25 Visionaries Who Created Empires From Virtually Nothing

Some of the greatest fortunes and empires in history were created by people who started with nothing. Today, we celebrate 25 of these iconic figures – businessmen, technology entrepreneurs, even celebrities and athletes – by recalling the tales of their rise to glory. Don’t feel bad if your favorites aren’t on the list, this is just a glimpse of the many visionaries we’ve seen throughout history and there are countless others who also deserve attention. While each of them took a slightly different path to financial greatness, virtually all of them started from very humble beginnings. In no particular order:

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1. Henry Ford

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It’s tough to think of a man who carried the torch of business further than Henry Ford. Ford became famous for pioneering the assembly line and in the process, becoming the first man to successfully mass produce automobiles. Amazingly, Ford jump started the Ford Motor company with virtually none of his own money. As ‘Venture Capital Sources’ explains, Ford “raised a nominal sum of money from friends for initial working capital purposes. He then proceeded to cleverly negotiate deals with his suppliers that let him purchase parts on credit.

This in turn motivated him to sell his cars quickly – at a profit – so as to repay his suppliers. After years of diligently reinvesting those profits back into the business, Ford Motor was an industrial giant – and its creator was forever immortalized as a business legend.

2. John Rockefeller

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John Rockefeller is the business titan behind Standard Oil. After scratching and scrimping to buy his first oil refinery in 1862, he was already a dominant force in the industry by the 1870′s. From there, he almost single-handedly revolutionized the mass market for oil. By offering discounts to the railroads that carried his oil cross-country, Rockefeller was able to, in turn, sell it to customers for low prices that were previously unheard of. This helped establish Rockefeller’s legacy as one of America’s earliest business heroes, and he is still celebrated for his “ability to refine crude oil to produce kerosene and other products better, cheaper, and in greater quantity than anyone thought possible.”

3. Andrew Carnegie

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Often referred to as the “king of steel”, Andrew Carnegie did for steel what John Rockefeller did for oil. His work in founding and operating U.S. Steel has earned him the reputation as the second wealthiest man in history. But long before that, Carnegie set to work as a lowly telegrapher in the 1850′s. By the 1860′s, his investments in railroads, bridges, and oil derricks (combined with a lucrative side job as a bond salesman. propelled him to build U.S. Steel into an enduring empire.

In the 1890′s, after much work and toil, Carnegie’s was the “largest and most profitable industrial enterprise in the world.” By the time he sold his company to J.P. Morgan in 1901, Carnegie was ready for a much-deserved retirement filled with generous philanthropy and charitable giving.

4. Thomas Edison

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While Thomas Edison is best known for inventing the modern electric lightbulb in 1878, he was one of the fathers of the modern electrical grid (Nikola Tesla was the other). The impact of this innovation has been staggering. Prior to the electrical grid, the only available lighting was sunlight during the day and gas-powered lamps at night. In 1882, however, Edison took the world by storm, introducing one of the first commercial electric grids in the world. As the Objective Standard observes, “within fifty years of Edison introducing the electric grid, gas light was all but forgotten, and electricity emerged as the power source for the masses.”

Like Andrew Carnegie, Edison got his start as a telegraph operator, gradually working his way up to more rewarding and personally satisfying projects.

5. Warren Buffett

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Warren Buffett is one of only two living men who can truthfully boast a larger fortune than Bill Gates. (In fact, the two are now teaming up on the largest charitable giving project in history.. He generated his larger-than-life $60 billion net worth by becoming one of Wall Street’s sharpest and most successful investors. His secret, as William Grieder writes in his book “The Soul of Capitalism” is that Buffet “stays close to his capital.” That is, he will not invest unless he personally meets with the top executives and completely buys into their business strategy.

This simple yet proven philosophy has served Buffet well, propelling him to previously unimaginable heights of wealth creation.

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  1. Nate Moller's Gravatar Comment by Nate Moller on July 24th, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    How would it be to be on this list? I wonder if they had goals to arrive at this level or if their “small success [just lead] to big success”.

    I’d be really interested in interviewing any of these people to see what their mindset is like and where they thought they be at this point versus where they are.

    Great post!

  2. Rocque's Gravatar Comment by Rocque on July 24th, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    This is a great post. I might be tracking back to it if that is ok.

  3. Robert's Gravatar Comment by Robert on July 24th, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Great list, I would add Richard Branson up there too.

  4. Teeb Torbes's Gravatar Comment by Teeb Torbes on July 24th, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Steve Forbes inherited every penny from his Father who probably deserves to be on this list, But much lower than
    the son rates. Steve’s biggest accomplishment was to emerge from a very lucrative family.

  5. jro's Gravatar Comment by jro on July 24th, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    steve forbes??? are you kidding? He inherited everything from his father.

  6. eric's Gravatar Comment by eric on July 24th, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    This is a pretty good article with a couple of exceptions.

    First Steve Forbes has no business being even in the same zip code with the likes of Buffett, Ford, Rockefeller etc. Steve Forbes inherited his job and his money from his father, Malcolm Forbes. 430 million in wealth vs 60 billion from Buffett? Puhleese. that puts a credibility factor on the whole article.

    I also find it pretty dubious to include sports stars. What empire exactly did A-Rod create? Fat personal bank account, but no Empire. The yanks arent exactly lighting it up right now on his bat.

    Madonna is an interesting selection. She has been an extremely cagey marketer and has extended her relevance for years past what one would have thought possible. I accept that though inclusion with Sam Walton, Gates, Buffett etc. seems a stretch.

    Beckham?? Please. Great soccer player. Otherwise probably the idiotic match of his wife. Go look up the Ali G interview with them both. Hilarious..mostly for how stupid both the beckhams are.

  7. Dennis's Gravatar Comment by Dennis on July 24th, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, he perfected it maybe, but he did not invent it.

  8. Michael Curtis's Gravatar Comment by Michael Curtis on July 25th, 2008 at 10:05 am

    While this list is chock full of errors, I’ll point out just two of them.

    From Steve Jobs: “An unauthorized biography of Job’s life and business career labeled Jobs as “the biggest second act in the history of business”, with the first being Bill Gates.”

    Does that make any sense? The first act being Bill Gates? The second act refers to the fact that he was forced out of apple, and then came back many years later to save the company. The “second act” is 1997 to present.

    From David Beckham: “Beckham is the highly touted soccer star who made headlines by leaving the English national team for the bright lights of United States soccer.”

    Beckham did not leave the English national team. He still plays for them. He left his club team, Real Madrid of Spain.

  9. Ad Manager's Gravatar Comment by Ad Manager on July 25th, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Why there are too many men and only 2 women? What about Oprah? It’s also too technology-focused.

  10. Jón's Gravatar Comment by Jón on July 25th, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Is Björk as big as Madonna already?

  11. fer's Gravatar Comment by fer on July 25th, 2008 at 10:16 am

    I would add Carlos Slim and J. K. Rowling to the list. And whoever owns ikea. And Edison was just stealing ideas from other people (Tesla), just like Bill Gates. just my two cents

  12. YourSash's Gravatar Comment by YourSash on July 25th, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Wonderful research and great post! Seems not graduating is a big trend for a lot of these people!

  13. CatGrampy's Gravatar Comment by CatGrampy on July 25th, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Thomas Edison as father of today’s electric grid? Wrong answer! Nikolai Tesla invented the AC grid, cousin. The Chicago World’s Fair and the power plant at Niagara Falls that powered Buffalo, NY should be proof enough for you. Edison backed DC, much to his own chagrin. To be sure, Edison was an excellent inventor and businessman; Tesla was a pure genius and a horrid businessman! Hence the general ignorance of his contribution to our society as it stands today.

  14. Paul's Gravatar Comment by Paul on July 25th, 2008 at 10:33 am

    Didn’t Tesla invent the modern AC power grid? Thomas Edison was all about a DC power grid – which failed because it sucks.

  15. JGxHitzert's Gravatar Comment by JGxHitzert on July 25th, 2008 at 10:38 am

    So Steve wasn’t standing on the shoulders of his father, Malcolm, Forbes. That’s a whole lot of virtual.

    As for naming bands, how do you not mention the Grateful Dead. The band with the help of John Perry Barlow pioneered a marketing strategy that would be adopted by software companies such as Adobe and Netscape,give away what you can’t control – charge for what you can control – as a means of promotion. On the strength of this marketing the band also made more money than any other band on the strength of only one #1 song.

  16. Stephen's Gravatar Comment by Stephen on July 25th, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Where’s Oprah? Talking about business magnates building something out of nothing – she’s the perfect model. Considering that the two women on the list gained their notoriety for being 1.) a music icon and sex symbol first, businesswoman second and 2.) a firebrand writer of philosophy, it seems that the authors of this ought to expand their reach just a tad. Oprah created a media empire out of nothing and is one of the richest women in the world. How can you exclude her from this list?

  17. Varalith's Gravatar Comment by Varalith on July 25th, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Yes, Tesla was the inventor of the modern AC grid as it exists today. A simple wikipedia search would have garnered that information.

    Edison was certain that DC would work wonders, except for the fact that the infrastructure was too costly and too out of hand for anyone to manage. An AC transformer can provide power to multiple homes, while a DC transformer had to be placed for every home in a system, among other things.

  18. Ulises's Gravatar Comment by Ulises on July 25th, 2008 at 10:55 am

    And Michael Jordan?????

  19. Harald Johnsen's Gravatar Comment by Harald Johnsen on July 25th, 2008 at 10:59 am

    Pretty good list. Honestly, though: What the hell were you thinking putting people like Alex Rodrigues in there with legends like Warren Buffet and John D. Rockefeller? I mean, come on.

  20. Lady Luck's Gravatar Comment by Lady Luck on July 25th, 2008 at 11:01 am

    This article was so poorly crafted by said author. WE ONLY GET TWO WOMEN UP HERE? What about OPRAH you ignorant-testosterone driven researcher?

    Martha Stewart??
    Oprah??
    Ruth Handler – Barbie??

    I am not saying Steve Jobs and Buffet shouldn’t be up there, but there are CERTAINLY people who should be listed in place of your male-idolized athletes and heirs.

    Go back to the drawing board man.

  21. Dan's Gravatar Comment by Dan on July 25th, 2008 at 11:12 am

    I was shocked not to find the founders of the most iconic name in motorcycles, Harley and Davidson! If they didn’t warrant mention, then how about the grandson, Willie G. Davidson who brought the company back from almost certain death at hands of AMF?

  22. Guest's Gravatar Comment by Guest on July 25th, 2008 at 11:26 am

    hi… where is the founder of IKEA?

  23. Drea's Gravatar Comment by Drea on July 25th, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Damage control here. Though I cannot speak for the writer’s selection in visionaries, I will respond to a few key point commenters put up. Thanks for commenting, everyone, and here they are:

    1. Steve Forbes, #7 on the list, did indeed inherit his papa’s empire. Malcolm built Forbes; Steve expanded it. Thus, we decided to remove him from our list and replace him with Oprah Winfrey, who perhaps boasts one of the most iconic success stories ever.

    2. Edison invented DC power (and the electric chair along with it); Tesla invented the now widely-used AC power. In the ensuing current wars, AC won, but I don’t think that discounts Edison from being at least a father, if not THE father. His DC grids powered central business districts for quite some time. Language has been changed to reflect that Edison wasn’t the only man behind the power grid.

    3. David Beckham. He indeed left Real Madrid–thank you for pointing that out. Correction made.

    4. Ayn Rand was rather prolific in her short stories, novels, plays, etc., but it would be an overstatement to call her one of the most prolific authors of all time. “Influential” is the word here; correction made.

    Again, the selection process was at the author’s discretion, so we won’t be swapping anyone else unless there is a factual error. Thanks for your ongoing participation, commenters.

  24. chefdeb's Gravatar Comment by chefdeb on July 25th, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Ayn Rand only wrote, as far as I know, four books of fiction. I wouldn’t call that prolific. The rest of her fame should be attributed to her philosophy of Objectivism. She became a cult figure in the 60′s until the scandal of her affair with Nathaniel Brandon and the rather nasty fall out that followed kind of blew up in her face.

    I also noticed only 2 women. Where’s Oprah? Chanel? J.K. Rowling? Anita Roddick? Mary Kay Ash? Estee Lauder? Martha Stewart? Debbie Fields? Come on people! These women created incredible empires, too.

    We can skip the celebrities…I’m more than saturated with that stuff.

  25. Skeptical Jesus's Gravatar Comment by Skeptical Jesus on July 25th, 2008 at 11:44 am

    “Rand is now recognized as one of the most prolific fiction writers of all time.”

    A cursory search of the interwebs shows that she wrote relatively little in her lengthy literary career. Perhaps the author is unclear on the definition of prolific?

  26. Marissa O's Gravatar Comment by Marissa O on July 25th, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    It’s really a shame that you guys put Eddie Van Halen on a list of business visionaries who came from nothing but totally forgot to mention Dov Charney, someone who was literally broke in 5 years ago and now owns a billion dollar clothing company. At least he’s creating jobs for Americans instead of getting drunk and playing rock shows.

    Did you guys just forget about him or something?

  27. CatGrampy's Gravatar Comment by CatGrampy on July 25th, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Edison invented the electric chair? Wrong answer again. He used the invention to vilify Tesla’s AC power by convincing state authorities to use AC in the first execution by electric chair. The inventor credited for the chair is Alfred P. Southwick, and he based its construction on AC not DC.
    I admire Edison’s contributions to science, but let us give proper credit where it is due, eh? Without Tesla’s genius I daresay that the world would be a bit dimmer these days…

  28. Ron's Gravatar Comment by Ron on July 25th, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    If Martha Stewart were included (per one commenter’s suggestion) you would all be bitching about her insider trading. You can’t please everyone. As the article notes, it is NOT an exhaustive list of every empire or success story.

  29. Derrick M.'s Gravatar Comment by Derrick M. on July 25th, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    I liked the 25 Visionaries posting and couldn’t wait to read it. You have some interesting choices–all of whom are wonderful inspirations.

    It did sadden me though that I didn’t see the likes of Berry Gordy (creator of Motown) or John H. Johnson, who used his mother’s furniture as security for a $500 loan to start the business empire that eventually included Ebony and Jet magazines and that made him one of the nation’s richest and most powerful black businessmen in the US.

    Now there’s two guys who started from ABSOLUTELY nothin.’ And during a time when their social environment was committed to keeping them at nothin. Tiger Woods? Oprah? Yeah, I guess. Just seems pretty lazy and convenient to me.

  30. wtf's Gravatar Comment by wtf on July 25th, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    What the hell is David Zuckerman doing here? In the company of Warren Buffett and Rockefeller?

  31. JGxHitzert's Gravatar Comment by JGxHitzert on July 25th, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Hey Ron, Michael Milkin did a lot more time the Martha.

  32. Steve of Apple's Gravatar Comment by Steve of Apple on July 25th, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    When I was at Apple a few years ago, Woz was still listed as an employee (reporting to the CEO). On his web site, Woz says: “I want to have an Apple badge forever. I am a low-salaried employee. Although I only represent Apple very occassionally, my presence at events and speeches that I give reflect on Apple.”

    http://www.woz.org/letters/pirates/07.html

  33. Fresh Excel's Gravatar Comment by Fresh Excel on July 25th, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Good article. Thanks for this.

  34. Rob's Gravatar Comment by Rob on July 25th, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Mark Zuckerburg? He created a web site. I’d hardly put him at the same level as Andrew Carneqie, Henry Ford, et al. In 10 years, we may not even remember who Mark Zuckerburg was.

  35. GavaldaFX's Gravatar Comment by GavaldaFX on July 25th, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    This is a great example that ordinary people can make their life. The tech gurus mostly had luck (besides their obvious genius) with the timing but every one of them worked hard to get where they are today. Commitment, passion, discipline. 99.99% of the people lack at least one of these. Lucky for us, the rest :-)

  36. Arthur Atlee's Gravatar Comment by Arthur Atlee on July 25th, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    How is inheriting your money, as Forbes did, creating something from virtually nothing?

  37. Arun's Gravatar Comment by Arun on July 25th, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    How can you forget these three giants:
    1) Lakshmi Mittal
    2) JK Rowling
    3) Dhirubhai Ambani

    Or is your list focussed only on US?

    Lakshmi Mittal has created the world’s biggest Steel empire starting with nothing.

    Dhirubhai Ambani created a empire which boasts of owning world’s refinery and has interests in textile, energy, telecommunications and more. Even after the group split into two, majority shareholders of two group rank in forbes richest list

    JK Rowling, well, if I need to tell you about her, you really haven’t been on net. From not having enough money to buy a coffee, she virtually created entire industry around Harry Potter books and merchandise and became the world’s richest author within 10-12 years from the time first book came out.

    The list you have chosen is brilliant, but not very representative of world, it’s just the US.

  38. donaldinho's Gravatar Comment by donaldinho on July 25th, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Actually Andrew Carnegie was born and raised in a poor family in a town on the east coast of Scotland, maybe that should have been mentioned, and while we are talking about Scots ,why no mention of Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone,maybe he did not make money from the Bell Co though ?? and including sports stars is a little dubious don’t you think…

  39. Adam's Gravatar Comment by Adam on July 25th, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    I’m disappointed Richard Branson didn’t make the cut

  40. KC's Gravatar Comment by KC on July 26th, 2008 at 3:16 am

    Awww, I would have liked to see Lee Ka Shing on the list. Nonetheless, it was an entertaining read.

  41. Toilet Paper Entrepreneur's Gravatar Comment by Toilet Paper Entrepreneur on July 26th, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    It would be interesting if these people (the living ones) would consider themselves successful and why? The numbers, and first pass, make it “obvious” they are successful. But Sam Walton died, saying “I blew it” cause he had no balance. He had all the money in the world, but no happiness.

    - Mike Michalowicz

  42. imer's Gravatar Comment by imer on July 26th, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    if you want to somene to be there than make your own list LOL . And by the way most of those guys were cheaters liars and killers. And I don’t think someone who has billions is a good person cuz I don’t think you need to have more than one billion cuz u can never spend it all. Everyone who has more than one billion should donate to countries who don’t have clean water to drink and die from hunger. Gates is doing good but better give someone bread to eat before he dies than give some spoiled lazy kid an extra computer. And jk Rowling I don’t think did anything special, everyone writes books just she was lucky there are people who read the stupid things like harry potter books. By the way sorry for my bad English.

  43. Anon's Gravatar Comment by Anon on July 26th, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Bill Gates does not belong on this list at all.
    He had rich parents who sent him to an exclusive school.

  44. United Voices's Gravatar Comment by United Voices on July 27th, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Well these are really great person who make themselves a part of history. I think you’ve missed out some of the greatest of modern era as well.

  45. Vishwas's Gravatar Comment by Vishwas on July 27th, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    Where’s Dhirubhai Ambani, he started as a boy working at a gas station, and went on to became the wealthiest person in India, while with his help his sons became the welthiest person in the worlds, He deserves a name here.

  46. snoflaik's Gravatar Comment by snoflaik on July 28th, 2008 at 10:52 am

    “Something From Nothing”? “Visionary”?

    Sam Walton doesn’t qualify as “visionary” – Wal-Mart’s ascendance has lowered labor standards dramatically.

    Bill Gates didn’t found Microsoft “from nothing” – he came from a wealthy family, and ripped off Apple Computer’s interface design to make Windows 95.

    Steve Jobs also founded NeXt Computers, which provided the basis for the new Apple Mac operating system.

    Note to Author: the Apple renaissance began with the iMac, long before the iPod, which has since cemented Apple’s place in the public mind.

  47. snoflaik's Gravatar Comment by snoflaik on July 28th, 2008 at 11:06 am

    I second the addition of JK Rowling – she was a struggling single mother working in bars to support her family.

  48. antiques's Gravatar Comment by antiques on August 25th, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    all of these men are an inspiration. warren buffett is my personal favorite out of the men listed.

  49. C45H's Gravatar Comment by C45H on October 3rd, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    stupid us-centered shbit, like u always do it. what is this? the anti world’s largest crisis in finance post? tryin to prove that u don’t suck in business…well u do

  50. Anonymous's Gravatar Comment by Anonymous on November 20th, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    not one African American makes the cut.

  51. HatchThat Interviews with Entrepreneurs's Gravatar Comment by HatchThat Interviews with Entrepreneurs on December 2nd, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    While there are a few in the list that probably shouldn’t be, it’s always good to read about others success. Keeps you inspired, and allows you to learn from their mistakes.

  52. Abhishek's Gravatar Comment by Abhishek on December 17th, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks…for bringing such great minds at one place… :)

  53. Michele Weeks's Gravatar Comment by Michele Weeks on January 6th, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    What an inspiring article. So, many people think that greatness is reserved for the wealthy and privileged. This list of 25 Visionaries disproves that.

    Perfectly timed for inspiration during the new year.
    Thanks.
    @AskMichele
    http://www.askmicheleweeks.com

  54. Jared Lyda's Gravatar Comment by Jared Lyda on January 7th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Fascinating! Thanks for compiling this list!!!

    Jared Lyda
    http://www.fireandmotionblog.com

  55. sahrul munir's Gravatar Comment by sahrul munir on April 24th, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    muhammad prophet is very succes man in da’wah the world

  56. Jesse's Gravatar Comment by Jesse on July 20th, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Why are people still continuing to tell lies! What about Nikola Tesla that Edison and Westinhouse exploited, robbed, and buried in history. Is this history based on who had the cash and was good at enslaving and stealing from others? I think so…. Shame on you for posting this garbage!

  57. ujang's Gravatar Comment by ujang on November 26th, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    madonna. . .gak banget deh. . .

  58. Agus's Gravatar Comment by Agus on December 6th, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    So inspiring me to be a great man

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