These Stars and Businesspeople Were Not Always Wealthy...

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Brian Ach/Getty Images

Not every person who has a massive amount of money was born into wealth. In fact, the number of self-made stars and businesspeople may surprise you. Grinding to the top is a very real phenomenon, and there are countless success stories that can remind you of this fact.

These celebrities and successful businesspeople weren’t always uber-wealthy. Check out their stories of life before the money.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Most people know Leo DiCaprio as the jet-setting, model-loving, blue-eyed leading man who’s been a heartthrob for just about forever. And while Leo has certainly reached heights that most people can only dream of, he wasn’t always well off.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Dept. Of State/Flickr

DiCaprio grew up in the outer limits of Los Angeles, and to hear him tell it, the part of the city where he lived was plagued by violence and drug use. He once said, "I grew up very poor, and I got to see the other side of the spectrum."

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is one of those rare celebrities who’s so famous that she only needs to use one name. Forbes pegs Oprah's net worth at around $2.7 billion, though some estimates put it higher. Oprah built her empire all on her own, and she’s a true rags-to-riches story.

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Photo Courtesy: Lawrence Jackson/Obama White House

Oprah's mother was a single teenager when she had her daughter, and Oprah has spoken about growing up without electricity or running water at times. She climbed her way up the media ladder and now sits atop it as a bonafide accomplished icon.

Howard Schultz

Starbucks coffee is perhaps the most popular brand of the caffeinated brew in the world, as its billions of dollars in annual sales indicate. Howard Schultz is the man behind Starbucks, having restored the company to its current glory after a few years of lagging sales. If you love your Starbucks, you have Schultz to thank.

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Photo Courtesy: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Schultz was driven to success in part by, as he put it, "the scar and the shame of being a poor kid living in government-subsidized housing." His net worth is now over $4 billion — a pretty far cry from life growing up in the projects in New York.


Arnold Schwarzenegger

Younger generations may not realize Arnold Schwarzenegger’s global fame. Having won the title of Mr. Universe at age 20 and the Mr. Olympia title seven times, he was the foremost bodybuilder on the planet. And he was only getting started, as his career in Hollywood is what made him a true superstar.

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Photo Courtesy: Ken Shipp/US Dept. Of Energy/Flickr

All of this success was against the odds. Schwarzenegger grew up in Austria in the wake of World War II, which wasn’t exactly a land of opportunity. Still, The Terminator persevered to magnificent heights.

Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren has built one of the most successful, recognizable apparel brands on the planet. Even as the brand has become more ubiquitous, many see Ralph Lauren as synonymous with class, and Polo shirts and dresses straddle the line of casual and formal as few other brands can.

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Photo Courtesy: Desiree Navarro/Getty Images

Ralph Lauren is the man behind the brand with market capitalization of over $8 billion. As a child, he regularly went to the movies to escape the realities of growing up poor. He’s also said, "As a kid, I was always into clothes, but I didn’t have the money to buy them." That's no longer the case.

Celine Dion

Casual music fans know Celine Dion for one thing and one thing only: the song "My Heart Will Go On." But look closer and you’ll see that Dion has compiled a long, successful career in music, having sold more than 220 million albums and earning nearly $38 million in 2019 alone.

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Photo Courtesy: celebrityabc/Flickr

Dion had a financially tough childhood, growing up as one of 14 siblings in Canada. Now, she has hundreds of millions of dollars to her name. It's not only Dion's heart that will go on; her significant wealth will go on for generations.


Larry Ellison

Larry Ellison is the founder of Oracle, a successful company that offers integrated cloud applications and platform services. He’s become one of the richest men in the world due to his company's success, and his wealth is a far cry from the conditions he grew up in.

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Photo Courtesy: Oracle PR/Flickr

Although he was born in New York, Ellison spent most of his childhood living in the notoriously rough South Side of Chicago. He looks back on his humble beginnings and says, "Everyone who works hard, and maybe a little cleverly, has the opportunity to make almost anything possible."

J.K. Rowling

Of the massively wealthy individuals who have roots in poverty, J.K. Rowling's story is one of the most widely known, but that doesn’t make her ascent to success any less astonishing. Rowling has a past darkened by depression, and she was once a single mom who struggled to keep a roof over her and her child's heads.

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Photo Courtesy: J.K. Rowling/Twitter

She has spoken of fleeing an abusive relationship and coping with raising her child alone, but ultimately penned the novels that would make her famous and fabulously wealthy. Rowling's story is one of overcoming obstacles other than just poverty.

Kenneth Langone

You can be a rags-to-riches success story if you make $50,000 a year, or even less. But the most astounding stories of transcending poverty and finding financial comfort are those in which earnings start reaching the millions and even the billions. That’s why the story of Kenneth Langone, financier of Home Depot, is worth noting.

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Photo Courtesy: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Langone comes from humble beginnings — his mother was a cafeteria worker. Still, Langone says that he had a happy childhood, noting that he "worked like hell to become part of the 1%."


John Paul DeJoria

John Paul DeJoria is the man behind Paul Mitchell hair products. He’s also the co-founder of Patron Spirits International, the company that produces Patron tequila. DeJoria sold his stake in Patron to Bacardi for $5.1 billion, adding to his already sizable net worth.

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Photo Courtesy: John Paul DeJoria/Twitter

DeJoria made himself into what he is, and nobody handed him a thing. He’s spoken about selling Christmas cards and newspapers before he was 10 years old to help support his family after his parents divorced when he was a toddler. He's proof that anyone can overcome significant life obstacles.

Do Won Chang

Do Won Chang is the founder of the popular apparel brand Forever 21. He and his wife Jin Sook moved to America from South Korea in 1981, settling in Los Angeles and initially starting a coffee business that they hoped would lead them out of poverty. As it turns out, the coffee business didn't quite work out.

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Photo Courtesy: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Do Won and his wife didn’t give up, and he resorted to pumping gas, taking janitorial jobs and serving coffee to make ends meet. He realized clothing was where the money was and opened Fashion 21, which became the massively successful Forever 21.

Sheldon Adelson

Every year, Forbes puts out a list of the richest people in the world, and every year, billionaire Sheldon Adelson comes in somewhere near the top. He’s the founder, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, the largest casino company in the nation, which is one of the most lucrative businesses a person can be in.

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Photo Courtesy: Union20/Wikimedia Commons

Adelson was not always rich. The son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Adelson grew up in a Boston tenement. In one interview, he said, "I’m talking [as] somebody who wore his skin down on his fingers trying to climb the ladder of success."


Steve Jobs

Despite having passed away several years ago, Steve Jobs left a massive legacy that includes being a self-made billionaire. His parents felt incapable of providing for Jobs in the way that they believed he deserved, and he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs. He was by no means raised with a silver spoon in his mouth.

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Photo Courtesy: Blake Patterson/Flickr

After dropping out of college, Jobs built the Apple empire into what it is today. Without Jobs, we wouldn't have the iPod, let alone the iPhone. And Apple wouldn't be the global brand that it is today; it wouldn't exist.

Lakshmi Mittal

Lakshmi Mittal is known well among those who follow the construction industry, as he’s a steel magnate of the highest order. While he’s now a billionaire, Mittal was raised in India in poverty that many Americans cannot imagine. He grew up near the state of Rajasthan in northern India, where generational poverty is common.

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Photo Courtesy: Bloomberg/Getty Images

How times have changed. Mittal is routinely listed as one of the United Kingdom's richest residents and has come in at the top of that list more than once. Mittal and others like him prove that there’s no work ethic like self-made work ethic.

Steve Bisciotti

Steve Bisciotti is known to most sports fans as the owner of the Baltimore Ravens NFL team, and those fans are certainly aware that Bisciotti is a wealthy person as all NFL owners are. But Bisciotti, who made his fortune by founding the talent and staffing company Allegis Group at the age of 23, never had it easy.

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Photo Courtesy: Maryland GovPics/Flickr

His father passed away when Bisciotti was only eight years old, and Bisciotti had to work during school to pay his way through college. The hustle paid off, as he’s now a billionaire.


Shahid Khan

Shahid Khan is known as one of the most gregarious owners in professional sports. Khan has a broad profile in both the United States and England; he owns the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL and Fulham Soccer Club in the UK. Khan founded Flex-N-Gate, a company that produces original equipment for automobiles. He's also a billionaire.

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Hillier/Flickr

Khan immigrated to the United States from Pakistan, working as a dishwasher while attending school at the University of Illinois. His dedication and tenacity paid off.

George Soros

George Soros is a divisive figure who’s now as synonymous with radical political change as he is for being a self-made billionaire. Soros is a billionaire nonetheless, and while accounts of his upbringing are conflicted, there’s no denying that he was in a precarious situation as a child.

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Soros grew up in Nazi-occupied Hungary and had very little money when he arrived in London to attend university in 1947. He bet against the British pound in 1992 and ended up a billionaire, and has made a habit of betting against currencies (and nations) ever since.

Jan Koum

Jan Koum is the founder of popular messaging application WhatsApp. He grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, a nation that’s not known for having a large population of wealthy residents. Koum was not wealthy and eventually migrated to California with his mother. Koum swept floors to make whatever money he could.

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Koum reportedly taught himself how to use a computer and followed that passion until it led him to create WhatsApp in 2009. Facebook purchased the app for almost $22 billion in 2014, and Koum would never have to work again if he so chose.


Roman Abramovich

Roman Abramovich was born into poverty in Russia. Abramovich was an orphan at two years old, and an uncle took him in, raising him in a remote region in northern Russia. In 1987, Abramovich was a student at the Moscow Auto Transport Institute, where he got a feel for engineering.

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Photo Courtesy: Mikhail Svetlov/Flickr

He ultimately went on to make moves in the oil industry, leading company Sibneft through a merger and, eventually, a sale that saw the company valued at $13 billion. Abramovich is now rich and owns Chelsea Football Club, not to mention a $400 million yacht.

Shania Twain

Shania Twain is one of the more popular, accomplished country music stars of her time, and she fits the perception of country music stars coming from hardship, even if her music hasn’t always reflected it. Twain is Canadian, and she grew up in a household in Ontario where hunger and poverty were ever-present.

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Photo Courtesy: Shania Twain/Twitter

Twain's mother and stepfather died in a car accident when she was 21, but she didn’t let that deter her. Depending on which source you consult, Twain's net worth is generally pegged somewhere between $300 and $400 million.

Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey is a Canadian who has used humor to amass his wealth, as he was once among the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. A look at Carrey's upbringing may be further evidence that comedy is a good way to deal with tough circumstances.

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Carrey reportedly dropped out of high school to help his family pay the bills once his father was laid off from his job. The story goes that Carrey worked as a janitor and a security guard, and the family was forced to live in a van after losing their home, despite his efforts.


Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and despite being well into his 50s, Cruise continues to take on high-stress roles in movies such as the Mission: Impossible and Jack Reacher franchises. Cruise has always been intense, and some may not realize that he had a tough childhood.

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Cruise has described living in poverty and even being abused by his father, whom he has spoken poorly of on-record. Cruise has used his past as motivation to succeed and will go down as one of the most successful actors of his era.

Demi Moore

Demi Moore may be known to younger people as Ashton Kutcher's ex-wife, but she made a name in her own right as one of the best-known actresses of her generation by starring in acclaimed movies such as A Few Good Men. Most estimates peg Moore's net worth at over $100 million, but it was never a guarantee that she would be wealthy.

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Photo Courtesy: Demi Moore/Twitter

In fact, the odds were stacked against Moore. She was raised in Roswell, New Mexico, and has stated that her mother was an alcoholic who raised her in a trailer. She also witnessed violence between her mother and stepfather.

Sarah Jessica Parker

Sarah Jessica Parker became a global star once Sex and the City became a major hit, and she has gone on to star in several movies and television shows, doing quite well for herself financially. But Parker isn’t the daughter of any Hollywood royalty, and her success was hard-earned.

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Parker was raised one of four siblings in an Ohio mining town. Her parents divorced when she was only two years old, and her mother's second marriage brought four more siblings. Parker had to scratch for everything she got, and those tough circumstances primed her for success.



Jay-Z rose to prominence in a time when, in order to be credible as a rapper, you almost had to come from hard beginnings. Until the likes of the Beastie Boys, being raised around poverty and crime was a prerequisite for rap credibility. Jay-Z isn’t unique among his peers in that he was raised in the projects and sold drugs.

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However, what is unique about Jay-Z is the extent to which he has parlayed his rap music into business success. As the owner of nightclubs, a sports agency and a live concert behemoth, Jay is a business icon.


Like his contemporaries Jay-Z and Dr. Dre, Sean "Diddy" Combs came to prominence during a time when being successful in hip-hop meant that you had to have street credibility. Often, that meant being poor and raised amongst violence. Born and raised in the Harlem section of New York City, Combs reportedly had a paper route as a boy to earn money to buy what he wanted.

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Photo Courtesy: Diddy/Twitter

His father was shot to death at 33 when Combs was only two years old. Nevertheless, Diddy has gone on to achieve massive success, and he may even become a billionaire soon.

Halle Berry

Halle Berry has played a Bond girl and has had countless other roles throughout her successful movie career, and she’s the quintessential self-made actress. Berry had to work hard for every role she got in the beginning.

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Berry easily could have ended up on a different path. She was born to a single mother in Cleveland, Ohio, and they were poor throughout her childhood. Berry revealed that she once lived in a homeless shelter before she made it big in Hollywood.


Sylvester Stallone

The actor some know as Sly, Sylvester Stallone, has a level of machismo that’s reflective of his tough upbringing in New York's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. His father was an Italian immigrant who moved to America in the 1930s, and like most first-generation Americans, Stallone didn’t stumble immediately into wealth.

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But, like some other children of immigrants, Stallone used his tough upbringing as a lesson that nothing is handed to you. He’s gone on to find success in the film industry. From Rocky to Rambo, the list goes on.

Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix's stock as a movie star is perhaps higher than it’s ever been considering the success of his performance in Joker. He’s turned in a number of astounding performances over his career, and he’s known for playing the macabre roles with complete authenticity.

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Perhaps part of that ability comes from his upbringing, which included him moving to South America at one point with his family, who became part of the Children of God cult. Not a lighthearted way to grow up.

Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton tends to play characters with a Southern drawl, and that’s not by accident. He was born and raised in rural Arkansas, a state with some of the bleakest poverty in all of the United States.

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Thornton has said in the past that, each Christmas, he received a stick and a rock in his stocking. To what extent he was being facetious is unclear, but what is clear is that Thornton grew up poor and rose to the top.