Success Stories

5 Inspiring Business Stories of Entrepreneurs Who Started With Nothing

Spark your drive for greatness with these inspirational business stories of entrepreneurs who started from nothing and came out giants in their industries.

The idea of the self-made man (or woman) is rather a lost ideology unless you're an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs are different. Entrepreneurs see challenges and look for solutions.

It's no surprise that many of today's most successful people in the world didn't start with the odds stacked in their favor. From homelessness to poverty, to abuse, these entrepreneurs had many obstacles on their way to success.

If you're looking for some inspiration, here are five business stories of successful entrepreneurs who started with nothing.

1. Chris Gardner

You may recall the movie Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith and his son. In the movie, Smith plays a single father looking for a way to pull himself and his son out of homelessness.

He takes a job learning how to trade stocks on Wall Street and transforms his future.

Chris Gardner and Will Smith Photo

This movie came from one chapter of Chris Gardner's memoir, Start Where You Are.

Though the movie took some liberties with the story, like the amount of time he was homeless and his son's age, most of the story rings true.

In his early life, Chris Garner had to deal with many hardships.

Raised by a single mother and, at times, an abusive stepfather who was an alcoholic. He had stints where he had to live in foster care or with relatives.

It was in these times that he made a promise to himself that he would never abandon his children.

After four years in the Navy, Gardner was living in San Francisco. At 26, he ran into a gentleman driving a red Ferrari in a hospital parking lot. He waved the man down and offered him his spot in exchange for some information. He only asked one question:

“What do you do, and how do you do it?” 

Little did he know this would set his life on a new path entirely, leading to both rags and riches.

Within the span of a little over a year, he would become homeless with his toddler son on the streets of San Francisco. Most shelters didn't allow children, and this made it difficult for them to find shelter.

“Do we eat or stay in a hotel? We chose to eat.” 

Sometimes they would sleep at friend's houses. Other times, they would sleep under the desk at the firm where Gardner was an intern. When there was no option, they would sleep in the train station bathroom.

Eventually, Gardner and his son (by special exception) were offered admission into a homeless shelter for single mothers. Finally, they had a stable place.

After a year of homelessness, Gardner passed his series seven exams and got a Bear Stearn job. It allowed him to afford a studio apartment for him and his son. Years later, he started his firm called Gardner, Rich & Co.

Today, Gardner is worth 60 million dollars. Gardner still works in the soup kitchen and contributes to the shelter.

2. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah was born from a teenaged mother who was a maid living in the segregated South of Mississippi. Born from very humble beginnings, you would never know she would become the queen of media one day.

Oprah Winfrey

She spent her first six years living with her grandmother, who was very strict, yet encouraging. She used to wear potato sacks because they couldn't afford clothes. One positive is that her grandmother taught her to read by the age of three.

She had stints living with both her mother in Milwaukee and her father in Nashville. Moving around and poverty were not her only hurdles though, relatives and a family friend often psychologically and sexually abused her.

She ran away from home at the age of 13. After bouncing around between her mother and father, she finally ended up in Nashville with her dad. She excelled in school and started her television debut in the news.

In 1984, she moved to Chicago and took over a failing production, turning it into a hit. It became the Oprah Winfrey Show, and she had just begun her reign ask queen of talk show hosts.

She debuted in the movie The Color Purple and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

She moved on to start her own production company in 1986 called Harpo Productions, which is Oprah spelled backward. She then moved into more media, forming Oprah's Book Club, O magazine, and co-founding Oxygen Network. In 2011, she created Own, her specialty network.

She also is a known philanthropist and gives back in many ways. Oprah topped the 30 Most Generous Celebrities list two years in a row from The Giving Back Fund. She's given away millions of dollars to educational causes alone.

Today, Oprah is worth over 2 billion dollars.

3. Sara Blakely

You may not know the name, but you'll know her company: Spanx.

Before becoming a billionaire selling her new line of tight-fitting pants, she sold fax machines door-to-door, worked at an answering service, and even spent time working at Disney World.

Sara Blakely - Spanx

The daughter of a lawyer, she always pictured herself working in the courtroom. However, after failing the LSAT twice, she felt life was pushing her in a different direction.

Described as an accidental entrepreneur, she stumbled upon trying to fix a problem she had with her pantihose in the hot Florida heat. It was that curiosity to solve the common problem that turned her into a billionaire.

Blakely saved money on legal fees by writing the patent herself. She used her knowledge from law school and books she read at Barnes & Noble. She spent $150 of her savings to incorporate under the name Spanx.

Blakely is the youngest self-made billionaire in the world. She started her company with just $5,000 in capital at age 29 and turned it into over a billion dollars by the time she was 41.

She credits her success to three people, Wayne Dyer, Oprah Winfrey, and Richard Branson. She took solace in Wayne Dyer's How to Be a No-Limits Person Series after her father's death. The tapes belonged to her father.

Today, Blakey is worth 1.2 billion dollars.

4. Jack Ma

Jack Ma is the only entrepreneur on our list that isn't from America, and with good reason. It's hard to become a household name outside of the country. Nonetheless, most people have heard of Alibaba's Jack Ma.

Born in Hangzhou, China, he grew up in very poor means. He says that his family could only afford chicken once a year.

jack ma - alibaba

Ma cashed in on the experience. Hangzhou opened to the western world. He created a service where he would pay tour guides for American tourists in exchange for English lessons.

He often struggled in school and flunked exams that could lead to better education. He applied for Harvard ten times without admission. Eventually, he earned a degree at a local college.

Using his skills in English, he started a translation business. On his first trip to America in the 1990s, he discovered the internet. He saw it as a huge opportunity to bring Chinese business to the rest of the global market.

He started a website called China Page, where people could buy Chinese products online. Due to a lack of funding, he had to fold, so he took a job working for the government.

With more connections, he brought a team of 18 people together to form Alibaba. During the tech bust in the 1990s, Alibaba had serious trouble. Still, Ma focused on Chinese markets, then worked to secure international markets again.

In 2005, Yahoo bought 40% of Alibaba for 1 billion dollars. In 2014, Alibaba went public, raising 25 billion from the NYSE. Today, the company is estimated to be worth 200 billion dollars.

In 2018, Jack Ma joined the Forbes List as one of the richest men in the world with a net worth of 37 billion dollars.

5. Howard Schultz

Coming from the humble beginnings of living in rent-controlled apartments in Brooklyn, Howard Schultz built a brand as recognizable as Coca-Cola. Howard Schultz is the man behind the globalization of coffee and is the founder of Starbucks.

Howard Schultz - Coca Cola

Today, Starbucks serves coffee in over 75 countries to over 80 million customers per week.

In 1982, Schultz was made Director of Retail Operations and Marketing at the age of 29. He recalls that his vision for Starbucks changed after a visit to Italy, where he saw the community that coffee bars have in the country.

After that, his goal was to bring that sense of community around a coffee bar to America. Lattes, Americanos, and other drinks that are popular today started in America with Starbucks.

Schultz describes his upbringing as living in the projects, on the other side of the tracks, and instilled in him the desire to become something more.

Today, he is living that dream with an estimated 3.7 billion dollars. No longer the CEO of Starbucks, he has turned toward more social projects as Starbucks' chairman.

According to reports from Business Insider, Schultz may enter the political arena. For years he has tried to do social good. For instance, in 2015, he launched the “Race Together” campaign, which centers on police brutality and racism.

From humble beginnings to political aspirations would be quite a rags to riches story.

What We Can Learn From These Stories

The power of stories is that we can see ourselves in them. Perhaps you're reading this and feeling a bit lost in the shuffle, like Jack Ma. Maybe you're on the verge of solving a problem like Sara Blakely.

On the other hand, you could be struggling while chasing your dream, like, Chris Gardner. Maybe you're trying to rise above your past like Oprah Winfrey and Howard Schultz.

Whatever you connect with, take advantage of knowing that others have felt similarly and succeeded. Entrepreneurs see possibilities even in the face of struggle. To provide hope, you have to see a future in hopeless situations.

Start Where You Are

In all the stories mentioned above, you'll notice that each person didn't wait on a set of circumstances to begin their journey, they simply started where they were. Starting where you are is important to remember.

Do you feel like you need something to start? Money? Time? Resources?

Think about these stories the next time you try to push something off. Often there may be another way.

Mistakes Teach Us Things

In Chris Gardner's and Jack Ma's stories, we learned that success did not come for the first time. Mistakes are typical. Most people have things to learn when becoming successful.

Success is the art of becoming the individual you choose to be, and mistakes may come along the way. That doesn't mean it's not the right path. There just may be more to learn.

Look for Opportunities

In Jack Ma and Howard Schult's stories, we learned that they disrupted the industry by learning about something working in another country.

Jack Ma discovered the power of the internet from his trip to America. Howard Schultz learned the interactive community that was lacking in coffee bars in America while visiting Italy.

In each case, they brought what was working in one place and brought it to another location. Then they expanded upon it by adding their ideas.

Perhaps your idea is missing components. Look at competitors, see what they are doing, and ask yourself how you can do it better.

Starbucks still serves coffee in Italy, so they must have improved something.

Five Business Stories to Inspire Your Day

Nothing inspires entrepreneurs more than hearing business stories of rags to riches. With the stories from these inspiring entrepreneurs, you can build your business inspiration.

If you're an entrepreneur looking to establish your brand, one easy way to do that is by acquiring reputable reviews from companies.

If you're looking for actionable tips on your path as an entrepreneur, check out our blog. We're always adding content to help you succeed.

Author: Hudson Piccini

Hudson Cynar, a Harvard University alumna and the owner of three prosperous enterprises, is a distinguished business consultant, author, and writer. Her expertise spans multiple business sectors, with a particular emphasis on storage containers, commercial copiers, payroll services, and medical billing software. Dedicatedly investing thousands of hours into product and service research, Hudson crafts insightful reviews to guide entrepreneurs in making informed decisions for their businesses.