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Twenty Billionaires Who Started With Nothing

  1. Living the American Dream

    Living the American Dream

    While most of the world's richest people earned their money, some had farther to climb. Neither Bill Gates nor Warren Buffett inherited wealth, but they were raised in affluent homes so they didn't have to worry about keeping their families fed. In contrast, there's something reassuring about a billionaire who grew up poor—something that goes beyond the classic, clichéd tale of the American Dream. For all the allure that stems from the lifestyle afforded by such wealth, the billionaires on this list say their mission was rarely about the grand money game. Making a billion dollars from nothing was most often about filling a need and getting started in a small business. Whether they were born in poverty, dropped out of high school, immigrated to the U.S., or even lived homeless for a time, these 20 Americans started at the bottom and worked their way to the top.
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  2. Sheldon Adelson

    Sheldon Adelson

    Age: 77
    Schooling: High school diploma and some college
    Hometown: Boston
    Money made: Trade shows and casinos
    Best-known venture: Las Vegas Sands

    Sheldon Adelson grew up the son of a cab driver in Boston's rough Dorchester neighborhood. He started selling newspapers at the age of 12 and later dropped out of college to become a court reporter. According to The New York Times, Adelson sold toiletry kits to motels and tried mortgage brokering, then struck it rich when he founded Comdex, an annual computer trade show. He went on to build Las Vegas hotels around conventions, rather than casinos—not that he left the casinos out. At the end of 2006, The Times has estimated, Adelson's net worth had grown by about $1 million an hour for two straight years.
  3. Carl Berg

    Carl Berg

    Age: 73
    Schooling: B.A. University of New Mexico
    Hometown: Tucumcari, N.M.
    Money made: Real estate and venture capital
    Most well-known venture: Mission West Properties

    At the age of 10, Carl Berg's father died and his schoolteacher mother was left to raise him alone in rural New Mexico. To pay his way through college, Berg repaired vending machines at day and worked as a clerk at what Berg called "the best hotel in town" at night. Berg took the hotel job with the goal of meeting someone that would give him a job in investment banking. "My theory worked fine," Berg says and explained that he eventually approached a regular who turned out to be the largest home builder in the country. The man offered Berg a job in the local office. "I would call all the time and raise hell about way they were running the home office," Berg says. "When I got ready to graduate college, he said 'Berg, if you're ready, you can come run the mortgage company.'" Eventually, Berg used the skills he learned in the mortgage business to make a real estate fortune in Silicon Valley. From there, he branched out into venture capital, a business he continues today. "The way I'm approaching it is, I'm trying to give someone else the opportunity that I had," Berg says. "I do everything I can to make the company succeed." Today, Berg is chairman and chief executive of Cupertino (Calif.)-based Mission West Properties (MSW), a giant real estate investment trust.

  4. Stephen Bisciotti

    Stephen Bisciotti

    Age: 50
    Schooling: Bachelor's degree, Salisbury State University
    Hometown: Severna Park, Md.
    Money made: Staffing
    Best-known venture: Allegis Group

    Stephen Bisciotti's father died when Bisciotti was just eight years old, leaving his mother to raise three children alone. Bisciotti worked his way through school and went into the temporary help business after graduating from Salisbury State in Maryland. At 23, Bisciotti and his cousin founded a high-tech temp agency in a basement office; sales reached $1.5 million in the first year. He built that company into Allegis Group, now among the nation's top staffing firms, and stayed true to his Maryland roots in 2004, when he bought the Baltimore Ravens National Football League team.
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  5. Leon Charney

    Leon Charney

    Age: 72
    Schooling: BA, Yeshiva University; law degree, Brooklyn Law School
    Hometown: Bayonne, N.J.
    Money made: Real estate
    Best-known venture: L.H. Charney Associates

    Leon Charney made more than a billion dollars from real estate investments, especially in properties around Manhattan's Times Square. The Leon Charney Report, his weekly cable TV show, states that his "rise to international prominence is a classic 'American Dream' story." Charney started amid humble beginnings as the child of immigrant parents. His father's death while Charney was young left the family destitute. Charney worked his way through college and law school, singing at times for money. (He still serves as a cantor.) With $200 in the bank, he started a law firm and first came to prominence advising President Jimmy Carter on the 1978 Camp David Accords.
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  6. John Paul DeJoria

    John Paul DeJoria

    Age: 66
    Schooling: High school diploma
    Hometown: Los Angeles
    Money made: Hair products
    Best-known venture: John Paul Mitchell Systems and Patrón Spirits

    No stranger to hard times, John Paul DeJoria was born to immigrant parents and spent time in an East Los Angeles foster home. Following two years in the U.S. Navy, his odd jobs included stints as a janitor and gas station attendant. At times he was homeless. DeJoria worked his way up in hair care and cosmetic companies before joining with Paul Mitchell in 1980 to launch a hair products company, putting up an initial investment of just $700. The packaging was printed in black-and-white because color printing was too expensive.
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  7. Larry Ellison

    Larry Ellison

    Age: 66
    Schooling: Two years, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; one term, University of Chicago
    Hometown: Chicago
    Money made: Software
    Best-known venture: Oracle

    Ellison was born in Brooklyn to a single mother, who asked an aunt and uncle to raise him in Chicago. According to the Academy of Achievement, Ellison dropped out of college and drove to California after his adoptive mother died. There, he held odd jobs for eight years before founding a software development company in 1977. That venture is today known as Oracle (ORCL), one of the world's largest technology companies. This year, Ellison achieved a dream in the realm of sailing when he won the America's Cup and brought the oldest trophy in international sports back to the U.S. for the first time in 15 years.
  8. Alan Gerry

    Alan Gerry

    Age: 81
    Schooling: Dropped out of high school
    Hometown: Liberty, N.Y.
    Money made: Cable TV
    Best-known venture: Cablevision Industries

    The son of Russian immigrants, Gerry dropped out of high school to join the Marines. He started a tiny television repair business after training via the G.I. Bill. In 1956, starting with $1,500 saved from his business, Gerry borrowed $20,000 to create a cable company and worked from the ground up, borrowing carefully without equity partners or initial stock offerings. By the time he sold to Time Warner Cable (TWC) in 1996, Cablevision Industries had become the country's eighth-largest cable provider, with 2,500 employees and 1.3 million subscribers. "We were filling a need," Gerry says. "People were so hungry for television."
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  9. Alec Gores

    Alec Gores

    Age: 57
    Schooling: Bachelor's degree, Western Michigan University
    Hometown: Nazareth, Israel
    Wealth from: Leveraged buyouts
    Best-known venture: Gores Group

    Raised in Nazareth, Israel, Alec Gores moved with his family to Flint, Mich., at the age of 15. Members of his extended family were in the area and he worked at everything from stocking shelves to being a butcher at his uncle's grocery store while obtaining computer science and math degrees at Western Michigan University. On graduating, Gores started a company to sell software and hardware to small and midsized businesses. After selling it to Continental Telephone in the early 1980s, he realized he no longer wanted to start businesses from scratch, so he started buying promising companies he believed were underperforming. Today, with $2.7 billion under management, Gores Group has acquired more than 80 companies since 1987 in the areas of industrial equipment, technology, telecommunications, health care, and business services.
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  10. Harold Hamm

    Harold Hamm

    Age: 64
    Schooling: High school diploma
    Hometown: Lexington, Okla.
    Money made: Oil and gas
    Best-known venture: Continental Resources

    Harold Hamm grew up milking cows, gathering eggs, and feeding chickens. The youngest of 13 kids born to sharecropper parents in Oklahoma, Hamm says that he hardly remembers a time when he wasn't working. "We came up working for the family unit," Hamm says. "You certainly learned quickly to do your part." At the age of 20, he bought a water pump truck to deliver drilling fluids and service drilling rigs. "That is the company that became Continental Resources (CLR)," Hamm says. "It was a very meager start." He says he raised his kids in much the same way he grew up. As his fledging company got off the ground, Hamm's wife kept the books and his daughter, starting as young as six, would answer telephones. At the end of last year, the Enid (Okla.)-based company estimated its proved reserves at 257.3 million barrels of oil, with interests in 2,317 wells. Continental Resources generated $627.7 million in revenue, according to the company's 10-K. Hamm remains at the helm. As he puts it: "I get as much excitement going to work today as I did when I was 20 years old."
  11. George Joseph

    George Joseph

    Age: 89
    Schooling: Bachelor's degree, Harvard University
    Hometown: Beckley, W. Va.
    Money made: Insurance
    Best-known venture: Mercury General

    Born to a Lebanese restaurateur in West Virginia, George Joseph flew a B-17 in World War II and returned home to earn a degree at Harvard University on the GI Bill. When he graduated, he started working for Occidental Life as a systems analyst by day and an insurance salesman by night. "I learned a lot about the insurance business during this time and it opened my eyes to some opportunities in other areas," says Joseph. He applied what he had learned to a new model of selling auto insurance that covered all risk areas. He founded Mercury General (MCY) in 1962 and built the Los Angeles-based insurer into a company with 2009 revenues of $3.1 billion.
    Mercury General Corp.
  12. Kirk Kerkorian

    Kirk Kerkorian

    Age: 93
    Schooling: Dropped out of 8th grade
    Hometown: Fresno, Calif.
    Money made: Airlines, hotels, and investing
    Best-known venture: Tracinda

    Kerkorian started earning money for his Armenian-immigrant family at the age of 9, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He dropped out of eighth grade to become a boxer known as "Rifle Right Kerkorian" and earned his first serious paychecks ferrying bombers across the Atlantic Ocean for Britain's Royal Air Force during World War II. He turned his flying practice into an airline and eventually went into constructing many of Las Vegas' biggest hotels. Kerkorian later branched into buying troubled companies such as automakers through Beverly Hills (Calif.)-based Tracinda. He has been Detroit's rescuing angel and menacing demon through various rounds of owning stock in General Motors (GM), Chrysler, and Ford (F). Since recession set in, Kerkorian and Tracinda have quit automotive stocks and diversified.
  13. Ken Langone

    Ken Langone

    Age: 75
    Schooling: BA, Bucknell University; MBA, New York University
    Hometown: Roslyn Heights, N.Y.
    Money made: Investing
    Best-known venture: Home Depot

    Born to a plumber and a cafeteria worker in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., Kenneth Langone dug ditches and worked as a caddy while at Bucknell University. To help pay for school, his parents mortgaged their home. Langone later earned an MBA at New York University on a part-time basis. His first fortune came in 1968, when he partnered with Ross Perot to take Electronic Data Systems (HP) public. In the 1970s he teamed with Bernard Marcus to start Home Depot (HD), which they eventually took public in 1981. Langone hasn't kept the rewards all to himself: In 1999—and again in 2008—he reportedly gave New York University separate gifts of $100 million.
  14. Ralph Lauren

    Ralph Lauren

    Age: 71
    Schooling: Dropped out of what is now Baruch College
    Hometown: The Bronx
    Money made: Clothing
    Best-known venture: Polo Ralph Lauren

    Ralph Lauren graduated high school in the Bronx, then dropped out of college to serve in the Army reserve. Next he worked as a clerk at Brooks Brothers, then toiled as a tie salesman—which caused him to decide that men were ready for wider, brighter designs. According to a profile in Time, Lauren sold $500,000 worth of ties in 1967, the year he started designing them for St. Louis-based Beau Brummell Cravats. The next year, he started Polo (RL) with $50,000 from clothier Norman Hilton. The company tallied $5 billion in revenue during its 2010 fiscal year.

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  15. Carl Lindner Jr.

    Carl Lindner Jr.

    Age: 91
    Schooling: Dropped out of school at 14
    Hometown: Norwood, Ohio
    Money made: Convenience stores
    Best-known venture: United Dairy Farmers

    In 1938, when Carl Lindner Jr. was 19, most milk was delivered by milkmen. Carl Lindner Sr. came up the idea of selling milk from the family's dairy farms in grocery stores, eliminating a lot of delivery costs. Carl Jr. and three siblings helped support the family by running milk routes through the Depression, then expanded the business into what would become one of the Midwest's largest chains of convenience stores, Cincinnati-based United Dairy Farmers. Eventually Lindner branched into insurance and real estate. From 1999 to 2006, he owned a controlling interest in the Cincinnati Reds of Major League Baseball.
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  16. David Murdock

    David Murdock

    Age: 87
    Schooling: Received high school diploma in 2009
    Hometown: Wayne, Ohio
    Money made: Real estate and acquisitions
    Best-known venture: Dole Food Co.

    Homeless and with little more than a few cents to his name after serving in World War II, David Murdock borrowed $900 from a Good Samaritan. He bought a diner in Detroit and flipped it for a profit of $700, then used the proceeds to buy a car to drive to Arizona. In the desert Southwest, he started building homes, starting a real estate empire that grew to include Dole Foods Co., Castle — Cooke, and nearly all of the island of Lanai, Hawaii. Murdock's credo is listed on the company website: "To do the impossible, you must see the invisible."
  17. Thomas Peterffy

    Thomas Peterffy

    Age: 65
    Schooling: Dropped out of engineering studies to immigrate from Hungary
    Hometown: Budapest
    Money made: Brokerage firm
    Best-known venture: Interactive Brokers Group

    Born during a Russian bombing raid in 1944, Thomas Peterffy moved to New York in 1965, as a refugee from communist Hungary. He spoke no English when he arrived, but found a job as a draftsman, according to Forbes. In 1977, he bought a seat on the American Stock Exchange and shocked traders in the early 80s when he brought an early handheld computer to the floor. The company that eventually grew out of that seat on the AMEX became Interactive Brokers Group. According to a November of 2005 profile in Interactive Brokers, Peterffy wrote computer code in his head while trading during the day then went back to the office later to apply computer models to trading. Those early uses of computers made him a pioneer in the field. Today, the company website claims Interactive Brokers logs more than one million trades per day.

    (Editor's note: This caption has been updated to cite Forbes magazine.)
  18. Howard Schultz

    Howard Schultz

    Age: 57
    Schooling: Bachelor's degree, Northern Michigan University
    Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
    Money made: Copies and coffee
    Best-known venture: Starbucks

    Howard Schultz grew up in a Brooklyn housing project, where his father worked from one blue collar job to the next. After attending college on a football scholarship, Schultz worked at Xerox (XRX) and in 1979 became general manager for Swedish drip coffee maker Hammarplast. This led him to a small Seattle chain called Starbucks Coffee Co. In 1987 he acquired the company's retail unit for $3.8 million. Today Starbucks (SBUX) operates more than 17,000 stores in almost 49 countries, generating more than $10.7 billion in 2010 revenues. Schultz told in 2008 that his decision to provide health insurance to employees who work more than 20 hours a week was due to a period of time his father spent laid-up with a broken ankle. When Schultz was named a recipient of the Horatio Alger Award, he told the Horatio Alger Assn. that his parents were essentially "working poor" who had been unable to live the American Dream. "My story is as much one of perseverance and drive as it is of talent and luck. I willed my dreams to come true," Schultz said.
  19. Kenny Troutt

    Kenny Troutt

    Age: 62
    Schooling: Bachelor's degree, Southern Illinois University
    Hometown: Mt. Vernon, Ill.
    Money made: Telecom
    Best-known venture: Excel Communications

    The son of a bartender, Kenny Trout grew up in Mt. Vernon, Ill. He sold insurance to get through Southern Illinois University. In 1988, Troutt founded Excel Communications, a company that grew to be the fourth-largest long distance carrier in the country in just seven years. Troutt retired in 1999 and turned some of his attention to racehorses. This year his horse, Super Saver, won the 136th Kentucky Derby.
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  20. Albert Ueltschi

    Albert Ueltschi

    Age: 93
    Schooling: High school diploma
    Hometown: Frankfort, Ky.
    Money made: Training pilots
    Best-known venture: FlightSafety International

    At the height of the Depression and still in high school, Albert Ueltschi opened a hamburger stand to earn money with the goal of learning to fly. Using the eatery as collateral, he bought a bi-wing airplane with $3,500 he borrowed. According to a profile in The Warren Buffett CEO: Secrets of the Berkshire Hathaway Managers, a book by Robert P. Miles, Ueltschi sold rides, put on airshows, and eventually flew clients around the country. In 1951 he borrowed $15,000 to start FlightSafety International, a company to train pilots. Ueltschi sold it to Warren Buffet for a reported $1.5 billion in 1996.
    Flight Safety
  21. Oprah Winfrey

    Oprah Winfrey

    Age: 56
    Schooling: B.A., Tennessee State University
    Hometown: Milwaukee
    Money made: Media
    Best-known venture: The Oprah Winfrey Show

    Born in poverty in Mississippi and raised in Milwaukee, Oprah Winfrey moved to Nashville in 1968 to live with her father. Two years later, she won a scholarship to attend Tennessee State University. At 19 she was hired as Nashville's first African American TV correspondent. In 1983, she relocated to Chicago to take on the AM Chicago talk show later renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her work in movies, radio, and publishing built an influential business empire. The first African American to appear on Forbes' billionaires list, Winfrey has frequently been the sole African American to make the roster.