9 American Entrepreneurs Who Went from Dirt Poor to Stinking Rich

The American Dream may seem very far these days for the average American struggling to get by. But behind all the mushy idealism, the truth is there are those who live a real rags to riches lives. The following are ten famous American entrepreneurs who left their poor beginnings behind to become some of the richest people in the world.

1. Sheldon Adelson- Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of Las Vegas Sands is best known for his efforts to bring a little of Las Vegas to the rest of the world. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, he grew up in the poor Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. His entrepreneurial beginnings included selling toiletry kits to motels. Sheldon attended City College in New York, majoring in corporate finance and real estate, but later dropped out to join the U.S. Army. He achieved millionaire status while working as a financial consultant advising companies how to sell shares of ownership on Wall Street. Today, he is listed in the Forbes 400 as the eighth wealthiest American with an estimated personal wealth of $24.9 billion.


2. Jay-Z- Today, rapper Shawn Carter, known by his stage name Jay-Z, is one of the wealthiest music artists and entrepreneurs in America, with a net worth of over $450 million. He has sold 50 million albums worldwide, 11 of which went platinum, has received fourteen Grammy Awards and is considered one of the greatest rappers of all-time. He has also started his own clothing line, Rocawear; created a record label, Roc-A-Fella records; a management, publishing and entertainment company, Roc Nation and is even part owner of the New Jersey Nets. But before all of this he was living in the Marcy Housing Projects in Brooklyn and selling crack.

3. John Paul DeJoria- The beginning of John Paul DeJoria’s life didn’t look too promising, even at one point prompting one of his teachers to proclaim that he would “never succeed at anything in life.”

DeJoria was the second son of an Italian immigrant father and a Greek immigrant mother growing up in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. His parents divorced when he was two years old. At nine he began selling Christmas cards and newspapers with his older brother to support his family. When his single mother could no longer provide for both children, they were sent to an East Los Angeles foster home.


DeJoria spent much of his youth in a street gang in East Los Angeles, but his teacher’s comments motivated him to become successful. After graduating in 1962, and a stint in the U.S. Navy, he moved between various odd jobs including a janitor, encyclopedia salesman, a gas station attendant, and insurance salesman. Eventually he landed in the hair care industry and in 1980, he secured a $700 loan together with Paul Mitchell to found John Paul Mitchell Systems. Today the company has annual revenues exceeding $900 million, and DeJoria is worth an estimated $4 billion.

4. Oprah Winfrey- Oprah Winfrey rose from a life of hardship and adversity to become one of today’s most influential TV hosts and media moguls. The daughter of an unwed teenage mother from rural Mississippi, Winfrey had to overcome poverty, sexual abuse and her own teenage pregnancy. Today, she is considered one of the richest African Americans of the 20th century, and one of the most powerful celebrities in the world. In addition to publishing two magazines, she runs her own production company as well as the television network, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) in collaboration with Discovery Communications.


5. Howard Schultz- Howard Shultz is the founder and CEO of Starbucks. Today, he has a net worth of $1.1 billion, but he spent his childhood in Brooklyn, New York in the Canarsie Bayview Housing Projects. The son of a truck driver, Schultz’s first big break came with a sports scholarship to Northern Michigan University where he earned a degree in communications. After graduation, he took a position as the director of marketing at a small Seattle coffee bean shop called Starbucks. But Shultz left in frustration after they failed to share his vision of opening cafes that would serve coffee, espresso and tea. Instead, Schultz opened his own coffee shop, Il Giornale in 1985. Just two years later he was able to purchase Starbucks from the original owners and start building the ubiquitous coffee brand that we know today.


6. Larry Ellison- Larry Ellison is the co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corp, a leading enterprise software company. His current wealth is about $36.5 billion, making him the third richest person in the United States. That’s not too shabby for a college drop out who was adopted by his aunt and uncle after his single teenage mother decided she could not provide for him.


7. Steve Jobs- Steve Jobs, will probably be remembered both for his mysterious, almost mystical air as well as his visionary approach to technology that forever changed the computer, music, film and mobile computing industries. As the co-founder and CEO of Apple, Inc, Jobs not only had a heavy hand in pushing the personal computing revolution that began in the 1980’s, but he again turned the tech world on its head in the 2000’s with a series of iconic Apple products and services including: the iMac, iPod,iTunes, iPhone, and the iPad. At the time of his passing he was worth an estimated $7 billion.

Most are aware of Jobs’ background. He grew up in San Francisco and was adopted by a working-class couple after his parents decided they didn’t want him, and grew up in nearby Santa Clara, California. He later dropped out of Reed College when he couldn’t afford tuition but continued as a drop in student. Jobs started Apple computer in his parents’ garage in 1976, but was then fired from the company after power struggle 1985. Over the next few years he founded  NeXT, a computer platform development company as well as the computer animation company, Pixar which was later sold to Disney. In 1996, Jobs returned to Apple and initiated one of the greatest company turn-arounds of all time.

8. David Geffen- David Geffen is an American record executive and film producer, most known for creating a series of record labels including: Asylum Records in 1970, Geffen Records in 1980, and DGC Records in 1990. Geffen was also one of the three founders of DreamWorks SKG in 1994. He has signed some big-time acts, such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bob Dylan and Nirvana.

Geffen grew up with little money in Brooklyn, living in a one-bedroom apartment with his family. He dropped out of college, but a mail room job in the talent agency WMA opened the door to his successful career in the music and entertainment industries. By the age of 26, Geffen was already a millionaire, and today has an estimated net worth of $5.5 billion.

9. Stephen King- Perhaps part of the inspiration for Stephen King’s works of horror, suspense and science fiction, filled with psychologically complex characters and situations can be traced to his difficult childhood. Stephen King’s father abandoned the family when King was two, leaving King’s mother alone to raise him and his adopted brother. King mentioned later in life that his family lived off handouts from relatives. After publishing his first best seller, Carrie, in 1973, King went on to publish 49 books and collections of short stories, and is now worth an estimated $400 million.