The Most Powerful Entrepreneurs in Modern History Started Out Just Like Us

Entrepreneurs are not only people who build massively successful companies, but they are responsible for creating new ideas and products that have crafted and curated the world we live in today. The entrepreneurial spirit is one that has pushed the last two decades to the limit and has impacted just about every aspect of our lives, from technology to entertainment. We know the products and services that the major entrepreneurs of our time have created intimately, but many of us don’t know the personal details of the people that have shaped and transformed our worlds so dramatically.

The start of 2020 represents a brand-new chapter, and with each new year comes new stories of entrepreneurialism that will engage and inspire millions across the country. Here, we take a closer look at the stories of some of the most impressive entrepreneurial figures in modern history:

JEFF BEZOS – FOUNDER, AMAZON

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1964, Bezos studied computer science and electrical engineering at Princeton. After graduating, he made his way to Wall Street and, while still in his 20s, became a senior vice president at D.E. Shaw. Four years later, in 1994, he quit to start Amazon. Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler have called Bezos an “exponential entrepreneur”—his business rapidly expands each year.

ELON MUSK – FOUNDER, SPACEX; COFOUNDER, TESLA; CHAIRMAN, SOLARCITY

Musk was born in South Africa in 1971 and grew up reading science fiction—a preference that would inform his worldview and career. After moving to the U.S., he made a series of smart decisions and became a millionaire in his 20s: He created the online city guide Zip2, which was purchased by Compaq in 1999 for $307 million, and X.com, an online payments site that became PayPal and was acquired by Ebay for $1.5 billion. He founded private rocket company SpaceX in 2002 and electric car company Tesla Motors in 2003.

SARA BLAKELY – FOUNDER, SPANX

The creator of Spanx was born in 1971 and grew up in Clearwater, Fla. Blakely scored too low on the LSAT to follow her dream of becoming a lawyer, but after selling fax machines door to door, she realised her talent as a salesperson. At age 27, Blakely recognised the need for Spanx, and so invented them using scissors and a pair of pantyhose. Her big break came when Oprah Winfrey listed Spanx as one her “favourite things.”

STEVE JOBS – COFOUNDER, APPLE

Born in San Francisco in 1955, Jobs started Apple Computers with Steve Wozniak in 1976. A decade later, the two parted ways when Jobs left the company, but he returned in 1997 to turn it around—and he changed our relationship with tech and the internet with the creation of the iPhone and iPad. He died in 2011 following a battle with pancreatic cancer.

TRAVIS KALANICK – COFOUNDER, UBER

In classic Silicon Valley fashion, Kalanick dropped out of UCLA in 1998 to work on a tech idea. But his Napster-like file-sharing company, Scour, got him sued for a quarter of a trillion dollars in 2000, and he filed for bankruptcy. His next company, Red Swoosh, another file-sharing firm, sold for $19 million in 2007. He came up with the idea for Uber in a conversation with Garrett Camp, cofounder of StumbleUpon. The two imagined it as a “timeshare for limousines.”

NATALIE MASSENET – FOUNDER, NET-A-PORTER

Born in Los Angeles in 1965, Massenet was a writer for Women’s Wear Daily then moved on to Tatler before going out on her own in 1998 to set up Net-a-Porter, the world’s first website for purchasing designer clothes. It launched in 2000. She is also head of the British Fashion Council, a group that evangelises British designers around the world.

BRIAN CHESKY – COFOUNDER, AIRBNB

Founded in 2008, Airbnb now has more than 40 million users. It started when Chesky and his roommate, Joe Gebbia, then broke art school graduates, decided to rent out floor space in their apartment. They eventually launched a website to allow others to do the same. The site graduated from the Y Combinator start-up incubator and got its first round of venture capital funding in 2010.

BILL GATES – COFOUNDER, MICROSOFT

Gates has jostled for first place on the list of the richest people in the world for decades, and, most of the time, he’s come out on top. Born in Seattle in 1955, Gates cofounded Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975. The company revolutionised the world in a few short years by making computer technology massively accessible to ordinary people.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON – FOUNDER, THE HUFFINGTON POST

Born in Greece in 1950, Arianna Stasinopoúlou studied at Cambridge, where she headed the debate club the Cambridge Union. After graduating and writing in London, she moved to America where, in 1986, she married Ronald Reagan’s deputy assistant secretary of defence, Michael Huffington. The two divorced in 1997. Known for her conservative views, she became more liberal through the ’90s. In 2005 she founded the Huffington Post as a progressive answer to the conservative Drudge Report. AOL bought HuffPo in 2011 for $315 million.

SHAWN CARTER – FOUNDER, ROC-A-FELLA RECORDS

Carter, now known as Jay Z, was born in 1969 and grew up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects during some of New York’s roughest years. He didn’t release an album until age 26—relatively late for an aspiring rapper. To get his music to an audience, he founded his own label, Roc-A-Fella, and bought streaming music service Tidal for $56 million; in January 2017 Carter sold 33 percent of Tidal to Sprint for $200 million.

STEVE BLANK – AUTHOR, THE FOUR STEPS TO THE EPIPHANY

Serial entrepreneur Blank took four companies public, has a net worth estimated at around $2.5 billion and is considered the dean of Silicon Valley. Born in New York in 1953, he retired from a 21-year career in tech in 1999. Since then, he has made a business out of observing and processing developments in Silicon Valley and packaging those thoughts for eager would-be entrepreneurs to consume.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG – FOUNDER, BLOOMBERG LP

Born in 1942 in Boston, Bloomberg attended Johns Hopkins and earned a Harvard MBA in 1966. He moved to New York and joined Salomon Brothers, becoming a partner in 1972. Then, in 1981, he started Bloomberg LP, the company behind the eponymous Bloomberg Terminals, which revolutionised Wall Street by putting detailed financial information at traders’ fingertips. He left in 2002 to pursue a career in politics, serving three terms as mayor of New York before rejoining the company in 2014.

MARK BURNETT – PRODUCER, SURVIVOR, THE APPRENTICE, THE VOICE, SHARK TANK

As creator of programs including Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank and The Apprentice, Burnett has shaped pop culture through reality TV. After years as a British paratrooper, the London-born Burnett moved to California in 1982 and sold T-shirts on Venice Beach. His TV career took off with the premiere of Survivor in 2000. In 2015, he became the president of MGM Television.

The major entrepreneurs of companies that have transformed our world also offer personal perspectives and origin stories that are much like our own. They have faced rejection and failure in some capacity throughout their lives, but each prove that resilience is invaluable.

Brenda Berg

Brenda Berg is a professional writer with over 15 years experience in business management, marketing and entrepreneurship. Consultant and tutor for college students and entrepreneurs. She is passionate about covering topics on career, self-development, writing, blogging and others.

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