The world has changed a lot over the last one hundred years. From an industrial revolution to a technology boom, we have witnessed as cars have gone electric, commercial space flight has started to become a reality, and numerous deadly diseases were exterminated or radically altered because of modern medicine. These advances were the work of some brilliant people, many of whom started out their lives living in the worst conditions imaginable. From modern tech marvels to a dramatic shift in the civil rights of everyone in America, we celebrate these individuals who went from rags to riches and the poorest of slums to the most heralded spots in American and beyond.
Andrew Carnegie started working at a cotton million 12 hours a day, six days a week starting at the age of 13. After his father lost his job, Carnegie was tasked with watching after his entire family. He eventually became a telegraph messenger at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company where he climbed the corporate ladder. He eventually invested his hard earned money into various ventures which allowed him to build a steel industry empire. After controversy marred his legacy, Carnegie gave away a large portion of his fortune on various philanthropic endeavors. Carnegie libraries are still found all throughout the United States and they are in use by various cities and smaller towns.
Oprah Winfrey has become one of the most powerful people in entertainment and has touched the lives of millions of people. Before she was one of the most recognizable people on the planet, she was born to unwed teenage parents in Mississippi. Oprah has told the story of wearing dresses that her grandmother made out of potato sacks. Oprah became a mother at 14 but lost her child a short time after they were born. Her global media empire is now worth $2.7 billion. She is known for giving away large swaths of her fortune to people in need.
Maria Das Gracas Silva Foster
Maria Das Gracas Silva Foster was born in the poverty-stricken shantytown of Morro do Adeus, Brazil. Her father was an alcoholic which forced her to work for money to support her family. Foster collected cans and paper as she continued to study and make her way through college. She soon landed an internship at Petrobras and worked her way up the corporate ladder. In 1978 she became the first female head of the department of engineering. She shattered the glass ceiling and opened a lot of doors for female engineers all over the world.
Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club are shrouded in controversy these days but the company’s founder believed in giving back to his community and employees. Walton lived on a farm in Oklahoma with his family during the Great Depression. After World War II, Walton borrowed $25,000 from his father and used $5,000 he saved from his time in the Army to buy a Ben Franklin variety store which he expanded into the retail giant Wal-Mart. Even if you hate Wal-Mart, it’s hard to deny that the company changed the retail space forever.
Chris Gardner was portrayed by Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happiness so his life is well-documented. Gardner was born without ever knowing his father and his stepfather was an abusive man. After leaving the Navy, Gardner entered the medical supplies sales universe. He eventually became interested in the stock market and worked his way up the corporate ladder at Bear Stearns. While the role of a stockbroker is not likely to inspire a lot of change in our world, his story has helped many people realized they should shoot for the stars to achieve their own dreams.
The story of Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has become something of legend over the last two decades. After divorcing her husband in 1993, Rowling moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to start a new life with her daughter. Rowling was living on welfare and suffered from clinical depression at the time of completing the first Harry Potter book. Her books have now sold over 400 million copies worldwide and she has inspired children, teenagers, and adults, to pursue their own dreams regardless of the adversity they are facing.
Howard Schultz started out his life living in the Canarsie Bayview Houses, a housing project in Brooklyn, New York. Schultz realized early in life that he didn’t want the type of life his truck driver father was forced to live. Schultz studied hard in college and eventually he landed a job at Xerox. It was during his time at the tech giant that he discovered a small coffee chain called Starbucks. He became the company’s CEO in 1987 and expanded the franchise into more than 16,000 outlets.
Ursula Burns was raised in a housing project in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She was surrounded by gang members during her early years while being raised by her Panamanian-immigrant single mother who ran a daycare center at her home. After earning her Mechanical Engineering degree at NYU she accepted an internship at Xerox. Burns would later become the first African-American woman to ever lead a Fortune 500 Company. Her ability to overcome adversity and move up the corporate ladder has inspired thousands of black woman since she shattered the glass ceiling.
Faraday was born into a poor family in industrial London and could never afford any formal training in school Instead. When he was 14 years old he took an apprenticeship at the local book-binder where he worked for seven years. Faraday attempted to land several different jobs but was denied each time. Eventually, Faraday was offered the chance to work at the Royal Institute. In a very short period of time, Faraday invented the electric motor, the electric generator, the Bunsen burner, electrolysis and electroplating. As if that wasn’t enough to impress every scientist on the planet, he also discovered electro-magnetic induction, discovered benzene, and determined the shape of magnetic fields before discovering metallic nano-particles (thought to be the birth of nano-science).
Remember the scene in Good Will Hunting whenRobin Williams has a conversation in which Matt Damon’s genius janitor is directly compared to a mathematician by the name of Srinivasa Ramanujan. That wasn’t a fictional character, Ramanujan was a self-taught math protege who was rejected by most of the mathematics community. The mathematician was living in abject poverty in India when his theorems were finally taken seriously by a professor at Cambridge University. Today his formulas have found uses in everything from string theory to crystallography. His math theorems have literally helped shape the world we live in.
Gregor Mendel was an uneducated monk who discovered how genetics work. Mendel was born in the Czech Republic in 1822 and couldn’t afford to go to college. Instead of a formal education, he joined the Augustinian monastery at Brunn. One day, while gardening, Mendel noticed some interesting things about his pea plants, specifically their color, size, and other traits. He performed a few experiments which would lead to the formation of the study of genetics. It took decades for Mendel’s work to be validated, and then it was only because of another scientist who stumbled onto his work.
Dr. Seuss’ stories have inspired hundreds of millions of children all over the world. From The Cat In The Hat to Horton Hears A Who, he is regarded by many people as the greatest children’s author of all time. His first book was refused by 27 publishers but he remained persistent and his books have sold over 600 million copies. Dr. Seuss didn’t just write hilarious and though provoking children’s books, he also encouraged his young readers to explore their own imagination and chase after their dreams.
The inventor of the light bulb failed to create his masterpiece during more than 1000 attempts. During his early years, Edison was called “too stupid to learn anything” by his teachers. He grew up in a poor family and was reliant on his own ability to learn and get ahead in the world. Despite many hardships, he never gave up and soon invented the light bulb, photograph, the moving camera, and numerous other inventions that quickly helped shape the modern world and the future of technology for generations to come.
Charlie Chaplin once described his poverty-stricken childhood by proclaiming, “We lived in a continual crisis; and, being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness.” Despite periods of near starvation and barely a roof over his head, Chaplin pursued his dreams to become a silent film star. He was soon the first actor to fetch $1 million for a single movie role. He is still largely credited by today’s comedians as a driving force behind their own motivation to learn the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle art of nonverbal body humor.
Harland David “Colonel” Sanders
Colonel Sanders has become the figure head of KFC but it wasn’t an easy start for the restauranteur. Armed with nothing but a fried chicken recipe, he attempted to sell his secret mix on 1009 different occasions. Colonel Sanders drove around the country sleeping in his car and knocking on every restaurant door he could find. Eventually, he opened his own hotel, gas station, and hotel in Corbin, Kentucky. His chicken soon caught on and he sold the company for millions of dollars. The Colonel was in his 60’s when he forced his now massive franchise.
Rosa Parks is widely regarded as the “first lady” of civil rights after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Alabama in 1955. While Parks became an influential person, she never used her fame to gain personal wealth. Parks lost her job and found it difficult to support herself after her famous bus ride. Despite those hardships, she continued to fight for human rights while relying on the generosity of her church and various donors. The African American community offered a lot of support to Parks following her brave action and even many white supporters and donors have been revealed in recent years.
Many Americans don’t realize that Abraham Lincoln was born into a poor family. Lincoln lived in a small one room cabin to a carpenter father and he would go on to become the 16th president of the United States, leading us through a Civil War while fighting to end the practice of slavery. His life was taken to early but this poor child turned lawyer and then President of the United States, continues to inspire U.S. citizen’s to fight for their rights and demand a better American for themselves and future generations.
Steve Jobs was given away for adoption by his biological parents and his foster parents couldn’t afford to keep paying for his college education which forced him to drop out. At one point, Jobs was returning glass Coke bottles for money and lived on free meals at the Hare Krishna temple. He eventually got serious about building a tech empire and with his good friend, Steve Wozniak, he formed what would become Apple, Inc. Before his death, the company had become the most highly valued company in the world.
John Paul DeJoria
Before he even turned 10-years-old, DeJoria was selling Christmas cards and newspapers to help support his family. His family wasn’t able to support him and he was eventually shipped off to a foster home before joining the military. Using a $700 loan, he went on to create the John Paul Mitchell System, a shampoo product he started by selling door-to-door while living in his car. He later added Patron Tequila to his list of highly successful companies. DeJoria has proven that our lot in life doesn’t necessarily determine who we become as adults.
Larry Ellison was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised by his aunt and uncle in Chicago, IL. When his aunt died, Ellison dropped out of college and moved to California where he worked odd jobs for the next eight years. In 1977, Ellison founded Oracle, a company that would help shape the internet landscape while providing software solutions for millions of people all over the world. Today, Ellison is one of the richest and most powerful people in the world. He’s proof that it’s never too late to make a difference.