Most Inspiring Self-Made Millionaires of All Time
Sometimes wealth might seem unattainable. But rags-to-riches stories prove that anyone can be rich if they work hard and make smart decisions.
Many successful people have come from humble beginnings. Being reminded that they, too, struggled through uncertain times before reaching massive success is a great way to stay grounded and focused.
These are the most inspiring self-made millionaires and billionaires of all time.
Mark Cuban has become a face of entrepreneurship and investment thanks to his role on "Shark Tank," but it wasn’t all smooth sailing toward financial success for Mark Cuban. As a door-to-door garbage bag salesman who ate ketchup and mustard sandwiches while making ends meet, his life wasn’t exactly glamorous.
Even through college, he held odd jobs to keep his bills paid. But he began a computer consulting firm that earned him his first million, which he was able to turn into a web broadcasting empire that earned him his first billion.
In 2000, he has bought a majority ownership stake in the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and has turned them into a successful NBA organization. He’s notoriously hard-working and always on the lookout to continue to make more and more money.
A Favorite Quote: Mark Cuban
"It doesn't matter how many times you have failed, you only have to be right once."
Joy Gendusa is not as well known as some of her contemporaries, but she revolutionized direct mailings in a digital world. Her company, PostcardMania capitalized on the potential that still existed with direct mailing campaigns and turned it into a multimillion-dollar business. Under her leadership, the company grew and earns over $50 million every year.
Her humble beginnings came from being overworked and underpaid attempting to sell graphic designs. One bad customer service experience infuriated her to the point where she knew she needed to do something else.
In a moment of inspiration, she realized a demand that the market had that she could meet, and she did what it took to turn that inspiration into a reality.
A Favorite Quote: Joy Gendusa
"I believe in showing empathy, understanding and compassion for employees because during my own career I’ve worked in enough places where those values were not encouraged — and they were not happy places."
All eyes are on the Tesla car-creating entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX. Unlike many of his multimillionaire peers, Elon Musk wasn’t born into money. His mom was a dietician, and his father was an electromechanical engineer. His childhood was anything but idyllic, and he often talks about how much adversity he faced in his life.
But he was obviously able to rise above it and, with the help of clear, creative visions and his incredible intellect, invested and invented his way into becoming one of the wealthiest and most exciting entrepreneurs in the world.
In 2021, Musk passed Jeff Bezos to become the richest person in the world with a net worth of more than $185 billion.
A Favorite Quote: Elon Musk
"When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor."
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie has one of the most famous and iconic rags-to-riches stories.
Born to poor Irish parents, he shared one-bedroom homes with his relatives growing up in the United States. Determined not to follow the same path as his father, who was forced to beg for work at some points during his life, Carnegie took advantage of the work he found by being indispensable and becoming friendly with the influential people in his town.
Thanks to a keen eye for investments that would pay big dividends in the future, he was able to turn his earnings into a massive fortune. And with a deep-rooted desire to give back, he made sure to spend his millions on philanthropic pursuits in the later years of his life.
A Favorite Quote: Andrew Carnegie
"The secret of success lies not in doing your own work, but in recognizing the right man to do it."
Think you’ve been through hardships? A quick perusal of what George Soros has overcome in his life may help give you a little perspective.
The investor and businessman lived through some of the most difficult persecutions of World War II and survived to not only tell the tale, but reshape the financial landscape of the modern world.
If a 17-year-old refugee from a war-torn country can grow up to create and run one of the most financially successful investment funds on the planet, you can achieve your work goals, too.
A Favorite Quote: George Soros
"If investing is entertaining, if you're having fun, you're probably not making any money. Good investing is boring."
It’s no big secret that Oprah Winfrey, the queen of media, came from humble origins and grew up to become one of the wealthiest people and most recognizable faces on the planet. Her upbringing in rural poverty included a lack of structure, consistency, and years of physical and emotional abuse.
But that changed when she moved to Nashville and began living with her father, who provided a world she could thrive in. She became well-loved by her classmates and learned her passion for communication.
She quickly ascended the ranks of local TV becoming a small-town star before her network show was picked up, and she became a household name. Many smart business moves later, she basically dominated mainstream media.
A Favorite Quote: Oprah Winfrey
"Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life, because you become what you believe."
Do Won Chang
Do Won Chang is the founder of the major fast-fashion chain Forever 21 and wants his story of success to inspire others like him. He came from humble origins, born in a small town outside of Seoul and was only 21 years old when he decided to move to the United States for more opportunities.
He worked three jobs just to make ends meet, never letting go of his hope to own his own business. He and his wife finally were able to open their first Forever 21 storefront.
They were patient about waiting for their business to grow, and their patience paid off in major financial dividends down the line.
A Favorite Quote: Do Won Chang
"Forever 21 gives hope and inspiration to people who come here with almost nothing."
Most people don’t get the chance to meet Will Smith, let alone have him portray your life story in a major Hollywood movie. But most people aren’t Chris Gardner. And the fact that the movie star portrayed him is one of the least interesting things about the impressive man.
Growing up in a troubled environment, he was admittedly a less-than-perfect citizen. Violence and abuse were rampant in his formative years. Despite some hiccups, he became a master at retaining a positive attitude.
Much of his career struggles are shown in his book, "The Pursuit of Happyness," and the subsequent movie, including his homelessness and perseverance in the face of incredible hardships.
Now, years after rising to the top as a stockbroker, founding Gardner Rich & Company, he travels across the world motivating people and sharing how his positivity continues to help him be successful in life.
A Favorite Quote: Chris Gardner
"Wealth can also be that attitude of gratitude with which we remind ourselves every day to count our blessings."
Before he changed the landscape of the internet and our social interactions through Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was just another college student working on his craft.
Through passion and a relentless interest in side projects, he taught himself skills that helped create Facebook. The digital beast of a company continues to have an interest in employees who show this same passion in pursuing projects outside of their required work.
This is a great reminder that even if you’re not yet doing what you want to be doing with your life, that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing what you love with your free time.
A Favorite Quote: Mark Zuckerberg
"The biggest risk is not taking any risk. … In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks."
One of the richest men in the world, Larry Ellison is worth over $80 billion. He had a loving stepmother, but his biological father wasn’t a part of his life, and his unwed mother gave him up for adoption at just 9 months old because he had contracted pneumonia.
While Ellison was smart, he didn’t excel in the structure of schools. It wasn’t until he discovered computer programming and moved to the booming digital mecca of Northern California that he began to make his impact on the world.
The Oracle Database’s major success allowed him to begin to invest in other projects and endeavors.
A Favorite Quote: Larry Ellison
"When you live your life in different ways, it makes people around you become uncomfortable. So deal with it. They don’t know what you are going to do."
After failing to become a lawyer and quitting a job at Disney that she hated, Sara Blakely was stuck at the bottom of the sales food chain, trying to turn cold calls into fax machine clients.
She used the resilience those difficult years taught her as she created Spanx and began to build her company and, eventually, her incredible $1.2 billion net worth.
A Favorite Quote: Sara Blakely
"Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know."
Kevin Plank had the spark for the idea that became Under Armor while playing college football. Without any investors, he saved $20,000 of his own money and went into $40,000 of credit card debt to form and fund the company in 1996. The first year, the business only made $17,000 in sales.
Despite long odds, growing credit card interest, and a market that didn’t yet understand the product, Plank continued contracting directly with 12 NFL teams and picking up demand from there. Thanks to that perseverance, the company had an annual revenue over $5 billion in 2019 and doesn’t seem to be slowing down its massive growth anytime soon.
It took a little while for his product to catch on, but Plank didn’t give up on his dream or his vision for what it could become. And that gamble has paid off in a big way.
A Favorite Quote: Kevin Plank
"I never knew exactly what [Under Armor] was going to look like, but more important, I got up every single day and never believed it couldn’t happen."
Ray Kroc did not create the first McDonald’s company, but he turned the fast-food corporation into an empire. His story has become folklore among entrepreneurial hopefuls who hope to strike idea gold like Kroc. Success wasn't guaranteed for the high school dropout. He drove ambulances during World War I, then dabbled in all sorts of odd jobs.
But when he met the McDonald’s brothers in San Bernardino, California, he saw an opportunity in the growing fast-food restaurant business and decided to capitalize on it. In 1955, Kroc was a 52-year-old milkshake machine salesman. He acquired franchising rights to the small California based hamburger restaurant chain. In 1961, he bought out the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million.
The self-made millionaire died in 1984 with a net worth of $600 million, about $1.5 billion today. That year, McDonald's had revenue of $9.5 billion. Today, McDonald's generates over $20 billion in annual revenue. Kroc's story is a great reminder that opportunities may be all around you if you keep your eyes and mind open to them.
A Favorite Quote: Ray Kroc
"Look after the customers, and the business will take care of itself."
Jan Koum was born to a housewife and construction worker in Kiev, Ukraine. When Koum signed the $19 billion deal to sell his company, WhatsApp, to Facebook, he chose a location close to where he used to wait in line to get food stamps.
Koum migrated to the United States with his mother, who packed basic Soviet-issued school supplies rather than buying them. She babysat, and he worked to sweep floors in order to make ends meet. After years of dabbling and adjusting to American culture, he found a knack in computer science and landed a job at Yahoo.
That job led him to drop out of school and invest in the early 1990s dotcom boom. He lost tons of money. But he started crafting and creating WhatsApp, which went on to revolutionize digital communication.
A Favorite Quote: Jan Koum
"I want to do one thing and do it well."
Richard Branson built the Virgin Group empire from basically nothing and had the most fun ever along the way.
His father was a barrister, and his mother was a flight attendant, but the two instilled the young mogul with enough confidence and ambition to slowly but surely become one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Though his family supported him, they were never able to give an above-average financial head start. Instead, he negotiated, played by his own rules, and figured out how to slowly build a small multimedia conglomerate by keeping a positive attitude and open mind every step of the way.
A Favorite Quote: Richard Branson
"If your dreams don’t scare you, they are too small."
John Paul DeJoria
Like a few of the other incredibly successful people on this list, John Paul DeJoria struggled with poverty and homelessness while slowly building his business.
He began selling small products at an early age, but even when he began selling shampoo door to door — the business that would go on to become the iconic John Paul Mitchell hair care system — he lived out of his car.
His work ethic and positive attitude never failed him, and he diversified his income almost as soon as he started making it. Slowly but surely, he would build upon every bit he made to amass an incredible fortune.
A Favorite Quote: John Paul DeJoria
"Success is how well you do what you do when nobody else is looking."
Related: Richest People in the World