paul DeJoira was selling Christmas cards and newspapers on the streets of L.A. to help his single mother make ends meet. It wouldn’t be enough, as he was sent to live in an East L.A. foster home, where DeJoria got involved in a street gang. After two years in the U.S. Navy, he held a number of positions, from janitor to insurance salesman. He was later fired from hair care company Redken and in 1980 cofounded Paul Mitchell Systems with a fellow hairstylist and a loan of only $700. DeJoria, now 72, sold his men’s shampoo door-to-door while he lived out of his car. Today, his company generates annual sales of nearly $1 billion.