25 Visionaries Who Created Empires From Virtually Nothing

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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.

Here they are in no particular order:

1. Henry Ford

BP-Ford

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.

SEE ALSO:
The 10 Worst Things Businesses Do

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.

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  • 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!

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

  • Robert

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

  • Teeb Torbes

    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.

  • jro

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

  • 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.

  • Dennis

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

  • Michael Curtis

    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.

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

  • Is Björk as big as Madonna already?

  • fer

    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

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

  • CatGrampy

    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.

  • Paul

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

  • 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.

  • Stephen

    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?

  • Varalith

    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.

  • Ulises

    And Michael Jordan?????

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Dan

    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?

  • Guest

    hi… where is the founder of IKEA?

  • Drea

    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.

  • 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.

  • Skeptical Jesus

    “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?

  • Marissa O

    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?

  • CatGrampy

    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…

  • Ron

    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.

  • Derrick M.

    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.

  • wtf

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

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

  • Steve of Apple

    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

  • Good article. Thanks for this.

  • Rob

    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.

  • 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 :-)

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

  • Arun

    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.

  • donaldinho

    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…

  • Adam

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

  • KC

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

  • 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

  • imer

    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.

  • Anon

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

  • 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.

  • Vishwas

    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.

  • snoflaik

    “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.

  • snoflaik

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

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

  • C45H

    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

  • Anonymous

    not one African American makes the cut.

  • 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.

  • Abhishek

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

  • 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

  • Fascinating! Thanks for compiling this list!!!

    Jared Lyda
    http://www.fireandmotionblog.com

  • sahrul munir

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

  • Jesse

    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!

  • ujang

    madonna. . .gak banget deh. . .

  • Agus

    So inspiring me to be a great man