While some people may believe attending a name-brand college is everything, they may be surprised to discover that some of the top CEOs in history never went to college. Whether they lacked the funds, grades, or resources to attend university, these CEOs often make up for the loss with sheer leadership ability. A look at the top 50 CEOs who never went to college can provide insight into how some of the most intriguing people on Earth succeed.
1. Raising the Roof: How Kenneth A. Hendricks Became a Blue-Collar Billionaire
Born in the county seat of Rock County, Wisconsin, Kenneth “Ken” Hendricks dropped out of high school to join the roofing business. He never attended college. Learning the industry by shingling houses during the weekends, Hendricks eventually started his own roofing and repair company. It was through this company that he met his wife, Diane, a former teen mom who had eventually gone into the business of selling custom-made homes. The husband-and-wife team built a 500-employee empire that encompassed several states by 1971.
After selling the first business, the couple started a wholesale company named ABC Supply in 1982, an enterprise that expanded to 500 stores and remains the largest roofing and vinyl siding supplier in the United States. Although Ken Hendricks died tragically in a home construction accident in 2007, his wife continued the legacy of expansion, acquiring competitor Bradco Supply in early 2010.
2. From Five-and-Dime to Five Billion: The Epic Tale of Hobby Lobby Founder David Green
After finishing his high school diploma, David Green began working in a neighborhood five-and-dime (variety store). By 1970, Green had been promoted to store manager for the local franchise. With the help of a $600 loan, Green started a custom picture-frame business named Greco Products. Within two years, the business sold enough products that Green purchased a building in Oklahoma City and changed the business name to “Hobby Lobby.” By 1975, Green opened a second Hobby Lobby location in the state. Today, the company is the largest privately-owned crafts retailer in the world with 850 stores and worth of nearly $5 billion.
3. Tailor-Made Life: Amancio Ortega and the Origins of the Zara Clothing Empire
Zara is the largest retailer in the Inditex Fashion Group with sales in the billions now, but the fashion giant had classically humble beginnings. Founder Amancio Ortega left school at age 14 to relocate to A Coruña (a municipality in Spain) with his father, a railway worker. The young Ortega took a job as an assistant to a local tailor who taught him to make shirts by hand. He opened the first Zara store in 1975 and developed a manufacturing process dubbed “instant fashion” due to historically speedy production times. Zara stores saw exponential expansion throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and Ortega’s net worth is currently over $70 billion.
4. Rogue Restaurateur: Barbara Lynch Sets a New Standard for Chefs
Barbara Lynch grew up in a low-income housing project in South Boston. As a teenager, she worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen. This exposure to the restaurant business (as well as advice from her home-economics teacher) inspired Lynch to become a chef. Although Lynch dropped out of high school, she obtained an apprenticeship with Boston chef Todd English and later worked in Italy.
Upon returning to the United States, Lynch worked as the executive chef for Galleria Italiana, and Food & Wine named her one of the ten best chefs in the country. In 1998, she opened her own restaurant. Lynch now owns a group of eateries that gross approximately $20 million in sales every year. In 2017, TIME honored Barbara Lynch in the annual list of the 100 most influential people of the year.
5. Twisted Perfection: How Anne F. Beiler Parlayed an Eighth-Grade Education Into a Pretzel Empire
Born into an Old Order Amish family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Anne Beiler followed the tradition of leaving formal education after the eighth grade. Married at 18 and quickly mother to three small children, Beiler upheld many traditional Amish skills such as cooking from scratch and homemaking. Through these practices, she discovered a talent for homemade pretzels. Beiler first sold handmade pretzels at a farmer’s market in Maryland before renting a stand-in Downingtown, Pennsylvania under the name of “Aunt Annie’s Pretzels.” Within two years, Aunt Annie’s expanded to numerous shopping mall food courts and stand-alone franchises throughout Pennsylvania. Twice named Inc. magazine’s “Entrepreneur of the Year,” Beiler eventually obtained a GED at the age of 50.
6. Speaking Up: Tony Robbins and a Life Transformed Through Motivation
With a career encompassing four decades, Tony Robbins is easily one of the most-recognizable life coaches and motivational speakers in the world. Born into a working-class family in 1960, Robbins adopted the surname of a stepfather and worked as a handyman in high school to help support his siblings. After leaving his unstable childhood home at the age of 17, Robbins did not enroll in college. Instead, he worked as a promoter for speaker Jim Rohn and later partnered with consultant John Grinder to produce seminars. He went on to create motivational infomercials through Guthy-Renker and served as a celebrity coach throughout the 1990s and 2000s. As the CEO of Robbins Research International, his current net worth is a cool $500 million.
7. From Troubled to Triumphant: Tyler Perry‘s Television and Movie Empire
While many people believe that keeping a journal is therapeutic, playwright and filmmaker Tyler Perry found a way to make it lucrative. After dropping out of high school, Perry stumbled across an Oprah Winfrey Show episode in which a guest described the cathartic benefits of writing. Taking the advice to heart, Perry began writing letters to himself that eventually evolved into plays. He then relocated to Atlanta and turned the plays into stage production for the underground theater circuit, soon producing nearly 300 plays a year that garnered multi-millions in revenue. Perry used this revenue to finance original movies and land multi-year production deals with several television networks. Openly vocal about surviving troubled beginnings in New Orleans, Louisiana, Perry has a current net worth of approximately $600 million.
8. Flowing With Milk and Honey: Carl Lindner Jr. and the Dairy Farm Business That Created a Family Fortune
For many people, circumstances could not have looked bleaker than dropping out of school at 14 to help the family during the Great Depression. However, this was a reality for Carl Lindner Jr. Nevertheless, Lindner used his time and youth to expand his father’s dairy delivery business into United Dairy Farmers, a chain of dairy and convenience stores. With the money from this enterprise, he and his sons later founded the American Financial Group, one of the most profitable holding companies in the nation. After his death in 2011, son Carl Lindner III took the reins as president and CEO of the family company.
9. Cola and Caring: The Refreshing Tale of Soft-Drink CEO Charles E. Culpeper
While the Coca-Cola Company is currently a multibillion-dollar corporation renowned the world over, many of its early leaders came from humble beginnings. One such example is Charles Emory Culpeper. Born to a poor family of farmers in Rome, Georgia, Charles Culpeper never completed high school. Instead, he worked as a store clerk and later became a traveling salesman. These travels took him all the way to the northeastern United States where he joined Coca-Cola in 1899. With money saved from his salesman salary, Culpeper purchased the Coca-Cola Bottling Works of New York and Newark, merging the bottling companies into a single firm by 1917. Accruing substantial wealth from investment shares of Coca-Cola, Culpeper eventually devoted the bulk of his fortune to Georgia-based charitable causes.
10. Informal Training: How an Internship (and Mentorship) Launched Robert Proctor‘s Career
He may have dropped out of high school after only two months of attendance, but Robert “Bob” Proctor did not let a lack of formal education stop him from achieving his goal of becoming a motivational speaker. After receiving a copy of Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, Proctor decided to pursue becoming an entrepreneur. Proctor struggled with dead-end jobs in his early adulthood but received his big breakthrough in an internship with motivational speaker Earl Nightingale at the age of 26. Nightingale mentored Proctor as he rose to vice president of sales within the eponymous company Nightingale-Conant. Proctor then left to start his own company, Life Success Publishing and has a current net worth of $25 million.
11. Living for the City: George Naddaff‘s Loyalty to the Boston Community Pays Off
The story of restaurateur George Naddaff reads like a classic American Dream. Born to immigrant parents in Boston during the Great Depression, Naddaff witnessed his father’s grocery business close due to economic hardship. To help the family, Naddaff and his brothers spent much of their childhood downtown shining shoes for a change. By age 13, Naddaff worked as a baker’s helper, janitor, and dishwasher. His loyalty at work earned a promotion to “fountain manager” by age 16.
Leaving high school at age 17 to join the army, Naddaff skipped college and went straight to work after his military tenure ended. He and his brother used savings to buy a franchise named Boston Chicken – nationally known as Boston Market after its sale in 1992. Naddaff used the profit to flip more franchises, and he is currently the CEO of Business Expansion Consulting Company, a group that advises leaders in the restaurant industry.
12. Designing Her Life: How Ashley Qualls Became a Teen Millionaire
While activities like basketball or cheerleading play a huge role in the typical high schooler’s life, Ashley Qualls had other plans. During her freshman year, Qualls started WhateverLife.com, an ad-sponsored website that offered free MySpace templates and HTML tutorials. As the business grew, Qualls moved operations from her bedroom to her home basement, hiring her mother and school friends as employees. By age 15, Qualls had dropped out of high school to focus on her website template design business. Earning well over a million dollars by age 17, Qualls turned down offers to buy her company and petitioned the court for legal emancipation to run her business as an adult. She remains the CEO of her company.
13. Safe Lodgings: Charles Kemmons Wilson and the Brilliant Creation of Holiday Inn
Born in rural Arkansas delta in 1913, Charles Kemmons Wilson grew up under the care of his widowed mother. As a child, Wilson worked as a paperboy, grocery sacker, and furniture builder. Once his single mother lost her job during the Great Depression, Wilson dropped out of high school at age 17 to provide for her. He started a business setting up vending machines in movie theaters. By age 20, he had saved enough money to settle his mother comfortably in a home in his name. He also used the home as collateral for a loan to start his own construction business.
While on a road trip with his wife, Wilson felt dissatisfied with the lack of quality and consistency in roadside hotels. In 1952, Wilson opened the first Holiday Inn motel with the intention of setting up standardized roadside hotels across the country. Under his leadership as CEO, Holiday Inn became a world-famous lodging franchise.
14. Determination and Dreams: The Story of Mary Kay Cosmetics
Mary Kay may be one of the most recognizable names in cosmetics today, but the company started with one woman’s determination and dream. Born Mary Kathlyn Wagner in Hot Wells, Texas, Mary Kay spent much of her childhood caring for her siblings and father (who was bedridden with tuberculosis) while her mother worked to support the family. Although she excelled in high school, Mary Kay gave up her dream of becoming a doctor and married at age 17. To help pay the bills, she got a job selling Stanley Home Products. Disillusioned after being overlooked for sales promotion within the company (in favor of a man she had taught the business herself), Mary Kay started her own cosmetics firm. Mary Kay Cosmetics, Inc. is now the sixth-largest network marketing company on the globe with sales over $3 billion.
15. Feeding Himself: Mukesh Jagtiani and the Incredible Rise of Landmark Group
On his deathbed, the father of Mukesh Jagtiani lamented that his son would never make enough money to feed himself. The reason for his father’s worry is that Jagtiani had flunked out of school by age 17. Although Jagtiani became a janitor and taxi driver, he made so little money that he had to move back in with family in the Persian Gulf. Shortly thereafter, his father died from diabetes, his mother succumbed to cancer, and his brother passed away from leukemia.
Left with no family, Jagtiani took over the retail store location that his brother had rented before falling ill. Jagtiani used his small inheritance to sell retail and baby products to Asian immigrants in the Persian Gulf. Within a decade, the business expanded to six stores. Today, the Landmark Group comprises more than 1,000 stores and has made Jagtiani into a billionaire.
16. Old-Fashioned Work Ethic: Dave Thomas and the Invention of Wendy’s Hamburgers
Few people in Rex “Dave” Thomas’ early life could have predicted what he would achieve in his lifetime. Born to an unwed mother in 1932, Dave became the adoptive son of Rex and Auleva Thomas when he turned six weeks old. When Dave Thomas was five, however, his adoptive mother passed away, and his adoptive father sent the child to live with a grandparent while he looked for work. The young Thomas got a restaurant job at age 12, and by age 15 he dropped out of high school to work full-time. After serving in the army for three years during the Korean War, Thomas owned four KFC franchise locations before starting a restaurant named after his daughter. By the time of Thomas’ death in 2002, there were over 6,000 Wendy’s restaurants established in North America.
17. Microblogging to Mega-Profits: Meet David Karp
While many millennials enjoy short-form blogging as a hobby, David Karp found a way to transform it into a career with the creation of Tumblr. Born in New York City, Karp taught himself HTML and basic coding by age 12. When he was 15, he dropped out of high school, returning for neither his diploma nor GED. Instead, he used a family connection to obtain an internship with an animation production company while working on his own microblogging platform. In February 2007, Karp officially launched Tumblr, and within a decade the platform hosted over 300 million personal and business blogs. Yahoo! acquired the company in 2013 for an estimated price of $1.1 billion.
18. “Made From the Best Stuff on Earth:” Hyman Golden and the Ingenious Creation of Snapple
Who knew that a fizzy, carbonated apple drink would one day compete with the likes of Pepsi and Coca Cola? Born to Romanian Jewish immigrants in the 1920s, Snapple creator Hyman Golden dropped out of high school to become a window-washer and help support his family. He later worked as a broker and maintenance company manager before founding Unadulterated Food Products with two friends in 1972. Initially created to capitalize on the rise of health-consciousness in the 1970s, the brand soon evolved to include palatable apple juices and teas that the founders renamed “Snapple.” With the help of catchy marketing, the company experienced runaway success as an alternative to dark cola. The drink continues to compete with mainstream cola as part of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.
19. From Singing to Breakfast Sausage Sales: How Jimmy Dean Built a Brand Through Talent and Good Humor
Born Jimmy Ray Dean in Plainview, Texas, Dean grew up playing instruments and singing country music within the Baptist church. His interest in music distracted him from his studies, so Dean dropped out of high school to join the military and later become a professional singer. After enjoying nearly 20 years of success as a country singer, Dean used a local sausage recipe to found Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1969. Sara Lee Corporation acquired the brand in 1984, thereby solidifying Dean’s fortune. By the time of his death in 2010, the worth of Dean’s estate exceeded $50 million.
20. Twice-Homeless to Top Dollar: Meet John Paul DeJoria, the CEO behind John Paul Mitchell Systems
If you think someone voted “Least Likely to Succeed” in high school is simply doomed to failure, think again. John Paul DeJoria overcame a difficult childhood to create one of the most celebrated hair-care brands in the world. Born to immigrant parents who divorced when he was two years old, DeJoria spent much of his childhood doing odd jobs to help his single mother and brother survive. Unpopular in school and sent to foster care when his mother was unable to feed him, DeJoria decided to skip college and join the military.
After serving his term, he continued to perform odd jobs (such as a janitor and door-to-door salesman), but the lack of consistent work meant DeJoria found himself homeless twice. Inspired by an entry-level job with Redken, however, DeJoria partnered with hairdresser Paul Mitchell to create a line of salon products. The brand proved successful, and as a majority owner, DeJoria is now worth over $3 billion.
21. Making a Mark on Things: Joyce C. Hall and the Impressive Start of Hallmark Cards
For Joyce Clyde Hall, writing positive notes became the foundation for creating a fortune. Born to a traveling Methodist minister and his ailing wife, Hall skipped school to become a door-to-door salesman and provide for his siblings. As a teenager, Hall and his brothers used their life savings to buy American postcards to sell in local stores. By age 18, he and his brother opened a shop called Norfolk Post Card Company to sell more postcards as well as greeting cards. Although their first shop burned down in 1915, Hall bought an engraving business the following year and designed his own greeting cards under the name “Hallmark.” Since its conception, Hallmark has become a staple in American culture with a current worth of $4 billion.
22. Changing the Face of Dieting Forever: S. Daniel Abraham and the Rise of SlimFast
Born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Long Beach, New York, Sim Daniel Abraham skipped college due to the expense. Instead, he founded Thompson Medical with hopes of hiring others to develop pharmaceuticals for sale. Inspired by the concept of meal-replacement shakes, Abraham went on to invent SlimFast, selling the diet shakes through Thompson Medical during the 1970s. Although available in only three flavors at the time (chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla), SlimFast exploded in popularity. Abraham has a current net worth of $2.1 billion and now devotes much of his time to philanthropic causes.
23. How Fast-Food Tycoon Ray Kroc Mounted Golden Arches From Golden Ambition
McDonald’s may be one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, but the CEO behind the empire rose from most obscure beginnings. Born to Czech immigrants who had settled in a rural Illinois town, Raymond “Ray” Kroc grew up witnessing his father amassing and then losing an entire real-estate fortune during the Great Depression. It was a lesson that Ray Kroc never forgot. Disinterested in school, he dropped out at age 15, lying about his birth year to become a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I. Later, he worked odd jobs such as paper-goods seller and piano man.
After the war era, Kroc worked as a milkshake mixer salesman for the Prince Castle brand. Although Prince Castle would soon succumb to competition from Hamilton Beach, the job enabled Kroc to meet Richard and Maurice McDonald, two brothers who owned six popular hamburger restaurants. Impressed with the restaurants’ assembly-line “speedy service” and friendly environments, Kroc partnered with the McDonald brothers and eventually bought out the company to expand the food chain across the nation and world.
24. Equipped for Life: The Story Behind Richard M. Schulze and Best Buy
As a behemoth of the consumer electronics industry, many people view Best Buy as the first stop for televisions, computers, or sound equipment. However, Best Buy is foremost the brainchild of sales enthusiast Richard Michael Schulze. A native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Schulze dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Air Force and National Guard. He later worked as a salesman with dreams of opening his own store. Finally, Schulze mortgaged his home to open an audio equipment store called Sound of Music. After nearly 20 years of solid success, Schulze rebranded the store like Best Buy and began opening franchise locations across the nation.
25. How Cutting-Edge Innovation Styled Vidal Sassoon‘s Life
Famous for hairstyles ranging from Anna Wintour’s trademark pageboy to Mia Farrow’s pixie cut in Rosemary’s Baby, Vidal Sassoon is a name synonymous with cutting-edge fashion. However, Sassoon’s early life was hardly glamorous. Born into extreme poverty to immigrant parents, Sassoon experienced grave hardship when his father abandoned the family and caused the youngster to spend seven years of his childhood in an orphanage. Caught in the crossfire of bullying, academic difficulties, and the social upheaval of WWII, Sassoon dropped out of school at age 14. He worked as a courier and slept in underground shelters. Although Sassoon wanted to be a football player, he opted for more security and took an apprenticeship with a hairdresser instead. Sassoon discovered that he had a knack for attractive haircuts and moved to Los Angeles where he built thriving salons as the most sought-after hairstylist in the world.
26. Sweet Victory: The Compelling Story of Wally Amos‘ Chocolate-Chip Cookie Brands
While many boys spend their childhood playing with toy soldiers and figurines, the young Wallace “Wally” Amos, Jr. preferred to help his Aunt Della Bryant in the kitchen. From his aunt, Amos learned how to develop an original cookie recipe that stood out from the crowd. Although Amos dropped out of high school to join the United States Air Force, he later earned a GED and briefly attended secretarial school before becoming a mailroom clerk at William Morris Agency (WMA). While at WMA, Amos worked his way up to talent agent, signing Simon & Garfunkel and charming other clients with reputable chocolate chip cookies. By 1975, friends encouraged Amos to sell cookies full time, and Amos began to sell his “famous” cookies in Los Angeles and across the United States. Although he quickly became a multimillionaire, Amos never forgot his aunt, launching Aunt Della’s Gourmet Cookies in honor of his first mentor.
27. A Palette for Success: The Origin of The Wolfgang Puck Companies
Known for some of the poshest restaurants in the world, chef Wolfgang Puck nevertheless had humble beginnings. Born to a pastry chef mother in a quaint Austrian village, Puck dropped out of school at age 14, trained in a chef’s apprenticeship, and worked in a hotel instead of attending college. Once he had saved up enough money, Puck moved to the United States at the age of 24. Following two years of work in Indianapolis, the chef relocated to Los Angeles to become a chef and partial owner of Ma Maison. He followed these efforts with opening dozens of restaurants and bistros known as The Wolfgang Puck Companies that have since garnered international fame.
28. Life in Plastic…It’s Fantastic: The Inspiring Story of Billionaire Y.C. Wang
It is easy to assume that running a large corporation like Formosa Plastics would require a formal MBA. However, founder and CEO Yung-Ching “YC” Wang possessed little more than a third-grade education before starting his career. Instead of attending college, Wang obtained a loan from an American aid agency to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resin and other plastic products in Taiwan. The business thrived, and Forbes named Wang the second-richest person in Taiwan in 2008. Wang became a famous advocate for Taiwan-Mainland China relations and went on to own a second home in Short Hills, New Jersey.
29. Rocking Our World: Boarding-School Reject Haim Saban‘s Epic Media Ventures
Many parents would worry to see their bright child getting expelled from boarding school only to join a rock band. Although Haim Saban’s unorthodox behavior bothered his parents at first, he quickly showed business acumen by becoming a manager and producer of rock groups. Following success in the music industry, Saban moved on to television production. He became the founder and CEO of Saban Entertainment, the company that produced the runaway hit Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Currently, he is the CEO of Saban Capital Group, a media acquisition company.
30. Setting Up Shop: The Bold Story of Richard Branson
He may have one of the most recognizable names in the recording industry now, but Richard Branson was far from the social or academic standout anyone expected growing up. Born in Blackheath, London, Branson struggled with a late diagnosis of dyslexia and had a history of poor academic performance at Stowe School. He ended up dropping out of high school at age 16. Undeterred, Branson began trying business ventures that included running a Christmas tree farm and publishing a magazine. The magazine venture was successful enough to give Branson seed money to launch his own recording company, producing records that he advertised in the well-circulated magazine. He sold enough records through magazine advertising to open a small record shop on London’s Oxford Street. After earning enough money from the small record store, Branson launched Virgin Records in 1972, the company that would make him a billionaire.
31. Zhou Qunfei: The Qualities to Succeed
For naturally gifted students, there is perhaps nothing more agonizing than the lack of academic opportunity. Such was the initial story of Zhou Qunfei, one of the world’s richest self-made women. Born to a poor family in the landlocked Hunan province of China, Zhou grew up helping her disabled father raise animals to feed her siblings. Although she was a bright and admired student, Zhou left school at age 16 to become a migrant worker in hopes of sending money home to her father. While she considered also trying out for a government job, she abandoned the idea since she had no diploma. Instead, she took what courses she could (without credit) while she searched for work.
Zhou eventually found a job with a family that crafted watch lenses. When the company closed down, Zhou used the experience to start her own lens company, advertising that her brand could make higher quality lenses. The quality caught the eye of electronics firm TCL Corporation, who offered Zhou a partnership to make mobile phone screens. Since then, Zhou’s company has produced screens for Motorola, Nokia, Apple, and Samsung, making her a billionaire.
32. Walt Disney‘s Belief in Magic as the Key to Success
Walt Disney may have become one of the most powerful CEOs of his time and a cultural icon in American animation history, but these achievements did not stem from a fancy degree. Instead, much of Disney’s success came from transforming his natural skills as a cartoonist into something magical. Born to a family of five children in Chicago, Disney first learned drawing by creating ads for the neighborhood doctor and copying covers of magazines. When the family moved to Kansas City, a childhood friend introduced Disney to the concepts of theater, vaudeville, and newly invented motion pictures. Disney would combine all three qualities to transform film production.
As a teen, Disney also held side jobs to support his siblings, and the exhausting schedule caused him to lose sleep and his grades to slip. Although he did become a cartoonist for the school newspaper, he ended up dropping out of high school at age 16. Using a forged birth certificate, Disney lied about his age to become a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I. After the war, he moved to Hollywood to become an animator – and the rest is history.
33. Moving On Up: John Tague‘s Confidence That the Corporate Ladder is Intact
John P. Tague is one of the most celebrated CEOs in the history of Hertz Holdings, Inc. The company frequently credits Tague’s leadership for restoring the company to success in the 21st century. However, Tague’s management ability did not come from connections or an MBA. Instead, Tague skipped university entirely in favor of on-the-job training. According to TIME, Tague climbed the corporate ladder the old-fashioned way until becoming president of United Airlines. He worked as CEO of Hertz before later retirement.
34. The Power of Dependability: Dhirubhai Ambani and the Creation of Reliance Industries
Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) is one of the largest Indian companies measured by revenue, but its profit did not come from a powerful maharaja or Western corporation. Instead, the successful corporation is the brainchild of Dhirajlal Ambani. Born to a school teacher in Gujarat, Ambani gave up school to find work at the age of 16. Ambani migrated to the then-British colony of Yemen and worked as a clerk before rising to the position of the employer. With his life savings, he eventually returned to India to start a textile company. Today, Reliance Industries provides electricity, petrochemicals, and textiles across the subcontinent.
35. From the Mail Room Table to the Judges’ Table: Simon Cowell‘s Incredible Journey to Producer and CEO
Television audiences may know Simon Cowell as the mince-no-words judge on shows like X-Factor and American Idol, but the producer’s impressive career started in the mailroom. After leaving two boarding schools without obtaining the diploma, the young Simon Cowell worked a series of menial jobs to support himself. Cowell’s father, a music executive at EMI, connected his son with a job in the mailroom of the company. Unhappy with the slow promotions, Cowell eventually left to start a company named Fanfare Records. The company showed promise with a few Italian pop acts but crashed financially in 1989, leaving Cowell practically bankrupt.
After nearly losing it all, Cowell found work as an assistant and A&R consultant at BMG Publishing. He built his portfolio in an unconventional way with children’s acts such as Power Rangers, Teletubbies, and the boy band Five. Cowell got his big break by signing Robson & Jerome, a duo who quickly produced number-one songs as well as the bestselling UK album of 1995. In 2001, Cowell landed the gig as judge and executive producer of the talent show Pop Idol. With the birth of the international era of music competition shows, Cowell established himself as a popular television icon.
36. Flowers That Never Die: The Amazing Rise of Li Ka-Shing
Few people could have predicted that selling artificial flowers can set the foundation for becoming the 30th richest person in the world. However, this is exactly how Li Ka-Shing got his start as an entrepreneur and business tycoon. The son of a poor rural school teacher who died when Li was only 13 years old, Li reluctantly dropped out of high school when he became a refugee of the war in Hong Kong at age 15. To support his mother and siblings, Li took a job with a company that manufactured plastic toys and watchbands. Showing signs of natural leadership, Li became junior salesman by age 17 and a general manager by age 19. By age 23, Li had saved up roughly $2,000 to start his own plastics business. Deciding to produce the most high-quality artificial flowers, Li’s company soon became the number-one plastic flower supplier in Asia. His flowers were a hit at venues ranging from weddings to restaurants and made Li into a millionaire. Later, Li founded Cheung Kong Holdings, a company that saw continued success.
37. From Dropout to Designer: How Ralph Lauren Used On-The-Job Training to Network and Succeed
Few other brands evoke the idea of posh, upper-class American style as well as Ralph Lauren. However, the origins of the company’s founder were far less glamorous. The son of immigrants who had settled in New York City, Lauren grew up as part of the poor working class. After attempting to take a few classes at CUNY, he dropped out due to a lack of funding and passion for the subjects. Instead, Lauren served in the army before going to work as a clerk’s assistant for Brooks Brothers Clothing Co. After leaving Brooks Brothers, Lauren began selling ties for a manufacturer named Beau Brummell. At age 28, Lauren persuaded the manufacturer to let him start a men’s clothing line, leading to the creation of Polo Ralph Lauren and launching the founder’s illustrious career in an upscale fashion.
38. Blue Skies and Sunshine: How Freddie Laker Pioneered the Commercial Airline Industry
With budget and economy airline tickets more ubiquitous than ever before, it can be hard to imagine a time when a cheap airline ticket was hard to come by. However, this difficulty was a reality when Frederick “Freddie” Laker was a young man. Raised in Canterbury, Kent before dropping out of high school, Laker went straight to work for the Short Brothers aircraft company in Rochester, England. Laker also worked for the civilian Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the World War II era.
After getting additional experience through work with British European Airways (BEA), Laker opened an aircraft dealership that sold surplus war supplies. When a larger corporation bought his company out, Laker became managing director of the newfound British United Airways. At this time, Laker recognized that the rise of a new middle class along with a lack of affordable commercial tickets created a unique opportunity. As a result, he left British United and opened Laker Airways in 1966. The airline featured the then-revolutionary concept of tiered ticket pricing, same-day tickets, and optional food (with tiered pricing). Although his airline has since closed, the CEO’s concept remained intact and transformed the industry for good.
39. Nuclear Wintour: Anna Wintour and the Role of Connections in the Creation of an Icon
For fashion enthusiasts, Anna Wintour reigns supreme as the longstanding editor-in-chief of Vogue and artistic director for publisher Condé Nast. While she may be a cultural icon for fashionistas, she did not get her start from attending journalism school or obtaining a business degree. Instead, Wintour followed her father’s connections into a series of assistantships with print magazines and influential fashion boutiques. Examples of assistant positions included working at Harper’s & Queen, Viva, Harrods department store, and New York magazine before landing the ultimate gig as an editor with Vogue UK.
40. Redeeming the Time: How Paying Off Debt Set the Stage for Subhash Chandra‘s Success
Imagine owing money for a debt that you never undertook. While some people may find the concept unfathomable, this was the childhood reality for Subhash Chandra. Born into a merchant and money-lending caste of the Hisar District in Haryana, India, creditors deemed Chandra responsible for a family debt 3.5 lakh Indian rupees. In order to pay the debt, Chandra dropped out of the tenth grade and joined the family rice trade to sell goods to the Food Corporation of India.
By the late 1980s, Chandra saved enough money to launch several of his own ventures. He started a plastic tubing and manufacturing business named Essel Packaging as well as an amusement park called EsselWorld. In 1992, he used profits to start Zee TV, a satellite television channel that distributed South Asian productions across the world. The network now boasts 90 channels and reaches over one billion people across 174 countries, and many consider Chandra the leading Indian media mogul of our time.
41. The Power of Seed: W.T. Grant‘s Model for the Modern Department Store
For many people, the mass-merchandise department store is a standard fixture in the downtown area of most cities. However, it is possible that many stores would not have followed this model without the pioneering work of nineteenth-century philanthropist and CEO William Thomas “W.T.” Grant. Born in rural Pennsylvania, Grant relocated to Massachusetts with his family at age five. By seven years old, Grant began selling flower seeds to neighbors at a discount. He never finished high school and chose to work as a salesman instead. The entrepreneurial impulse never left him, and at age 30 Grant launched his first W. T. Grant Co. 25-Cent Store. With the philosophy of offering large amounts of merchandise at a high discount, the stores succeeded and garnered $100 million in annual sales by 1936. In his lifetime, the CEO also started the William T. Grant Foundation, and his stores remain a common model for mass-merchandise outlets.
42. Father of the Mega-Resort: Kirk Kerkorian Profits From Having a Good Time
Without a doubt, many people would consider the casino-resort to be the epitome of a good time. Whether it includes trying their luck the blackjack tables, lounging poolside by day, or hitting the club scene at night, countless individuals believe that visiting a casino is a must-have on the bucket list. It is only fitting, then, to acknowledge the brilliant man who pioneered the concept in the first place. In the business world, Kirk Kerkorian is considered the “father of the mega-resort” for his contributions to the hotel and luxury industry. Despite only having an eighth-grade education, Kerkorian transformed expectations of the hospitality and entertainment industry. Based in Las Vegas, his company broke the record for constructing the world’s largest hotel a total of three times: International Hotel in1969), MGM Grand Hotel in 1973, and MGM Grand in 1993. By his retirement, many other companies adopted the model for combining hotels, casinos, and theme parks into one mega-resort.
43. Designer of Dreams: The Origins of the Great American Architect and CEO Frank Lloyd Wright
Some of the most recognizable landmarks in the world’s major cities include the Guggenheim Museum of New York or the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo. While thousands of tourists clamor to these locations to snap pictures every year, many would be surprised to learn that the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, may have never completed high school. Instead, he landed a special arrangement with Allan D. Conover, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to allow him to observe classes and understand the basics of elevating a building. Although he never actually received a college degree, this did not stop Wright from landing gigs as at draftsman at prominent architectural firms like Joseph Lyman Silsbee and Adler & Sullivan. Upon learning the ropes at these firms, Wright began to construct innovative prairie houses, churches, and gardens. After opening his own firm, Wright immortalized himself in the world’s architectural canon with the construction of Fallingwater, a house built over a waterfall that BusinessWeek calls the “best all-time work of American architecture.”
44. Henry Royce: How an Elementary-School Dropout Became the Premier English Automobile Designer
For many people, owning (or even driving) a Rolls-Royce is synonymous with having “made it.” However, the origins of founder Frederick Henry Royce were hardly glamorous. Born as the youngest of five children in Huntingdonshire, England, Royce witnessed the family flour mill fail before his father’s premature death in 1892. To help the family, Royce had to leave elementary school to sell newspapers and deliver telegrams for cash, resulting in only one year of formal schooling total. However, things started looking up when Royce became an apprentice with Great Northern Railway and learned all about automobiles. After learning that a childhood friend named Charles Rolls had grown up to own a luxury car showroom, Royce partnered with his friend to develop a brand of reliable and luxurious cars the pair named Rolls-Royce.
45. Maximizing the Moment: George Eastman and the Invention of Kodak
Most people associate “Kodak moments” with the widespread use of handheld cameras (before the ubiquity of smartphones). However, the use of Kodak cameras not only helped bring photography into the mainstream – its roll-film mechanism became the basis for the motion picture stock and the creation of all television and movies as we know them today. We can attribute this innovation to the American entrepreneur and CEO George Eastman. Born into the industrial boomtown of 19th-century Rochester, New York, Eastman had a happy childhood until watching his father and sister die of slow illnesses. To support his mother, Eastman dropped out of high school, vowing to repay his mother the hardships she underwent to ensure his survival. Always the inventor, Eastman practiced for nearly 15 years before he perfect roll film that manufacturers could stock and standardize. Eastman patented his invention in 1884 and incorporated the company as Eastman-Kodak in 1892. By his death in 1932, Eastman was worth nearly $85 million (the equivalent of today’s billionaire) and had transformed the way Americans pictures forever.
46. The Unlikely Gold Rush: A.P. Giannini and the Founding of Bank of America
It is a common assumption that the great financiers of the world have all the right degrees from prestigious institutions. While much of the time this is the case, nothing could be further from the truth for Amadeo Pietro Giannini. Born to Italian immigrant parents in San Jose, California, Giannini underwent a chaotic childhood. While his mother was pregnant with a sibling, an employee of his father fatally shot the elder Giannini over a money dispute. His mother remarried and young Giannini trained hard to take over his stepfather’s business, eventually dropping out of school to work full-time. A few years later, Giannini used his solid reputation to start the Bank of Italy, a San Francisco-based institution that within 20 years would become Bank of America.
47. Focusing on Positivity: Alan Sugar‘s Unique Philosophy
While teasing is rarely a positive thing, CEO Alan Sugar spent a lifetime making it work into his favor. The son of immigrant parents living in a council-housing project, Sugar often heard the nickname “mop head” in describing his unruly hair. Instead of becoming upset, Sugar adopted the nickname and uses it through the present. Although he kept the name, however, most other aspects of his life have changed. Sugar dropped out of high school at age 16 and worked jobs as varying as a grocer and civil service minister. From these jobs, Sugar invested £100 into electronics that he sold from a traveling band. This venture took off, eventually becoming Amstrad, the consumer electronics firm that earned Sugar his extensive fortune.
48. CEO at 15: The Intriguing Tale of Phillip Green
Although retail tycoon Phillip Green became CEO at age 15 and succeeding, the phenomenal achievement started under tragic circumstances. Born to a successful retail director and property developer in Surrey, Green enjoyed a comfortable childhood until his father died suddenly of a heart attack. The young Green immediately inherited the family business. Dropping out of boarding school, he successfully kept the business afloat, traveling as far as East Asia to import items for the company. At age 21, Green launched a new company in his own name. This company would eventually purchase Arcadia Group, the multinational corporation that would make Green a billionaire.
49. The Craft of a Carpenter: How Ingvar Kamprad Became One of the World’s Richest Men
While customers adore the ease of assembling IKEA furniture, many may not know that the founder, Feodor Ingvar Kamprad, struggled with a lifetime dyslexia disorder. Although he struggled academically due to the disorder, his salesmanship and leadership abilities thrived early. Starting at age five, Kamprad started a business selling everything from matches to Christmas decorations. After leaving school at age 17, Kamprad started IKEA and sold items based on designs from his uncle’s kitchen furniture. This launch set Kamprad up for over seven decades of achievements in the retail furniture business.
50. Henry J. Kaiser: The at the Helm of Entrepreneur at the Helm of Modern Shipbuilding
He may be remembered as one of the most successful tycoons of the industrial era, but Henry Joseph Kaiser rose from most obscure beginnings. Born in a small house in the village of Canajoharie, New York, Kaiser spent much of his childhood helping his immigrant parents. Instead of finishing high school or going to college, he worked as a cash boy in a department store and later served as an apprentice for a photographer. In 1906, Kaiser launched his first company, a construction business. When the money was not enough to impress the father of the girl he wished to marry, Kaiser rose to the top salesman in a hardware company. He used savings from the position to start more businesses related to paving, aluminum, and shipbuilding (for which he became famous). Dubbed the “father of modern American shipbuilding” before he died, Kaiser left much of his fortune to charitable causes such as Kaiser Permanente.