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:
1. Henry 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.
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
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
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
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
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.