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6 Rags-to-Riches Millionaires

(From left) Catherine L. Hughes, Bert Jacobs, Ali Brown (Photos via Kiplinger.com)

From Oprah Winfrey to Steve Jobs to J.K. Rowling, entrepreneurial success stories are the stuff from which American dreams are made. Much like these famous names, the six self-made millionaires we're profiling have one thing in common: Thanks to hard work, determination and sound advice from mentors, friends and family, they've been able to build thriving businesses from the ground up.

The rise to the top can be bumpy. In fact, some of the entrepreneurs we talked to were homeless during the early years of their companies. That's why they all agree that it's important to help others in need. All, including Radio One's Catherine L. Hughes and Life is good co-founder Bert Jacobs, give back to the community by volunteering time, donating to charitable organizations or running their own charities.

Learn how these six diverse entrepreneurs -- from a t-shirt designer to a media mogul -- turned meager beginnings into multimillion-dollar success and what advice they offer to budding business tycoons who hope to follow in their footsteps.

 

Catherine L. Hughes

Age: 64
Occupation: Founder and chairperson, Radio One

Advice to young entrepreneurs: "Sometimes the ones who love you the most will give you the worst business advice."

By conventional standards, Hughes wasn't destined to build a successful multimillion-dollar media company. She was a teen mom by 16 and a high-school dropout. However, she later completed high school, followed by brief stints at area universities in her hometown of Omaha, Neb.

Despite her limited formal education, Hughes, who credits publishing legend John H. Johnson as one of her mentors, worked her way up at Omaha's KOWH radio starting in 1969 before heading to the nation's capital to become a lecturer at Howard University. In 1975, she became general manager for the university's radio station, WHUR-FM. By 1979, she bought her first radio station, WOL-AM in D.C., with her then-husband and founded Radio One a year later.

Those early years were rough. Hughes, who was divorced by then, slept with her son on the floor of her radio station because she couldn't afford to live anywhere else. "My mother tried her best to talk me out of the radio business because of that," Hughes recalls. It's for this reason that she advises young entrepreneurs to be wary about who they divulge their challenges to -- even family. "If I had listened [to my mother], I would be a government employee right now and there would be no Radio One."

Thirty-two years later, in addition to the radio company, Hughes' empire includes her television network TV One and several interactive ventures, including NewsOne.com and HelloBeautiful.com. Her charitable efforts include serving as a board member and the main benefactor for the Piney Woods School, a boarding school located in Piney Woods, Miss., that serves students from financially strapped families. 

 

Bert Jacobs

Age: 46

Occupation: Co-Founder and CEO, Life is good

Advice to young entrepreneurs: "Try to shoot for a timeless business."

You've probably seen the beret-wearing, smiling face of "Jake," the Life is good logo, on the company's tee shirts and products. Co-founders Bert Jacobs and his brother, John Jacobs, 43, started peddling their tee shirts on the streets of Boston -- going door-to-door at college dorms and sleeping in their van to save money -- in 1989. It would take nearly six years, however, before their shirts finally caught on with consumers, thanks to "Jake."

The logo, which is infused with optimism, was created after a conversation about how the world was slammed with constant negativity. It became an instant hit. Now, the New England-based company has revenues in excess of $100 million, and each year more of it goes toward their charity, Life is good Kids Foundation, which helps children overcome life-threatening challenges.

"In the beginning, we made every business mistake in the book," says Bert. The brothers didn't have a business plan or growth strategy -- a formula for disaster, if you go by what's taught in business school. Bert credits part of their success to listening to their friends and customers as informal focus groups, rather than "experts." He advises budding entrepreneurs to: "Try to shoot for a timeless business that will work through good times and bad." 

 

Ali Brown

Age: 40

Occupation: Entrepreneur, business consultant and publisher, AliBrown.com

Advice to young entrepreneurs: "It's important you seek out other business owners for information, advice, support and resources."

Fed up with her dead-end job at a New York City ad agency, Brown decided to quit in 1998. Armed with her brother's hand-me-down computer, she launched her first marketing agency, AKB Communications, from her kitchen table.

While having her own business was exciting, the uncertainty of self-employment had its challenges. Brown remembers all too well maxing out credit cards and draining her bank account to stay afloat in the early days. One night in particular, she tried to withdraw $20 from an ATM but was denied because her balance was only $18.56. Thirteen years later, thanks to her hard work and perseverance, Brown has achieved many successes: She earned her first million before the age of 35 and has appeared on ABC's reality show "Secret Millionaire," where she donated money to several organizations. She still actively supports three of them.

When it comes down to deciding if entrepreneurship is the right move for you, Brown says, "Entrepreneurship isn't for everyone. Every definition of entrepreneur I've found includes the word 'risk'." For those who are willing to take the leap of faith, she advises: "It's important that you seek out other business owners for information, advice, support and resources. Today, would-be entrepreneurs have the Internet and social media, and it's a great place to get started learning more about how to grow a business." 

 

Jill Blashack Strahan

Age: 52

Occupation: Founder and CEO,  Tastefully Simple

Advice to young entrepreneurs: "Having goals is absolutely critical."

For Strahan, starting her multimillion-dollar company, Tastefully Simple, a direct sales retailer of specialty food products, began with "a dream and a shoestring." She grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota and later started selling gourmet food baskets, which inspired her business.

In the beginning, the entrepreneur fed her fledgling company with $6,000 of her own savings and some loans from a friend and the Small Business Administration. Strahan's first headquarters was a 1,200-square-foot space with a concrete floor and no running water. Early orders were packed on a pool table. Today, the Tastefully Simple offices take up nearly 200,000 square feet on a 79-acre lot.

In addition to running a company that's valued at more than $100 million, Strahan finds time to give back to the community. Tastefully Simple has donated more than $5 million to local causes, and in 2009 teamed up with Share Our Strength, a group that seeks to end childhood hunger in America. If you're an entrepreneur with a good idea, she says to remember that there isn't an easy road to building a profitable business: "The secret to success doesn't involve pixie dust or a magic bullet. Having goals is absolutely critical." 

 

Farrah Gray

Age: 27

Occupation: Founder and CEO, Farrah Gray Publishing

Advice to young entrepreneurs: "Keep your business small . . . niche yourself."

When most 6-year-olds were worried about what time their favorite cartoon came on TV, Gray was already an entrepreneur. He was going door-to-door in his inner-city Chicago neighborhood selling hand-painted rocks as bookends to help his ailing mother make ends meet. "I can remember being very young and my mom having a heart attack. I wondered how we were going to pay the bills and thought to myself, 'I don't want to be poor like this anymore,'" he recalls.

Trying to figure out a way to improve his family's home life sparked something big: By the time he was 17, Gray had founded and operated several businesses, including Kidztel, a prepaid phone card company, and Farr-Out Foods, a food company targeting young adults, which grossed $1.5 million in sales before he sold it. At 20, his first book, "Reallionaire: Nine Steps to Becoming Rich Inside and Out," was published.

Now, Gray's focused on his latest venture, Farrah Gray Publishing, a boutique celebrity book publishing house he started in 2009, which includes titles such as "Transparent" by CNN's Don Lemon. Gray also spends his time contributing to charitable organizations, such as the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Marrow Donor Program. For anyone considering starting a new business, he suggests keeping things small: "A lot of times we get caught up in trying to be the next Facebook or Apple. That isn't necessary -- niche yourself." 

 

Jesse Conners

Age: 28

Occupation: CEO and founder, PeppermintPark.com

Advice to young entrepreneurs: "There is constantly some fire that you have to put out . . . Don't let it discourage you."

Conners had an unusual childhood: When she was 9, her parents joined a cult and -- believing that the world was about to end -- sold all of their worldly possessions. From then until she was 18, Conners traveled across the U.S. and to Mexico with her family, following the cult's message and searching for work along the way. As unconventional as it was, she says her upbringing spurred the independence she needed to succeed in business.

While in high school, she started doing the marketing for her father's chiropractor practice, which eventually led to a job in real estate. At 21, she auditioned for and was cast in the first season of NBC's "The Apprentice." Although Conners didn't win, her stint on national television landed her a job on the real estate speaking circuit. In 2008, she began building PeppermintPark.com, a membership-based fashion and luxury brand online retailer. The Web site has been up and running for a little over a year and has a ten-person staff.

Earlier this year, Conners's "outside the box" approach to business helped her to surpass a $1 million net worth. In addition to running her company, she has offered charitable support to Elephant Human Relations Aid and provides resources to women who are victims of domestic abuse, according to her Web site. Conners advises budding entrepreneurs to be aware that daily obstacles are the norm, not the exception. "There is constantly some fire that you have to put out. That's what running a business is all about," Conners says. "Don't let it discourage you. Try again, start again."

 

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6 rags-to-riches millionaires


 

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Comment by Ann Dandridge Public Relations on September 15, 2015 at 9:04pm

17 Billionaires Who Were Once Dirt Poor

Some of the world's wealthiest people started out dirt poor.

By Jacquelyn Smith and Rachel Gillett

These 17 rags-to-riches stories remind us that through determination, grit, and a little bit of luck anyone can overcome their circumstances and achieve extraordinary success.

Russian business tycoon and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich was born into poverty and orphaned at age two.


Net worth: 
$8.2 billion

Abramovich was born in southern Russia, into poverty. After being orphaned at age two, he was raised by an uncle and his family in a subarctic region of northern Russia.

While a student at the Moscow Auto Transport Institute in 1987, he started a small company producing plastic toys, which helped him eventually found an oil business and make a name for himself within the oil industry. Later, as sole leader of the Sibneft company, he completed a merger that made it the fourth biggest oil company in the world. The company was sold to state-run gas titan Gazprom in 2005 for $13 billion.

He acquired the Chelsea Football Club in 2003 and owns the world's largest yacht, which cost him almost $400 million in 2010.​


Montpellier rugby club president and Entrepreneur of the Year Mohed Altrad survived on one meal a day when he moved to France.

Net worth: $1 billion

Born into a nomadic tribe in the Syrian dessert to a poor mother who was raped by his father and died when he was young, Altrad was raised by his grandmother, who banned him from attending school, in Raqqa, the city that is now capital of ISIS.

Altrad attended school anyway, and when he moved to France to attend university, he knew no French and lived off of one meal a day. Still, he earned a PhD in computer science, worked for some leading French companies, and eventually bought a failing scaffolding company, which he transformed into one of the world's leading manufacturers of scaffolding and cement mixers, Altrad Group.

He has previously been named French Entrepreneur of the Year and World Entrepreneur of the Year.


Kenny Troutt, the founder of Excel Communications, paid his way through college by selling life insurance.

Net worth: $1.5 billion

Troutt grew up with a bartender dad and paid for his own tuition at Southern Illinois University by selling life insurance. He made most of his money from phone company Excel Communications, which he founded in 1988 and took public in 1996. Two years later, Troutt merged his company with Teleglobe in a $3.5 billion deal.

He's now retired and invests heavily in racehorses.


Starbucks' Howard Schultz grew up in a housing complex for the poor.

Net worth: $2.9 billion

In an interview with British tabloid Mirror, Schultz says: "Growing up I always felt like I was living on the other side of the tracks. I knew the people on the other side had more resources, more money, happier families. And for some reason, I don't know why or how, I wanted to climb over that fence and achieve something beyond what people were saying was possible. I may have a suit and tie on now but I know where I'm from and I know what it's like."

Schultz ended up winning a football scholarship to the University of Northern Michigan and went to work for Xerox after graduation. Shortly after, he took over a coffee shop called Starbucks, which at the time had only 60 shops. Schultz became the company's CEO in 1987 and grew the coffee chain to more than 16,000 outlets worldwide.

Find a job at Starbucks

Investor Ken Langone's parents worked as a plumber and cafeteria worker.

Net worth: $2.8 billion

To help pay for Langone's school at Bucknell University, he worked odd jobs and his parents mortgaged their home.

In 1968, Langone worked with Ross Perot to take Electronic Data Systems public. (It was later acquired by HP.) Just two years later, he partnered with Bernard Marcus to start Home Depot, which also went public in 1981.


Born into poverty, Oprah Winfrey became the first African American TV correspondent in Nashville.

Net worth: $3 billion

Winfrey was born into a poor family in Mississippi, but this didn't stop her from winning a scholarship to Tennessee State University and becoming the first African American TV correspondent in the state at the age of 19.

In 1983, Winfrey moved to Chicago to work for an AM talk show which would later be called "The Oprah Winfrey Show."



John Paul DeJoria, the man behind a hair-care empire and Patron Tequila, once lived in a foster home and his car.

Net worth: $2.9 billion

Before the age of 10, DeJoria, a first generation American, sold Christmas cards and newspapers to help support his family. He was eventually sent to live in a foster home and even spent some time in a gang before joining the military.

With a $700 dollar loan, DeJoria created John Paul Mitchell Systems and sold the shampoo door-to-door while living in his car. He later started Patron Tequila, and now invests in other industries.



At one time, businessman Shahid Khan washed dishes for $1.20 an hour.

Net worth: $4.4 billion

He's now one of the richest people in the world, but when Khan came to the US from Pakistan, he worked as a dishwasher while attending the University of Illinois. Khan now owns Flex-N-Gate, one of the largest private companies in the US, the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, and Premier League soccer club Fulham.


Forever 21 founder Do Won Chang worked as a janitor, gas station attendant, and in a coffee shop when he first moved to America.

Net worth: $6.5 billion

The husband-and-wife team — Do Won Chang and Jin Sook — behind Forever 21 didn't always have it so easy. After moving to America from Korea in 1981, Do Won had to work three jobs at the same time to make ends meet. They opened their first clothing store in 1984.

Forever 21 is now an international, 480-store empire that rakes in around $3 billion in sales a year.


Ralph Lauren was once a clerk at Brooks Brothers dreaming of men's ties.

Net worth: $6.8 billion

Lauren graduated high school in the Bronx, New York, but later dropped out of college to join the Army. It was while working as a clerk at Brooks Brothers that Lauren questioned whether men were ready for wider and brighter designs in ties. The year he decided to make his dream a reality, 1967, Lauren sold $500,000 worth of ties. He started Polo the next year.

Find a job in fashion

Steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal came from modest beginnings in India.


Net worth: $12.3 billion

A 2009 BBC article says the ArcelorMittal CEO and chairman, who was born in 1950 to a poor family in the Indian state of Rajasthan, "established the foundations of his fortune over two decades by doing much of his business in the steel industry equivalent of a discount warehouse."

Today Mittal runs the world's largest steel making company and is a multibillionaire.


Luxury goods mogul Francois Pinault quit high school in 1974 after being bullied for being poor.


Net worth: $14.2 billion

Pinault is now the face of fashion conglomerate Kering (formerly PPR), but at one time, he had to quit high school because he was teased so harshly for being poor. As a businessman, Pinault is known for his "predator" tactic, which includes buying smaller firms for a fraction of the cost when the market crashes. He eventually started PPR, which owns high-end fashion houses including Gucci, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, and Yves Saint Laurent.


Leonardo Del Vecchio grew up in an orphanage and later worked in a factory where he lost part of his finger.

Net worth: $24.1 billion

Del Vecchio was one of five children who was eventually sent to an orphanage because his widowed mother couldn't care for him. He would later work in a factory making molds of auto parts and eyeglass frames.

At the age of 23, Del Vecchio opened his own molding shop, which expanded to become the world's largest maker of sunglasses and prescription eyewear with brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley.



Legendary trader George Soros survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary and arrived in London as an impoverished college student.

Net worth: $24.2 billion

In his early teens, Soros posed as the godson of an employee of the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture in order to stay safe from the Nazi occupation of Hungary. In 1947, Soros escaped the country to live with his relatives in London. He put himself through the London School of Economics working as a waiter and railway porter.

After graduating, Soros worked at a souvenir shop before getting a job as a banker in New York City. In 1992, his famous bet against the British pound made him a billion dollars.


After his father died, business magnate Li Ka-shing had to quit school to help support his family.

Net worth: $27.1 billion

Ka-shing fled mainland China for Hong Kong in the 1940s, but his father died when he was 15, leaving Ka-shing responsible for supporting his family. In 1950, he started his own company, Cheung Kong Industries, which manufactured plastics at first but would later expand into real estate.



College dropout Sheldon Adelson grew up sleeping on the floor of a Boston tenement house.

Net worth: $29.5 billion

Adelson, the son of a cab driver, grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and began selling newspapers at the age of 12, reports Bloomberg Businessweek.

Forbes profile of the billionaire says years later, after dropping out of the 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."

Adelson lost almost all of his money in the Great Recession, but he earned much of it back in the following years. He now runs Las Vegas Sands, the largest casino company in the world, and is considered the most high-profile political donor in America, says Forbes.


Oracle cofounder dropped out of college after his adoptive mother died, and he held odd jobs for eight years.

 Larry Ellison

Net worth: $49.8 billion

Born in Brooklyn, New York, to a single mother, Ellison was raised by his aunt and uncle in Chicago. After his aunt died, Ellison dropped out of college and moved to California to work odd jobs for the next eight years. He founded software development company Oracle in 1977, which is now one of the largest technology companies in the world.

Last September he announced his plans to step down as Oracle's CEO to become CTO a...

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