7 Entrepreneurs Who Went From Food Stamps To Billionaires

“Wanting something is not enough,” famed motivational speaker, politician and author Les Brown once said. “You must hunger for it.”

It’s a sentiment that’s been expressed countless times, in countless different ways. There’s no driver like necessity, no whip that cracks as hard as the stinging whip of pure hunger. It’s this principle that accounts for so many of those self-made successes. It’s this fact that so often sees the comfortable and contented stay where they are while those with nothing at all manage to rise up to dizzying heights, rise up to places that only burning hunger could take them.

This is not to say that every entrepreneurial success story is a “rags to riches” one. But there are enough of such stories to prove that you don’t need to be born into money to end up with money. You don’t need to be heir to a family-owned business empire to rise up to a position of corporate power. And you don’t need to go to the best college in the country to learn what you need to know to succeed in life. Sometimes, all you really need is faith in yourself – and the hunger to make it happen.

Regardless of whether your ambition is to start the next Starbucks or sell that app you created to Facebook for uncountable sums of money, or to become successful in non-financial ways, these stories of success – of entrepreneurs who went from nothing to billions – are sure to inspire.

1. Jan Koum, WhatsApp

Try to imagine $19 billion. To most of us, the idea is sort of incomprehensible. We know what $19 billion dollars is (hint, it’s a hell of a lot of money) but we can’t actually imagine it. It’s like trying to fathom the depths of the ocean, or the infinite expanse of space. That’s how much Facebook paid for WhatsApp. WhatsApp Inc. was founded in 2009 by former Yahoo! employees Brian Acton and Jan Koum. Back in February, Facebook announced it was purchasing WhatsApp for US$19 billion – it’s biggest acquisition ever. The sale set Koum’s net worth at US$7.5 billion. And it’s his story that’s most captivating.

Koum was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1976. When he was 16 years old, his family moved to the US but had little and found themselves struggling. The family survived off food stamps, with the young Koum getting a job as a cleaner at a grocery store to help supplement the income his mother was making as a babysitter. By the age of 18 he became interested in programming and enrolled at San Jose State University to study formally. In 1997 he was hired by Yahoo! where he worked for 9 years alongside future business partner Brian Acton.

Both left Yahoo! in 2007 and travelled together before deciding to create a messaging app that would outshine the others on the market. As of October 2014 that messaging app has amassed more than 600 million users, the most popular of its kind in the world. In an ironic twist, before launching WhatsApp, both had applied for jobs at Facebook – and been rejected. Just a few years later, Facebook would make them billionaires. Koum literally went from living off food stamps to having billions. That’s the power of hunger.

2. Oprah Winfrey

Winfrey’s story is a well known one, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. Born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother, her youth was marred by hardship and tragedy. She spent part of her childhood in the care of her grandmother, who was so poor Winfrey was often forced to wear dresses made of old potato sacks.  She is reported to have suffered several years of sexual abuse from the age of 9 until she ran away from home at age 13 in a bid to escape. At 14 she became pregnant, but her child – a son – was born prematurely and died soon after being born.

None of these hardships held Winfrey back from what she was to become. In fact, she channeled the emotion and empathy into her burgeoning media career and quickly earned the attention of T.V networks. After a stellar career as a talk show host, actress, producer and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey is worth an estimated US$3 billion.  She has been hailed as the greatest black philanthropist in the history of America, and is currently North America’s only black billionaire.

3. Jack Ma, Alibaba.com

An online trading place for all kind of goods – one that’s become so big it handles double the merchandise of Amazon – Alibaba is truly a success story. Its founder Jack Ma was born into poverty in China. Ma didn’t seem to have luck or an abundance of natural abilities: he failed his national college entrance exams twice before finally managing to graduate studies in English, and couldn’t even land a job at his local KFC. But in 1999, he founded Alibaba.com and it thrived.

In September of this year, the company’s US IPO raised an unprecedented US$25 billion. At age 50, Jack Ma is now the richest man in China. His net worth is estimated at US$23.9 billion.

Notably, Ma is both a philanthropist and a visionary in his plans for Alibaba beyond pure profit. Speaking about Alibaba’s future, he stated that ”our challenge is to help more people to make healthy money, ‘sustainable money,’ money that is not only good for themselves but also good for the society. That’s the transformation we are aiming to make.

4. Leonardo Del Vecchio, Luxottica

Even if you’ve never heard of Luxottica, you’ve probably worn sunglasses produced by them. The company makes proprietary eyewear for brands including Chanel, DKNY, Ray-ban, Polo Ralph Lauren, Persol and Emporio Armani, as well as owning retailers OPSM, Sunglass Hut, Target Optical and Pearle Vision. Across its sunglass and optical chains, Luxottica has over 6000 stores and 73,400 employees word wide.

Luxottica’s founder, Leonardo Del Vecchio, was born into an impoverished Milanese family in 1935. His father died before he was born, and his mother was too poor to support him so gave him up to the care of an orphanage. From these humble beginnings, Del Vecchio became an apprentice to a tool and dye maker in Milan before concentrating his metalworking skills on making spectacle parts. In 1961 he moved to Agordo, the home of the Italian eyewear industry, and soon started up Luxottica. The rest, as they say, is history.

Leonardo Del Vecchio is ranked by Forbes as the second richest man in Italy – boasting a net worth of US$19.1 billion.


5. Do Won Chang, Forever 21

Do Won Chang and his wife Jin Sook moved to America from South Korea back in 1981. As is the case for a lot of immigrants, the pair had it extremely tough financially. Do Won had to work not one but three menial jobs back to back – one as a janitor, one as a gas station attendant, and another in a coffee shop – just to make ends meet. But the hard labor paid off and in 1984 the husband and wife duo managed to open their very first clothing store.

Back then, Forever 21 was a small, 900 square ft. store in Los Angeles (originally under the name Fashion 21). Now, the retailer boasts over 480 locations worldwide, with stores from the US to Europe and the UK, South America, China and Israel. You can even find Forever 21 stores as far flung as Qatar, Bahrain, Macau and Peru. Though the company has been sued more than 50 times for copyright infringement, their profits remain strong: sales for 2013 were reported at US$3.7 billion.

Jin Sook and Do Won Chang’s net worth is estimated at US$5.4 billion.

Forever 21

6. Howard Schultz, Starbucks

“Growing up I always felt like I was living on the other side of the tracks,” Starbucks billionaire Howard Schultz is quoted as saying, after spending his formative years in a Brooklyn housing complex for the poor. “I knew the people on the other side had more resources, more money, happier families. And for some reason, I don’t know why or how, I wanted to climb over that fence and achieve something beyond what people were saying was possible. I may have a suit and tie on now but I know where I’m from and I know what it’s like.”

With a Starbucks now on virtually every corner, it’s easy to conclude that Schultz well and truly climbed that fence. Though he started out impoverished – the son of a high school dropout and a truck driver – Schultz’s drive to succeed got him very far indeed. Schultz didn’t start Starbucks; but he saw something in the then-small chain of coffee bean stores that he knew he could nurture and grow.  He’d originally landed a marketing gig at the store and wanted to turn it into an espresso bar – but his bosses said no. Schultz didn’t give up, but instead used the beans to create a rival cafe of his own. After two years he’d earned enough to go back and buy Starbucks – then turning it into the ubiquitous chain it is today.

Starbucks is now the largest coffeehouse company in the world, with 20,737 stores in 63 countries and territories. Forbes pegs Howard Schultz’ net worth at US$2.2. billion.

7. David Murdock, Dole Foods

“I was sleeping under a bush in a park at age 22. I was a millionaire at age 25.” With that short quote, David Murdock sums up his rapid and extreme transition from rags to riches.

Life didn’t start out easy for Murdock, who was born in Ohio in 1923. Suffering from dyslexia, he dropped out of school in the ninth grade and worked for a while at a gas station. He was then drafted by the United States Army in 1943 during World War II. After serving he relocated to Detroit where he was homeless and destitute, going for days without food and sleeping in the park.

Murdock’s luck changed when a good samaritan loaned him $1,200 to buy a closing diner, which he turned around for a small profit. From there he moved around pursuing real estate opportunities and later acquiring shares in various companies. In 1985 Murdock took over a flagging Hawaiian firm called Castle & Cooke, the parent company of the Dole Food Company. Murdock turned Dole into the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, and is now worth an estimated US$3 billion.

Murdock is another who continues to pay it forwards in philanthropic efforts, which have included the establishment of the Dole Nutrition Institute and the funding of efforts to research cancer, advancing nutrition, and life extension.