Started from the bottom: the five business tycoons who went from rags to riches

Alice Weil

Alice Weil

Features Editor at The Executive Magazine

The Executive Magazine talks about the five business-people who have made a name for themselves against all odds.

We often read stories of successful businessmen and women who have climbed to the top and established themselves as leaders in their fields – but many, if not most, of them had a fortunate upbringing to underpin their successes. While that doesn’t make their achievements any less laudable, it’s certainly inspiring to read the stories of those who have made a name of themselves out of nothing but sheer determination and perseverance. As well as offering a solid dose of motivation – quite welcome in these times of widespread economic and political uncertainty, if you ask me – these successful business magnates have come to show that anyone can have a chance of making it to the top.

  1.       Ursula Burns, Xerox

As the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company – following on from another woman, no less – Burns is pretty much as inspirational as it gets. She was raised by a single mother – who, along with Burns’ father, was an immigrant from Panama – in the largest New York City Housing Authority public housing complex, or what Burns herself called a “rough and tumble” area. Being female, poor and black would seem to most like the odds were stacked against her, but according to Burns, her mother didn’t see it that way – and worked hard to provide her with the best education possible “on a modest salary.”

Sure enough, Burns went on to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering from New York University in 1980 and, a year later, became a master of science in the same field after graduating from the prestigious Columbia University. Her educational background didn’t stop there, either: she has since received honorary degrees from various other universities in the United States.

Her professional background was equally as impressive. She first worked for Xerox as a summer intern in 1980, and then took up different roles in product development and planning at the company before being appointed as executive assistant. Shortly before the turn of the decade, Burns solidified her career in the company with a job as vice president for global manufacturing; three years later, she became president of business group operations; in 2007, she assumed the role of president; and soon after, in 2009, she was named CEO, succeeding Anne Mulcahy.

Not only has she made history and blazed a new trail for women – and especially women of colour – all across the country, Burns’ success story extends far beyond Xerox itself. She was appointed by President Barack Obama to help lead a White House STEM programme in 2009, where she remained as leader until 2016; was made vice chair of the President’s Export Council for a year; and has served on numerous boards across the corporate landscape. Glass ceiling who?

  1.        Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group

He may now be the UK’s most well-known business figure, making his mark in the country and beyond through Virgin Group, which controls more than 400 companies across a wide span of industries. But Branson’s life wasn’t always this glamorous.

A dyslexic with reportedly poor academic performance, Branson left school when he was just 16 to start a magazine called ‘Student,’ which, as the title suggests, was run by and for students. The venture wasn’t an outright success, but it did provide him with an outlet through which to advertise popular records – and from that, he decided to start a mail-order record business. It proved so popular that he eventually dropped the magazine and opened his own record shop, trading under the now recognisable brand ‘Virgin.’

The young entrepreneur then embarked on a series of business ventures, from launching his own record label with Nik Powell to setting up his own recording studio in Oxford – famous for signing often controversial bands that other labels were hesitant to do so, such as the Sex Pistols.

And as anybody could tell you, he has expanded far beyond the music industry since the 70s, with the Virgin brand now operating across a series of sectors including air, rail, spaceflight, healthcare, films and jewellery, to name just a few. He has since been knighted for his services to entrepreneurship, named part of the 100 Greatest Britons by the BBC, and boasts a net worth of over $5bn.

  1.        Howard Schultz, Starbucks

Much like Burns, Schultz grew up in a New York City Housing Authority in the 50s along with his brother and younger sister. The son of a truck driver and a receptionist, Schultz’s upbringing was financially difficult, pushing him to find an escape from his working-class lifestyle in sports such as baseball, football and basketball. As a result, he earned an athletic scholarship to Northern Michigan University, making him the first university graduate in his family.

Albeit never having dreamed of becoming a businessman, Schultz landed a salesman job at Xerox as part of the company’s training programme, which provided him with basic experience in the field and helped him later take up the position of general manager at a Swedish coffee maker manufacturer, Hammarplast. It was during this job that he came across Starbucks, a small coffee franchise with four stores in Seattle which had ordered an unusually large amount of plastic cone filters. Keeping in contact with the company over the year that followed, Schultz eventually joined the firm as its director of marketing.

But if you think it was then all smooth sailing, think again. After the Starbucks owners refused to roll out Schultz’s pilot concept of turning the shop into a café as we know it today – rather than selling just traditional espresso beverages, he argued it should strive to become an important element of culture and society, much like it was in Italy at the time – he decided to pack up and leave. Receiving help from donors who were impressed by his desire to “take a gamble,” Schultz managed to open ‘Il Giornale,’ which strived to mimic the Italian experience by selling ice cream and playing opera music.

A couple of years later, the Starbucks owners decided to focus exclusively on another coffee brand and sold the business and its retail unit to Schultz for just under $4m. From then, he decided to rename Il Giornale to Starbucks and  embarked on an aggressive expansion plan across the United States. And, well, the rest is history.

  1.       Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo

She has consistently ranked amongst the world’s most powerful women – but Nooyi’s early life betrays our image of who she is today. Born in Madras (now known as Chennai), in India, she made her way across the pond to the United States to study business at Yale University, with little money to back her up. She took up a job as receptionist during her college days, working from midnight to sunrise because the graveyard shift paid slightly better, in order to finance a nice suit to wear for job interviews in the business management field. Her remarkable work ethic has always been pointed to as one of the major reasons for her success, and one that has served her well in the corporate ladder.

After graduating in 1980, she held positions at the Boston Consulting Group and Motorola before joining PepsiCo in 1994. Just seven years later – and after leading the brand’s major restructuring, including several mergers and acquisitions – she was named chief financial officer. In 2006, she became the company’s fifth-ever and first female CEO.

Since being made CFO in 2001, the company’s profits have soared from just under $3bn to a whopping $6.5bn, and Nooyi has since been named one of the most powerful women in business by names like Forbes, Time and Fortune.

  1.       Do Won Chang, Forever 21

Growing up in South Korea, Chang worked in coffee shops – so when he emigrated to California with his wife in the 80s, near penniless and speaking broken English, he tried desperately to make it big in the same industry.

When that didn’t work out as planned, Chang did everything from being a janitor to pumping gas until reaching the cathartic realisation that would parachute him into becoming the major fashion retail tycoon he is today: he noticed that those who drove the nicest cars were all in the garment business.

Motivated by this epiphany, he opened his first 900-square-feet clothing store in 1984, then named Fashion 21. Sales quickly took off and he raked in $700,000 in his first year alone – a far cry from the three previous shops that had occupied the same retail space, all of which folded within months.

Fast-forward to today and the family-owned company, now renamed Forever 21, is one of the fastest-growing retailers in the world and brings in billions in sales from over 600 stores across the the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and the UK. Turns out hot joe wasn’t Chang’s golden ticket to the coveted American dream after all.

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