One of the gold standards of our society is the hallmark of the “self-made man”. The idea and the testament that anyone, regardless of who they are or where they came from, can rise to the top through hard work and tenacity. That’s a good story, but the truth is that although people have lived out “Rags to Riches” stories, not just anybody can do it. That sort of ascension requires gifts, circumstances, ambition, and luck that just don’t get handed out to everybody. The cream rises, and we’ve put together a list of movers and shakers who took humble beginnings and launched them right into the top of the heap.
Born in Boston in the 1930s, the son of a cab driver, Sheldon Adelson, one of the world’s richest people, got his first job selling newspapers when he was 12. The land of opportunity treated him very nicely and after his discharge from the army he set to find his calling, that of a serial entrepreneur. In no particular order, he ran a toiletries business, a windshield de-icer business, and a charter bus tour business. By the time Sheldon was in his thirties he had seen more ups and downs, booms and busts, than most people do in a lifetime. He got knocked down, but he just didn’t stop, and he found his ticket to the big time in computers – not in making them, but in putting on trade shows that launched new computer products. His event, COMDEX, was the biggest show of its kind in the world for more than two decades. He took his big business know-how to Las Vegas in 1988, where he and his partners scooped up the Sands Casino and made the city the convention Mecca it is today. If you’ve been to any trade shows in Sin City, you have this man to thank. Forbes estimates put his worth somewhere north of $28.5 billion, and this figure looks like it will continue growing along with revenues from his Las Vegas Sands company.
If you’ve watched Will Smith’s “Pursuit of Happyness” then you know Chris Gardner’s story. Being homeless is a tough gig. Being a single father is a tough gig. Being both is all but impossible, but Gardner not only did it, he wowed the brass at his San Francisco brokerage enough to beat out all kinds of competitors for a position, most of whom had a roof over their head. Gardner went through it all; abusive step fathers, foster care, a divorce and nearly a year on the streets. Now? Well now Gardner is the CEO of his own international holdings company after selling his stake in his old one for millions. Between motivational speaking tours, a bestselling biography, and producing a 9-digit grossing film, he’s worth a reported $60 million.
Jay Z (Shawn Carter)
Unless you’re been hiding under a rock, you already know he came from a single parent family in the impoverished Bronx, and got caught up in drugs, violence, and everything else “Thug Life” entails. But of course, there was also the music. Jay Z paid his dues working alongside mainstream acts, started his own label, and even sold CDs out of his car, but the work paid off and the rest is history. Now, among a host of other things, he owns a piece of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, all of Def Jam, Rocawear, and high-end clubs from one end of the Earth to the other. He even has the ear of the U.S. President, having helped fundraise and get out the vote that elected President Obama in ’08. Forbes listed Carter and his better half (Beyoncé) as the top earning couple in Hollywood, and estimate his net worth at more than half a billion dollars.
He didn’t exactly come from nothing, but after his father’s death Ted Turner took his father’s modest highway billboard business and turned it into a media empire that made him the father of cable news (CNN) the owner of MLB’s Atlanta Braves, the second-largest private landowner in the United States, and a man with so much money that even after the sinkhole that was AOL’s merger with Time-Warner (which, for the record, he was against), he still hung on to his billionaire card. He’s a maverick and a game-changer in every field he set foot in, and with a mouth to match his wallet, he always has the backbone to say what he’s thinking.
If you’ve spent any time at high stakes poker tables the world over, or you’ve ever watched TV poker for any length of time, than you already know the name Phil Ivey. Many of the people on this list got rich by owning casinos or poker rooms, but there are only a select few that got here by playing in them. Phil Ivey is the poker player’s poker player. He’s cool, calm, dangerous, and smart, but before he was “The Tiger Woods of Poker”, he was the telemarketing guy in California who played poker with his mates between shifts. It turns out that’s the perfect training ground for an 9-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner. He’s got tens of millions of dolloars in tournament and cash game poker winnings and earned via endorsement deals, but the bottom line is there’s nobody on Earth who doesn’t think long and hard before they try and bluff Phil Ivey.
Mr. Wynn, the current CEO of Wynn Resorts LTD, the father of modern Las Vegas, is worth $2.9 billion, give or take a few hundred million. When he graduated from University of Pennsylvania with an English degree, however, he was saddled with $350,000 worth of debt thanks to his late father’s gaming debts (not to mention student loans). Undaunted, he took the reins of his family’s bingo parlor business and turned it around to the point where he could start investing in the Vegas Strip, and invest he did. By 1971 he had a majority stake in The Golden Nugget casino, and he didn’t stop there either. Wynn’s philosophy has always been to “go big or go home”, and his focus on luxury above all else has always been panned, even as it’s always paid off in a big way. This is no more apparent than at the Bellagio hotel, casino and resort in Las Vegas, which has the distinction as being the most profitable (by square foot) building on the Strip.
Mr. Scheinberg is, without any exaggeration, a bona fide man of mystery. He holds dual Israeli/Canadian citizenship, and currently resides on the Isle of Man (far away from the jurisdiction of the United States) because of the legal issues surrounding his company, PokerStars. He was born in Lithuania, educated in the USSR, served in the Israeli military, and was a Microsoft executive in Canada. PokerStars, despite its on-again off-again antagonism with the U.S. Department of Justice and current ban on U.S. players, is still a worldwide leader with millions of active members. How much Scheinberg is worth is anyone’s guess, but the fact that they bought out their main competition, Full Tilt Poker, for a cool $731 million, should tell you the sort of numbers we’re dealing with. Isai was a big poker player in Canada, having placed well in a World Series of Poker tournament and been a regular in Toronto tables before that, so the move from enthusiast to mogul makes a little bit more sense. Let that be a lesson to all the kids out there, just do what you love.
J. K. Rowling
Rowling probably has the world’s most perfect, and most popular, rags-to-riches story. The UK’s 15th richest woman would be its richest, if she didn’t insist on giving it away. Nonetheless, she’s still got a net worth just shy of a billion dollars, all thanks to a little wizard with glasses. Between conceiving the idea and publishing it, she lived on social assistance, below the poverty line, raising her daughter alone and teaching in Portugal as she diligently typed away, suffering through a divorce, serious depression and the loss of her mother. Even when she finished, the story was turned down by 12 separate publishers, each of which has spend the last 16 years smacking themselves in the head. That’s because, in case you hadn’t heard, the Harry Potter series ended up making a nice little profit.
Everyone who made the list comes from a different background in a different part of the world. What they all have in common, however, is tenacity, vision and a willingness to take chances and hunt down their dreams. Oh, and a good dose of pure well-timed luck. How’s that for a blueprint?