Rags to Riches Stories


According to Horatio Alger, all it takes it a bit of luck and pluck to rise out of poverty and up the social ladder. Real-life success stories were far less common than Alger’s books implied, but many Americans still managed to embody this rags-to-riches storyline. The following businessmen were both admired for their success and despised for their exploitative practices and supposed immorality. The term ‘robber baron’ came to derogatorily describe these individuals, and some critics continue to use the term for modern day capitalists as well. Along with a brief biography, below is a quote from each of these individuals, summarizing their idea of success or how to achieve it:

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919): Born into a family of destitute laborers in Dunfermline, Scotland, Carnegie received little schooling before his family emigrated to America in 1848. Arriving in Pennsylvania, the 13-year-old soon got a job in a textile mill, where he earned only $1.20 per week. Carnegie went on to labor as a messenger boy and factory worker before eventually winning a job as a secretary and telegraph operator at the Pennsylvania Railroad. By 1859, the enterprising young worker had become superintendent of the railroad’s western division. Carnegie invested his newfound wealth in a variety of businesses including a bridgework company, a telegraph operation and—most famously—a steel mill. Proclaiming that, “the main who dies rich dies disgraced,” Carnegie spent his later years donating his fortune to charitable causes, eventually giving away some $350 million.

“While the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937): Rockefeller created Standard Oil, revolutionized the petroleum industry and created the structure of modern philanthropy. Rockefeller was born in Richford, New York was one of six children. His father William was a lumberman and then a traveling salesman whose reputable business dealings and infidelity made life for the Rockefeller children particularly difficult. Eliza, John’s mother, taught him and his siblings to save and the value of hard work. Rockefeller began his career as a bookkeeper at the age of 16, and attributed much of his later success to his devotion to religion and abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. He is often regarded as the richest man in history. Rockefeller’s net worth was $663.4 Billion.

“The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee and I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.”

Henry Ford (1863-1947): A farm boy who went on to revolutionize transportation industry in America, Ford was interested in mechanics from a young age, when he dismantled and reassembled a pocket watch at the age of 15 his father had given him. A self-taught watch repairman who graduated to being an apprentice machinist, Ford started his personal experiments on gasoline engines which was the beginning of his vast Ford empire. And his net worth, as per Forbes in 2008, is $188.1 billion.

“Business is never so healthy as when, like a chicken, it must do a certain amount of scratching around for what it gets.”

Sam Walton (1918-1992): During the Great Depression, Sam Walton and his family lived on a farm in Oklahoma where he milked the family cow and delivered bottles to customers to make ends meet. He joined JC Penny three days after graduating from the University of Missouri with a BA Economics degree. After WW II, with capital of $25,000 that he borrowed from his father along with the $5,000 that he saved from the army, he bought a Ben Franklin variety store which he expanded into the retailer giant Walmart and the membership-only retailer warehouse Sam’s Club.

“Capital isn’t scarce; vision is.”

Oprah Winfrey (1954–): Born to unwed teenage parents in Mississippi, this media mogul wore dresses that her grandmother made out of potato sacks. After being molested, she run away at the age of 13 and became a mother at 14, but her son died in infancy. Sent to live with his father, a barber in Tennessee, she got a full scholarship in college, won a beauty pageant and was discovered by a radio station. Her empire is now worth $2.7 billion which she shares with the world through her philanthropic works.

“What I know for sure is that if you want success, you can’t make success your goal. The key is not to worry about being successful, but to instead work toward being significant, and the success will naturally follow

Steve Jobs (1955-2011): Jobs was given away for adoption by his biological parents and he became interested in electronics after his foster dad showed him the joys of technical tinkering in their garage. He had to drop out of college, because his education was costing his foster parents a lot. He used to return Coke bottles for money and live on free meals at the Hare Krishna temple. A hippie who used to trip on LSD, Jobs went from a technician in Atari, Inc. to becoming the CEO of Apple Inc.

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”

Mark Zuckerberg (1984–): Although born into a financially stable home in White Plains, NY, Zuckerberg’s precocious and risk-taking personality made him one of the youngest business legends in American history. He began writing computer programs in middle school, and was already dubbed a “programming prodigy” by the time he enrolled in Harvard University. In only a few years, his college social networking project was so financially successful that he left school. Today, Facbeook’s company value is $104 billion, and Zuckerberg’s net worth is $16.8 billion.

“Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”


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