The 5 best rags to riches stories in business

The men and women who've come from nothing and make it work against all the odds

The entrepreneurial mind: some have it, some don’t. It takes a certain type of person to put everything on the line to follow a pipe dream. That person is gutsy, and not afraid to go against the grain. But one of the biggest misconceptions about the ones that make it big is that they were handed everything on a silver platter, that life has been easy for them because they come from money. We’re here to throw that theory out of the window with some of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in business.

The Times

Although Green has found himself a little unwanted attention in recent times with the collapse of BHS, no one can deny that this is a smart and gutsy businessman with a mission to succeed. He may now be a self-made billionaire, worth somewhere in the region of $6.2 billion, but that wasn’t always the way.

Having left school at the age of 15, Green began importing jeans from the Far East that no one in England could get hold of, and subsequently sold them onto British high street retailers. With only £20,000 in the bank to begin with, his simple idea started working, and he began to make a name for himself as ‘the king of the high street’. He acquired Arcadia back in 2002, and the rest is (a slightly rocky) history.

Winfrey is one of those rare celebrities who are genuinely good in business, but she had about as tough a childhood as it gets. Born into severe poverty to a single teenage mother in rural Mississippi, she was later moved to an inner-city Milwaukee neighbourhood. She was brutally raped twice at the ages of 9 and 14, and was physically and emotionally abused for years. She fell pregnant after she was raped, but her son died a newborn.

After landing a job at the local radio aged 14, Winfrey finally found her calling. In 1983, she moved to Chicago to host a morning talk show, AM Chicago, and instantly rose to fame. The public loved her, and in 1986, just three years later, she broadcasted the first episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. She’s now one of the most famous faces in America, and worth an estimated $3.1 billion.

Evening Standard

Being slightly ahead of the grain is one thing that every entrepreneur needs to have – to realise when a trend is a trend, and when to latch onto something for dear life. And that’s exactly that Charles Dunstone did in 1989 when he began selling mobiles out of his flat in Marylebone, London. Phones then weren’t as they are now; they were bulky and huge, and relatively difficult for small businesses and individuals to get hold of.

Dunstone, with what was said to be £6,000 in his pocket, saw a huge gap in the market and predicted that in the future, everyone and their mothers might just want to have easy access to a mobile phone. His living room grew into a shop, which grew into more shops, and today Carphone Warehouse makes approximately £10 million a year, and Dunstone is worth an estimated £2.5 billion.

Perhaps one of the most famous rags-to-riches business stories comes in the form of Richard Branson, the world’s most celebrated entrepreneur. A little-known fact about this refreshingly-candid mogul is that he was bankrupted twice before he actually started to make money.

Having done poorly in school, at just 16, Branson dropped out and started his first magazine. Shortly afterwards, he set up a mail-order business selling records, which then moved swiftly into him opening stores – with just £300 in his bank account. In 1971, he was arrested and charged for selling records in his stores that had already been declared export stock. As it was so early in his business days, there was no way Branson could repay the debts and the charges led to his mother having to remortgage the family home.

Several years and countless successful businesses later, Branson is now one of the most lauded British entrepreneurs ever, worth an estimated $5.5 billion.

After he left school aged 16, sport was always in the pipeline for Ashley. A keen eye for squash led to him reaching national standard; however, injury took that dream away from him and he was left out in the cold, with no cash, but a strong business mind.

In 1982, Ashley opened his first Sport & Ski shop in Maidenhead, and its success was shortly followed by more stores opening up in London with a £10,000 loan from his family. Private money kept the brand afloat, and in 1990, Ashley rebranded to Sports Soccer and opened 100 stores across the country, with the company getting its trademark in 1999.

Ashley, though, has reportedly made most of his fortune through buying sports brands. He owns Donnay, Karrimor and Kangol, to name a few. Most notable, perhaps, is Dunlop Slazenger, which he bought for £40 million. Ashley is now one of the most powerful people in British business, worth an estimated £6.6 billion.

Thinking of setting up a business? Find some time to listen to some of the best podcasts for entrepreneurs.

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