10 Rags to Riches Billionaires

July 10, 2008 by JS · 44 Comments 

CB067441_LoResFeeling the need for a little inspiration on the road to wealth building? I always love to read about people who have beat the odds and made a dramatic rise in their financial situation.

What follows are the stories of 10 billionaires who started with nothing and now have it all.

Ingvar Kamprad

Net worth: $31 billion

World’s richest retailer and founder of furniture store Ikea.

Kamprad began to develop a business as a young boy, selling matches to neighbors from his bicycle. He found that he could buy matches in bulk very cheaply from Stockholm, sell them individually at a low price and still make a good profit. From matches, he expanded to selling fish, Christmas tree decorations, seeds and later ball-point pens and pencils. When Kamprad was 17, his father gave him a reward for succeeding in his studies. He used this money to establish what has grown into IKEA.

The acronym IKEA is made up of the initials of his name (Ingvar Kamprad) plus those of Elmtaryd, the family farm where he was born; and the nearby village Agunnaryd.

Kamprad has admitted that his dyslexia played a large part in the inner workings of the company. For example, the Swedish-sounding names of the furniture sold by IKEA were originally chosen by Kamprad because he had difficulty remembering numeral stock-keeping units.

Reputed to be quite frugal: flies economy class, frequents inexpensive restaurants, furnishes his home with Ikea ware.

Li Ka-shing

Net worth: $26.5 billion

Li fled turbulent China in 1940 and resettled in Hong Kong. Li’s father died in Hong Kong.

Shouldering the responsibility of looking after the livelihood of the family, Li was forced to leave school before the age of 15 and found a job in a plastics trading company where he labored 16 hours a day.

By 1950, his hard work, prudence and his pursuit of excellence had enabled him to start his own company, Cheung Kong Industries. From manufacturing plastics, Li led and developed his company into a leading real estate investment company in Hong Kong that was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1972.

Roman Abramovich

Net worth: $23.5 billion

Orphaned at age 4, Abramovich was raised by his uncle and grandmother. He dropped out of college and eventually made a fortune after taking over Russian oil giant Sibneft, which he later sold.

Roman, was gifted with a talent for business and being in the right place at the right time as he started his career as an entrepreneur just as Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms permitted the opening of small private businesses.

He began his business career selling plastic ducks from a grim Moscow apartment but, within a few years, Abramovich’s vast wealth spread from oil conglomerates to pig farms, and secured his place within Yeltsin’s inner circle. However, even today, his task force of bodyguards and armoured Mercedes testify to the high-risk nature of capitalism in post-Soviet Russia.

Sheldon Adelson

Net worth: $26 billion

The son of a Boston cabdriver, he borrowed $200 from an uncle to sell newspapers at age 12. Later, he dropped out of college to become a court reporter. Now a casino and hotel magnate, Adelson took his Las Vegas Sands public in December 2004.

He worked at a young age selling newspapers on local street corners and owned his first business by the time he was twelve. In the years that followed, he worked as a mortgage broker, investment adviser and financial consultant. He started a business selling toiletry kits, and in the 1960s he started a charter tours business with two friends. He went to college at City College of New York but did not complete a degree there.

The basis for Adelson’s wealth and current investments was the computer trade show COMDEX, which he and his partners developed for the computer industry; the first show was in 1979. It was the premier computer trade show through much of the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1988, Adelson and his partners purchased the Sands Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, the former hangout of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, in order to bring Las Vegas to a new phase of business centricity through the exhibition industry.

Amancio Ortega

Net worth: $20.2 billion

Son of a railway worker Ortega apparently got started as a clerk in a shirt store. With $25 and help from his then wife Rosalia Mera, now also a billionaire, he began making gowns in his living room.

In 1975 he opened the first store in what would grow into the enormously popular chain of fashion stores called Zara.

Kirk Kerkorian

Net worth: $16 billion

Son of Armenian immigrants, he dropped out of school in the eighth grade and took up boxing.

Kirk Kerkorian was born on June 6, 1917 in Fresno, California, to Armenian immigrant parents. Dropping out of school in 8th grade, he became a fairly skilled amateur boxer under the tutelage of his older brother, fighting under the name “Rifle Right Kerkorian” to win the Pacific amateur welterweight champion.

After the war, having saved most of his wages, Kerkorian spent $5,000 on a Cessna. He worked as a general aviation pilot, and made his first visit to Las Vegas in 1944. After spending much time in Las Vegas during the 1940s, Kerkorian quit gambling and in 1947 paid $60,000 for Trans International Airlines, which was a small air-charter service which flew gamblers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

He then bid on some war surplus bombers, using money on loan from the Seagrams family. Gasoline, and especially airplane fuel, was in short supply at the time, so he sold the fuel from the planes’ tanks, paid off his loan – and still had the airplanes. He operated the airline until 1968 when he sold it for $104 million to the Transamerica Corporation.

Later, he made billions buying and selling movie studio MGM. Today his MGM Mirage owns more than half the hotel rooms on the Las Vegas Strip.

“I just lucked into things. I used to think that if I made $50,000 I’d be the happiest guy in the world.” Kirk Kerkorian

Oprah Winfrey

Net worth: $2.5 billion

Born in rural Mississippi to a poor unwed teenaged mother, and later raised in an inner city Milwaukee neighborhood, Winfrey was raped at the age of nine, and at fourteen, gave birth to a son who died in infancy. Sent to live with the man she calls her father, a barber in Tennessee, Winfrey landed a job in radio while still in high school and began co-anchoring the local evening news at the age of 19.

Her emotional ad-lib delivery eventually got her transferred to the daytime talk show arena, and after boosting a third-rated local Chicago talk show to first place, she launched her own production company and became internationally syndicated.

Winfrey became a millionaire at age 32 when her talk show went national. Because of the amount of revenue the show generated, Winfrey was in a position to negotiate ownership of the show and start her own production company. By 1994 the show’s ratings were still thriving and Winfrey negotiated a contract that earned her nine figures a year.

Considered the richest woman in entertainment by the early 1990s, at age 41 Winfrey’s wealth crossed another milestone when with a net worth of $340 million, she replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400. Although blacks are 12% of the U.S. population, Winfrey has remained the only black person wealthy enough to rank among America’s 400 richest people nearly every year since 1995.

Micky Jagtiani

Net worth: $2.5 billion

Jagtiani flunked out of accounting school in London and took up driving taxis and cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills and support a bottle of whiskey a day habit. He then lost his entire family to illness in the span of one year.

Just 21 and alone in Bahrain with $6,000 of his and his family’s savings, he took over the retail space his brother had leased before dying of cancer and started selling baby products. Chain is now one of the most profitable retail groups in the Middle East.

Thirty years after he landed up in Bahrain the Dubai-based CEO of Landmark group has built himself one the largest and most profitable retail chains in the Middle East, with more than 280 stores, 6,000 employees and an estimated $650 million in revenues.

Richard Desmond

Net worth: $2 billion

After his parents divorced, Desmond lived with his mother in a garage apartment. Quit school at age 14 to become a drummer and worked in a coat-check room to help pay the bills.

His first job was for Thomson Newspapers, working in classified advertisements. He moved on to another company and by the age of 21 he owned two record shops. He acquired an interest in publishing and in 1974 published a magazine called International Musician and Recording World.

Started his first magazine at age 22 and now owns dozens of titles, including celebrity rag OK!.

J.K. Rowling

Net worth: $1 billion

British writer and author of the Harry Potter fantasy series.

Rowling moved to Portugal after the death of her mother from multiple sclerosis. She returned to the U.K. a single mother and lived on welfare while finishing her first Harry Potter story. Now one of the world’s most successful authors, she published the seventh and final installment of the boy wizard series last July.

She progressed from living on welfare to multi-millionaire status within five years.


I hope you found these stories inspiring. It is difficult for me to relate to people who are wealthy but started out with family money or won the lottery. But these stories prove that anything is possible and it is interesting to see how each rags to riches story is unique.

This article was based on the Forbes story In Pictures: Rags to Riches Billionaires. And was featured in the Carnival of Personal Finance at the Budgeting Babe.