It is easy to look at successful CEOs and think that they must have been born with a golden spoon in their mouths. However, many of the CEOs that are making multi-million dollar salaries today didn’t have a privileged upbringing, in fact, many of them had very humble beginnings. Here are seven examples of CEOs that will inspire you with their stories of hard-work, perseverance, and opportunistic thinking.
Former President & CEO of Yahoo!
Former President & CEO of AutoDesk
Carol Bartz is former President and CEO of Yahoo! and former President and CEO of AutoDesk. She received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of The Year Award in 2001, and in 2005, she was included in Forbes Magazine’s List of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. With such a resume, it is hard to believe that this prestigious businesswoman had a job as a bank teller in high school, waited tables to support herself during college. Undoubtedly, the personal struggles that Bartz went through shaped her determination in life as well; Bartz’ mother passed away when she was only eight years old, then later in life, she battled and beat breast cancer.
“I have a belief that life isn’t about balance, because balance is perfection … Rather, it’s about catching the ball before it hits the floor.” –Carol Bartz
Chairman & CEO of Twitter
Creator of Blogger
Evan Williams, Chairman and CEO of Twitter, creator of Blogger — actually invented the term “blog.” Williams has definitely had quite an impact on social media and the way that we use the Internet today. With a present net worth of $3 billion, it is hard to imagine that Williams grew up on a farm in Nebraska, where he worked and helped with crop irrigation during the summers.
“The things that keep nagging at you are the ones worth exploring.” –Evan Williams
CEO of PrintRunner
Mike Zaya, PrintRunner CEO, grew up in a middle class family. After an internship at a financial firm, he was on the path to be a financial planner by age 18—a promising career and income for someone of this very young age. Zaya, however, realized that financial planning wasn’t his passion, so he quit his job to pursue his own business endeavor—inkjet printer cartridges. He started out in a spare room in his mom’s house without a website for his business, inventory, or capital. Instead, he went to swap meets to raise money to buy and sell printer cartridges. He worked relentlessly, and did not realize any profit at all for the first couple years. Eight years after starting his own business, Zaya sold the company, 123inkjet, for $17 million. Even after such a great personal success, Zaya went on to become CEO at PrintRunner.
When speaking of his business: “Our only mission is to help you achieve your solution.” –Mike Zaya
Founder of Wal-Mart
Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, the retail chain that became the world’s largest corporation, grew up during the Great Depression, and had extremely humble beginnings. He had several jobs that helped his family make ends meets during that time. He milked the family cows, bottled the milk, then delivered it to paying customers. He also had a newspaper route and sold magazine subscriptions. After graduating college, Walton took a job with J.C. Penney. He then went on to join the military, where he reached the rank of Captain. After leaving of the military, Walton purchased a Ben Franklin variety store, growing that single store into a chain of Ben franklin stores. Eventually, in 1962, the first Wal-Mart store opened in Bentonville, Arkansas. Walton’s business strategy was against the grain of current business trends: Walton opened stores in small, rural areas, featuring American made products.
“Exceed your customer’s expectations. If you do, they’ll come back over and over. Give them what they want – and a little more.” –Sam Walton
Co-Founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream
Ben Cohen, Co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, met his future business partner Jerry Greenfield in middle school. The two dreamed up the idea of going into business together someday to open a bagel shop. Before the dream of partnership actually became a reality, Cohen pursued an interest in pottery and education. He held a variety of jobs, including taxi driver, ER clerk, and pottery wheel deliverer, before becoming a craft teacher at a private school for emotionally disturbed youth. It was during his three year tenure as a teacher that he began experimenting with making ice cream. The next year, Cohen and his good friend realized their dream and launched Ben & Jerry’s, which became an instant success in the college town of Burlington, Vermont.
“We measured our success not just by how much money we made, but by how much we contributed to the community. It was a two-part bottom line.” –Ben Cohen
Founder of Wendy’s
Dave Thomas was the founder of Wendy’s, a chain of fast food restaurants specializing in hamburgers. Thomas’ personal story, though one of struggle, shows us that hard work and persistence pays off in life. Thomas born to an unwed young mother, who gave him up for adoption as a baby. When Thomas was five years old, his adoptive mother passed away. From there, he moved around quite a bit with his father, who was looking for work. Dave Thomas got his first job at a restaurant at the young age of 12. With every move, Thomas found a job in the restaurant business. As a teenager, Thomas decided to stop moving around with his father. He dropped out of high school and began working in the restaurant industry full-time. He served a stint in the army, and afterwards went to work at a local restaurant that became a KFC franchise store. From his experience at KFC, he went on to start his own franchise—Wendy’s.
“If there are things you don’t like in the world you grew up in, make your own life different.” –Dave Thomas
Leader of the American Industrialization Revolution
Andrew Carnegie, born in Scotland, moved to the United States with his parents at the age of 13. He had very little formal education, but his family valued books and learning. After the family settled in Pennsylvania, Carnegie got a job in a factory. The following year, he found a job as a telegraph messenger, and through hard work and a natural desire to advance, moved up to a telegraph operator. A few years later he became assistant and telegrapher to one of the railroad’s top officials, and was finally promoted to railroad superintendent. In 1865, he left the railroad industry to pursue other business interests. Focusing on the steel industry, he launched Carnegie Steel Company which revolutionized steel production in this country and made Carnegie one of the richest businessmen of the 19th Century. In later life, Carnegie gave away immense amounts of money, becoming a noted philanthropist.
“As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.” –Andrew Carnegie