Starting at the bottom and working your way to the top is one of the most celebrated stories known to humankind. Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out that the very telling of such Cinderella stories could build small fortunes. Here are five individuals who may someday be the subject of such legends and songs.
Born in the former Soviet Union in what is now Ukraine, Koum grew up in modest circumstances. He and his mother and grandmother emigrated with him to California in his teen years. His father had to stay behind, and they were never reunited. However, they stayed in touch. At the time, telephone calls at such long distances were prohibitively expensive. Once Skype came to the fore, Koum was inspired by its ability to make international calling so much cheaper. With this in mind, he developed WhatsApp, which was ultimately purchased by Facebook for $19 billion. Since then, he’s left the Facebook board and shifted his focus to philanthropy.1
Ursula M. Burns
As a child of a single mother living in public housing, Burns may have started life in modest circumstances, but things took a turn along the way, notably when she took an internship with Xerox in 1980. From there, Burns served in several positions within the company, becoming CEO in 2007. That landmark move made her the first black woman to become a Fortune 500 CEO as well as the first female CEO to succeed as a female CEO on the list. Since leaving Xerox, she’s continued playing executive roles and served on the boards of several companies.1,2
The man behind one of the best-known American brands in fashion (or, indeed, any other field) started out as the son of poor immigrants. Born in New York City, Lauren worked in sales at Brooks Brothers when he started his first venture into men’s fashion: a European-style necktie. Lauren worked on his own, and when his employers rejected his efforts, he took them across the street to Neiman-Marcus. The risk paid off, and the reward funded his next venture: Polo. Ralph Lauren went from making his own deliveries to department stores to being worn by the elite and fashion forward in very short order. Ralph Lauren remains a major influence, continuing to guide his brand well into his eighties.3
John Paul Dejoria
The familiar face behind John Paul Mitchell Systems, the high-end hair care brand, was in foster care as a child and even spent a period of his adulthood homeless. Despite this adversity, Dejoria worked most of his life. In childhood, he sold Christmas cards and newspapers to help his family make ends meet. Sometime after his stint in the army, he worked as a janitor. It was with a loan of $700 that he created his famous shampoo, selling it door to door. At the time, Dejoria was living in his car. After John Paul Mitchell Systems’ success, Dejoria branched out and began Patron Tequila.2,3
Maria das Graças Silva Foster
Petrobras, Brazil’s massive oil and gas company, is so tied to the South American country’s economy that it has been credited with buoying it during difficult financial times. At the head of the company is Maria das Graças Silva Foster, who grew up collecting cans and paper to help her family. After interning at Petrobras, she rose through the ranks and became one of their key chemical engineers. Her reputation for hard work and fortitude earned her the nickname “Caveirao,” the Brazilian name for giant police trucks used during riots.1,3
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