JK Rowling, Steve Jobs: 20 millionaires, billionaires who went from rags to riches

South China Morning Post by Business Insider

Posted at Jan 17 2021 12:48 PM | Updated as of Jan 17 2021 02:18 PM

Despite being some of the most recognisable names in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and beyond, these millionaires and billionaires weren't always living the high life.

Rather, these celebrities and entrepreneurs made it big after coming from nothing - from the seedy streets of LA to the middle-income Bayview projects.

Here are 20 of the US's most inspiring rags-to-riches stories.


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Halle Berry

Years before Halle Berry won an Oscar, she slept in a homeless shelter. A struggling actress desperately wanting to make it in Hollywood, the star sought out cheaper housing alternatives. But she says that the struggles during her early acting career made her stronger in the end.

In an interview with People magazine, Berry said, "It taught me how to take care of myself and that I could live through any situation, even if it meant going to a shelter for a small stint."

Halle Berry now has a net worth of between US$70 and $80 million.


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Sarah Jessica Parker

Long before Sarah Jessica Parker landed the iconic role of New York writer Carrie Bradshaw on HBO's Sex and the City, she was just a small-town girl from Nelsonville, Ohio.

SJP went through a point in her life where her family rarely celebrated birthdays, holidays or other family occasions. One of nine children, Parker remembered times when the family couldn't even afford to pay phone or electric bills.

She landed her first Broadway role at age 11 and soon after moved to Hollywood in 1981 to appear on the television show Square Pegs. She also has multiple film titles under her belt.


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Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton was born the fourth of 12 children. Her parents, Robert Lee Parton and Avie Lee Owens, struggled to make ends meet for their large family.

Parton's father was a tobacco farmer and construction worker who never learned to read or write after leaving school at a young age. Her mother was the daughter of a preacher who devoted her life to raising her children.

However, despite her humble origins, Parton grew up surrounded by musicians who encouraged her ambitions. Her uncle, Bill Owens, got 10-year-old Parton her first gig on The Cas Walker Show in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Parton has been in show business for six decades, has had numerous No 1 hit singles and has won nine Grammy awards. Her net worth is US$37 million as of 2017, but the singer is definitely generous with her money. She recently donated US$1 million to help fund Covid-19 vaccines.


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Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran is now one of the biggest names in music, but he started off as a struggling artist in London's buzzing music scene.

The singer would often spend nights sleeping in London Underground train stations or on top of heating vents.

"There is an arch outside Buckingham Palace that has a heating duct and I spent a couple of nights there. That is where I wrote the song Homeless and the lines 'It's not a homeless night for me, I'm just home less than I'd like to be'", Sheeran wrote in his book, A Visual Journey.

Once, while playing a gig at a local homeless shelter, he met a drug-addicted prostitute named Angel. Sheeran was so moved by her story that he dedicated his song The A Team to her. This song would become one of Sheeran's first breakout singles, catapulting him into the spotlight.

Sheeran now sells out stadiums across the globe and has a net worth of US$64 million.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Before Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the biggest names in Hollywood, with box office smashes like Titanic, The Revenant, and The Wolf of Wall Street under his belt, he was a poor kid growing up on the outskirts of LA.

The actor claims he saw great poverty, drug use and violence at a young age, which now allows him to portray the darker side of humanity in his films.

Following backlash for his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, which critics said glamorised drug use, prostitution and other "amoral" acts, DiCaprio defended the role by comparing it to his own childhood.

In an interview with The Times, he said, "Who am I to talk about this? It goes back to that neighbourhood. It came from the fact that I grew up very poor, and I got to see the other side of the spectrum."

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Before he was in The Terminator and later became the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger lived without plumbing or a phone.

Growing up in a post-World War II Austrian town, the actor said there were food shortages and riots occurring regularly outside his door.

Now one of the richest action film stars of all time, Schwarzenegger reportedly has a net worth of US$400 million.


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Celine Dion

Celine Dion grew up in Canada as the youngest of 14. Her family went through hard times trying to support Dion and her siblings.

"We were three, four in the same bed," Dion told CBS News. "I did not have a bedroom. Up the stairs, before going in the bedrooms, there was a little ramp. And my bed was there."

Eventually, Dion realised her musical abilities and began performing at small local events. She went on to climb to the top of the charts with hits like My Heart Will Go On and It's All Coming Back To Me Now.

As her fame rose, so did the star's net worth. As of October 2020, Dion is valued at a whopping US$455 million.

J.K. Rowling

Before the idea for Harry Potter famously came to J.K. Rowling in a dream, the writer was a single mother struggling to pay her rent.

Rowling battled depression and other obstacles before becoming one of the most successful female writers in recent history, as well as one of the most beloved British authors of all time.

The author's net worth is estimated at US$60 million, with seven Harry Potter novels and a hugely successful resulting film franchise to thank for it.

Roman Abramovich

Roman Abramovich is known across the globe as a multi-billionaire with stakes in Evraz, Norilsk Nickel and the UK's Chelsea football team. He also owns the world's third-largest yacht (which he bought for a cool US$400 million in 2010) and has a net worth of US$14 billion.

However, before he landed on Forbes' Billionaires List, he was an orphan growing up in Moscow. Always motivated to make something of himself, Abramovich left college to be an entrepreneur.

He flipped multiple investments in companies such as oil industry giant Sibneft, Russian Aluminium and steelmaker Evraz Group to turn huge profits.


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Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey was born into a poor Mississippi family in 1954, but that didn't stop her from achieving unparalleled success. After a traumatic upbringing in which she was sexually abused, she ran away from home at the age of 13.

Always an intelligent and driven young woman, Winfrey was awarded a scholarship to Tennessee State University. Following an appearance in a local beauty pageant, she went on to become the first African-American television correspondent in the state at the young age of 19.

The acclaimed talk show host later moved to Chicago, where she began work on her very own morning show. It would later become known as The Oprah Winfrey Show. She was the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show. The show aired for 25 seasons from 1986 to 2011. Since moving on from her talk show, Winfrey has founded OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Her net worth is calculated to be about US$2.6 billion, making her one of the richest black women in the world and the first female black billionaire.

John Paul DeJoria

Before he was the mastermind behind shampoo giant John Paul Mitchell Systems and Patron Tequila, John Paul DeJoria was just a first-generation American trying to make it.

After his German and Italian parents divorced when he was two, he turned to selling Christmas cards and newspapers to help support his family - all before he turned 10 years old.

"We grew up in downtown LA, in the Echo Park area. We didn't know that we were really going through tough times because everybody was going through the same thing," he told Forbes. "I remember once in junior high school, on a Friday, my mum came home from work and said to my brother and me, 'You know, between us, we have only 27 cents, but we have food in the refrigerator, we have our little garden out back, and we're happy, so we are rich.'"

After taking a job in a Redken factory, DeJoria became intrigued by the shampoo industry. He took a US$700 loan from the company and invested it into his own brand, John Paul Mitchell Systems. Going door-to-door selling his product, DeJoria slept in his car, hoping his product would capture buyers' attention. He now has a net worth of US$3.2 billion.

Howard Schultz

Schultz grew up the son of a truck driver who barely made enough money to make ends meet. Despite growing up in a poor family, he was athletically talented and earned a football scholarship to the University of Northern Michigan. After graduating with a degree in communications, Schultz worked for print company Xerox.

However, everything changed when he stumbled upon a small coffee shop called Starbucks, which he later joined as an executive.

"(My mother) started crying. She said, 'A coffee company? Are you crazy? Who's going to buy coffee?' But I just felt I had to follow my dreams," Schultz told the Mirror.

He loved the coffee so much that he went on to become the company's chief executive in 1987 after leaving Xerox. With Schultz's help, Starbucks soon grew from a small coffee company with 60 stores into a moneymaking behemoth with over 16,000 outlets worldwide.

In June 2018, Schultz stepped down as executive chairman and as a board member of Starbucks. His title is now chairman emeritus. His current net worth is US$4.8 billion.

Do Won Chang

In 1981, Jin Sook and Do Won "Don" Chang emigrated from South Korea to Los Angeles in pursuit of success and new opportunities. Penniless, without formal education and speaking broken English, they struggled at first.

Originally going into the coffee business, they soon discovered that it was not going to be their ticket to success. For a few years, Chang worked as a janitor, pumped gas and served coffee to make ends meet for him and his family. Everything changed, however, when he made one crucial observation.

"I noticed the people who drove the nicest cars were all in the garment business", Chang told the LA Times in a 2010 interview.

Soon after, he opened a 900 sq ft clothing store called Fashion 21. It would go on to become the fast-fashion retailer Forever 21. Though the store once brought in billions of dollars per year, the retailer has since filed for bankruptcy. Sook and Chang had a combined net worth of US$5.9 billion in 2015. Their combined net worth has since fallen to US$1.6 billion.

Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren always dreamed of being rich and successful. In his 1957 DeWitt Clinton High School yearbook, Lauren reportedly wrote "millionaire" as one of his greatest life goals - little did he know that he would come to surpass that figure.

The youngest son of Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx, Lauren escaped his own reality by entering into a new one. Young Ralph Lipschitz (he would later change his surname to Lauren) loved films, and some say that Old Hollywood stars continue to inspire his designs.

"He would literally fall into the fantasies of the films of that era," Michael Gross, author of Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren, told Bloomberg. "He truly did project himself into the scenes in which men like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant were playing. He sees the characters that populate his dreams and visions, and that vision - that ability to step into a fantasy world - Ralph brought to the fashion business."

Ralph Lauren now has a net worth of US$6.6 billion.

Steve Jobs

Though Steve Jobs is now exalted as one of the greatest minds in modern history, he came from humble beginnings.

Jobs' young, working-class parents struggled to support him and make ends meet. He was soon taken in by another couple, Paul and Clara Jobs. Jobs was fascinated by computers, even at a young age. However, he never liked formal education.

After dropping out of college after his first semester, he started working at video game manufacturing company Atari. A while later, Jobs created the first-ever Apple machine together with Steve Wozniak. The duo funded their entrepreneurial venture through non traditional avenues at first - Jobs sold his Volkswagen bus and Wozniak sold his beloved scientific calculator.

By age 23, Jobs was worth US$1 million. He was the youngest person on Forbes' list of the country's richest people at the time - no small feat without inheriting any family wealth. He made US$10 million by age 24 and crossed the US$100 million mark by the time he was 25.

By the time he died at the age of 56 in 2011, he was worth US$7 billion.

Lakshmi Mittal

Steel industry tycoon Lakshmi Mittal wasn't always rolling in dough. Rather, he grew up in a poor Indian family near Rajasthan.

According to BBC News, Mittal "established the foundations of his fortune over two decades by doing much of his business in the steel industry equivalent of a discount warehouse." He bought parts of other steel companies that were going cheap and transformed them into profitable ventures.

Mittal is the 10th richest Indian person and has a current net worth of US$15.2 billion.

Leonardo Del Vecchio

Now a multi-billionaire, Leonardo Del Vecchio grew up as the child of a widowed mother who struggled to make ends meet, and who eventually sent him to an orphanage.

To earn a living, Del Vecchio went to work in a factory making moulds for auto parts and glasses frames.

At the young age of 23, he opened his very own moulding shop. That glasses frame shop would become Luxottica, which now manufactures brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley. Today, Leonardo Del Vecchio is worth US$25.1 billion.

Francois Pinault

One noteworthy rags-to-riches tale is that of Francois Pinault. Pinault dropped out of high school in 1947 after he was teased by his classmates for being poor. He then started working at his family's timber trading business.

Soon, he was buying up smaller firms and flipping them for large payouts, causing others to criticise his "ruthless" work ethic. He went on to start PPR, a luxury goods group, which became Kering in 2013.

Pinault's son, Francois-Henri Pinault, is now chairman and CEO of the luxury group, which owns the fashion brands Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Gucci. Once the richest man in France, Pinault and his family's current net worth is undeniably impressive. They are calculated to be worth US$45.6 billion.

Sheldon Adelson

Before his death in mid January of this year, Trump donor Sheldon Adelson had a net worth of US$29.8 billion - but the mogul came from humble beginnings.

He grew up the son of a cab driver in Dorchester, Massachusetts. At the age of 12, Adelson got his first taste of making money by delivering newspapers around his neighbourhood. A Forbes profile of the billionaire states that after dropping out of City College of New York, Adelson "built a fortune running vending machines, selling newspaper ads, helping small businesses go public, developing condos and hosting trade shows."

After losing a majority of his money in the recession, Adelson earned most of it back and ran Las Vegas Sands, the largest casino company in the world.

Larry Ellison

As the co-founder of Oracle, Larry Ellison holds an impressive net worth of US$87 billion. Ellison was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a single mother.

However, he was raised by his aunt and uncle. After his aunt died, the future mogul moved to California and made a living by working odd jobs here and there.

Eventually, he founded a small software development company called Oracle in 1977. It is now one of the largest technology companies in the world.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider

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