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10 Business Icons Who Have Lived the American Dream

It would be a stretch to claim that the American dream is thriving. As income studies have proven, inequality in the United States is widening with every generation, and the opportunity to work

It would be a stretch to claim that the American dream is thriving. As income studies have proven, inequality in the United States is widening with every generation, and the opportunity to work hard, get an education, and overcome poverty is simply not presenting itself to many Americans.

And yet the idea of the dream remains entrenched in the American psyche. Some 70% of those surveyed last year by the Pew Economic Mobility Project believe that the dream is still “very much” or “somewhat” alive, even though 59% say it will be “somewhat” or “much” harder for their children to live it. A more recent study by the Foundation for Child Development has found that the children of immigrants are more more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to be covered by health insurance.

So what fuels our belief in against-the-odds success? In part, we are motivated by stories of those who have lived the dream, whether as artists, athletes, intellectuals, or in the case of the 10 icons featured here, business and innovation. These individuals have arrived at their current stations after pushing past obstacles such as homelessness, political strife, and personal tragedy. Many would argue that their achievements would not have been possible anywhere but here.

Sergey Brin, Co-founder of Google

Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Russia in 1973. At the time, the economy was sliding into a decade-long stagnation under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who also implemented anti-Semitic policies. In 1979, the Brins immigrated to the United States. Sergey’s mother found work as a NASA research scientist; his father was a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Sergey himself went on to study computer science at Stanford, famously dropping out to start Google with Larry Page. Now worth $18.7 billion, Brin spends his days immersing himself in cutting-edge technologies. His current projects include helping to build a 7,000-patient DNA database for developing genetically-targeted Parkinson’s cures and Project Glass at the Google[x] innovation lab. Other fun investments include Tesla Motors (TSLA), Airship Ventures, Space Ventures, and frequent appearances at the techno-utopic Singularity University.

Ursula Burns, Xerox CEO

“I’m a black lady from the Lower East Side of New York. Not a lot intimidates me.” So said Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns in a recent Fast Company interview. She also mentioned that protocol isn’t usually “her thing,” and she’s right.

The protocol for a girl born and raised in the housing projects of Lower East Side Manhattan by a single working mother is generally not to become the CEO of a major multinational corporation. Burns, however, didn’t blink at the potential obstacles built into her situation. Gifted at math and science, she earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York in 1980 and a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1981. Her first exposure to Xerox came during a summer internship there in 1980, while she was still in school. She joined the company a year later, after earning her M.S. in engineering from Columbia.

By the early 2000s, Burns had navigated her way to the highest rungs of the Xerox corporate ladder. Working closely with her predecessor Ann Mulcahy, Burns played a key role in bringing Xerox back from bankruptcy, transforming the copy-machine manufacturer into a business and government services provider.

In 2009, Burns became CEO of Xerox, earning a spot as the first African-American woman to run a Fortune 500 company. The White House has since sought out the counsel of the outspoken and confident CEO. In 2011, Burns was part of a CEO roundtable, moderated by President Obama himself, that was put together to discuss economic stimulation in the wake of the debt-ceiling crisis. Burns’ words to Obama? “You owe us $3 billion.”

Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Harpo Productions

Media empress Oprah Winfrey went from wearing potato sacks as a child to a net worth of $2.7 billion, topping Forbes’ list of the wealthiest African-Americans. Born to an unwed teenage mother and raised largely by her grandmother, Oprah faced poverty, rape, and incest as a child. At the age of 14, Oprah’s own pregnancy ended with a stillbirth.

Under the strict tutelage of her father, with whom she lived in her later teenage years, Oprah blossomed, first as a top student and beauty queen, and later as Nashville’s first African-American female newscaster. In 1986, Oprah launched her own nationally-syndicated show, laying the foundation for what would eventually become her Harpo Productions empire.

Today, Oprah makes an estimated $200 million per year from her media properties, according to Forbes. Despite having swapped out her long-running talk show for other projects, the producer behind Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray, and the move Precious continues to leave an indelible mark on American culture.

John Paul Dejoria, CEO of Paul Mitchell Hair Care Systems

John Paul Dejoria, CEO and co-founder of the Paul Mitchell Hair Care Systems and Patron tequila line of products, might just be the only homeless recycled-can collector to ever hit a net worth of $4 billion. The son of Italian and Greek immigrants spent his rough childhood in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Dejoria’s father had left the family by the time he was two, according to an Entrepreneur interview.

At nine and ten years of age, Dejoria was helping his family stay afloat by selling Christmas cards door-to-door and maintaining a newspaper route. After high school, Dejoria joined the Navy, and then spent some time selling encyclopedias. When he was 22, Dejoria’s wife abandoned him with his son. Out of money, Dejoria and his son lived in a car, subsidizing themselves by recycling Coke cans.

Dejoria’s first beauty-industry job was as a salesman for the hair products company Redken, where he was initially successful but fired after four years with the company for not being “their type of manager,” according to CNNMoney. Years later, when Dejoria co-founded Paul Mitchell with his friend Paul Mitchell, a key investor backed out, leaving the co-founders with their initial $700 investment and no money. Dejoria once again slept in his car while launching the company.

Today, with the Paul Mitchell and Patron brands in his asset arsenal, Dejoria is enjoying a decidedly more comfortable life.

Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil CEO

The founder of the world’s most famous circus started out as a street performer in Quebec, playing the accordion, walking on stilts and swallowing fire with a troupe of traveling performers named Les Echassiers. Aware that he could harness the many talents of the street performers on Quebec’s Fête foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul, Laliberte earned a government grant to launch the first financially-supported Cirque de Soleil tour in 1984, with 73 performers. Since then, the organization has blossomed to more than 3,800 performers in countries around the world. Laliberte, with a net worth of $2.6 billion, is now a philanthropist, space explorer, and professional poker player, in addition to running Cirque de Soleil productions.

Don Thompson, McDonald’s CEO

Raised by his grandmother and born near Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green, Don Thompson is now the first African-America CEO of McDonald’s (MCD). Like many of the leaders on this list, Thompson’s business instincts ripened at a young age. He printed up and gave out business cards to convalescent homes in his area, according to a Chicago Tribune interview, and residents would hire him to clean and do errands.

A math and science star in high school, Thompson was soon recruited by Purdue University’s Minority Engineering Advancement Program. He worked as an electrical engineer for Northrop Grumman (NOC), then as a food-transport equipment network and cooking equipment engineer at McDonald’s.

Thompson built an admirable list of accomplishments at the fast-food giant, including rolling out the lucrative McCafe concept, which offers diners upscale coffee beverages such as frappes. Currently COO, Thompson has also been designated CEO to take the place of current CEO Jim Skinner this June. Still true to their roots, Thompson and his wife remain involved in charities around the Cabrini Green community, where both lived as children.

Kirk Kerkorian, Tracinda CEO

Born to Armenian immigrants in 1917, Kirk Kerkorian, like the modern Las Vegas that he helped develop, grew his fortune out of a harsh climate. When Kerkorian was six years old, his family literally lost the farm, forcing them to move to the West Coast to seek better fortune. By the time he was nine years old, Kerkorian was helping to support his family by doing odd jobs, including selling newspapers.

Rather than attending high school, Kerkorian followed an adrenaline-laden career path, first as an amateur boxer, then as a Royal Air Force plane-delivery pilot during World War II. He used the proceeds from that well-paying job to buy his own single-engine Cessna, which he used to train pilots and fly charters to Las Vegas.

It was in Vegas that Kerkorian made his business fortune. He started by building out his air charter service between LA and Las Vegas, and sold it in 1968 for a cool $104 million in stock. Kerkorian used that money to play and win a real-life game of Monopoly, Las Vegas Edition. He bought 80 acres of land on the Las Vegas strip. He leased some of the land to Caesar’s Palace; he also built the International Hotel and purchased the Flamingo Hotel, and sold both to Hilton at a premium. He purchased and restructured Hollywood’s MGM Studios and built the MGM Grand, which became MGM Resorts (MGM), and remains a minority shareholder in the MGM Mirage.

Although Tracinda Corporation, Kerkorian’s holding company, has recently fallen on hard times, 94-year-old Kerkorian is still worth $3.3 billion.

Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle

Born in the Bronx to a teenage single mother, Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison came from humble beginnings. But Ellison, now worth $36 billion, didn’t exactly stay true to his roots. A firm adherent to the “he who dies with the most toys, dies happy” mantra, Ellison enjoys an 88-foot megayacht, a fighter plane, a stable of sports cars, and 15 multimillion dollar properties around America.

As a twentysomething, the two-time college dropout headed to Berkeley with barely any money in his pockets. Finding work as a programmer, Ellison soon co-founded a company called Software Development Labs. A CIA database-development contract, codenamed Oracle, gave the company its big break. Ellison and his team later built a commercial version of the database, and IBM (IBM), now a competitor, soon signed up as a customer. In life as in business, Ellison employed a strategy of “go bigger,” with both man and company continuing to acquire assets until they became the behemoths they are today.

Sean “Diddy” Combs, CEO, Bad Boy Entertainment Group, Sean John Clothing

Born in Harlem and raised by a single mother after his father was murdered, Sean “Diddy” Combs hardly had a white-picket-fence childhood. But he went on to major in business at Howard University, dropping out in order to pursue an internship at the then-popular hip-hop and R&B label Uptown Records.

Combs helped produce stars like Mary J. Blige at Uptown, but he was fired in 1993. He founded Bad Boy Records, which launched to fame with The Notorious B.I.G. and Craig Mack. Combs and Bad Boy Records gained notoriety as the East Coast half of rap’s East Coast-West Coast feud in the mid-1990s, which arguably resulted in the murders of both Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.

Combs went on to produce a Grammy-winning, septuple-platinum tribute album to The Notorious B.I.G. as well as a number of successful solo albums of his own. He has made numerous television and movie cameos, collaborated with and produced dozens of musicians, launched the Sean John clothing line and Justin’s restaurant in Atlanta, and has also talked about building his own business school. Combs’ many ventures have earned him a net worth of $550 million.

Chris Gardner, CEO Gardner Rich

If you ever saw Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness, you know the story of Chicago stockbroker Chris Gardner. Gardner, now a two-time author, motivational speaker, and brokerage owner, spent his youth in and out of foster homes. Gartner served in the Navy, had a son, and decided to embark on a career in finance, so he entered Dean Witter Reynolds’ internship program. The internship didn’t pay, however, so Gardner and his son, Chris Jr., lived in San Francisco’s drug-addled Tenderloin District, homeless, while he completed the program. Gardner went on to land a job with Bear Stearns and, after a four-year tenure, launched his own institutional securities brokerage, Gardner Rich LLC. Now made famous by the movie featuring his story, Gardner is a media figure and motivational speaker, and remains the CEO of Gardner Rich.

By Drea Knufken

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