If you ever get discouraged and start feeling like your career is a constant work in progress and that you’ll never “arrive,” dive into how some of the world’s most successful people started out.
Not only did some of the thought leaders and history-makers of today come from very humble beginnings, but their diverse backgrounds prove that there is no single path to success.
Their stories show that you can overcome the odds — even when systemic issues are stacked against you — and make it big. Really big. The type of big that changes the world and paves the way forward for others. The type of big that brings profound career fulfillment.
Most importantly, learning about the journeys of highly successful people will also remind you that there is no such thing as arriving at your destination, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s about embracing the sometimes surprising twists and turns that your career throws at you and getting out of your comfort zone while continuously learning and growing.
Ready to get inspired? Here’s how the likes of media mogul Oprah Winfrey, inventor Kavita Shukla and founder Cesar R. Hernandez started their own roads to success.
1. Oprah Winfrey
Her grandmother, who raised her (Winfrey is the daughter of a teen mom), hoped that she would grow up to make a decent living as a domestic worker: “I just hope you get some good white folks when you grow up, treat you right, treat you nice,” she told her. Instead, Winfrey went on to become one of the wealthiest people in the world.
So how did she start her career? By winning a beauty pageant hosted by a local radio station. Someone noticed her intonation and asked her to read a news report on tape. She was so good at it they offered her a part-time job.
2. Marvin Ellison
Marvin Ellison is the CEO of retail giant Lowe’s. He has been spearheading a massive turnaround within the organization and been outspoken about the responsibility of leaders in today’s social climate.
But way before building such an impressive resume and experiencing a career turning point by becoming the CEO of JCPenney (his last role before Lowe’s), Ellison was a security guard at Target.
3. Tony Robbins
Tony Robbins, one of the world’s most prominent self-help gurus and coach to the stars, didn’t have it easy growing up. He left his abusive household at 17 and struggled to make ends meet while keeping his eyes on the prize: the billion-dollar empire he would one day create.
One of his first jobs was working as a janitor. “I used to work as a janitor and I picked that job not because I like janitoring but because I could do it literally from 10 to 2 in the morning,” Robbins told CNBC.
He made the best of it by listening to music while completing his tasks and using the flexibility that the job allowed for — he was paid for results and not by the hour — to feed his mind, learn and think.
3. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez
History-making Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has been vocal about her humble beginnings growing up in the Bronx. She lost her dad as a teenager, helped her mom clean homes to make a living and lived from paycheck to paycheck during most of her twenties.
She was introduced to the world of politics in college while interning for Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy’s office. After graduating from Boston University with a degree in economics and international relations, she worked at an educational non-profit while bartending on the side.
4. Kavita Shukla
Kavita Shukla is the CEO of Fenugreen, the company behind FreshPaper, a tech product that keeps fruits and veggies fresh for longer periods of time.
So how did this inventor start her career? Accidentally. At 13, she drank tap water at her grandmother’s home in India, which is highly unsafe. Her grandma gave her a homemade natural remedy made of herbs and spices, which Shukla ended up experimenting within a middle-school science project.
She discovered her grandmother’s concoction was actually a potent inhibitor for bacterial growth and went on to create her revolutionary product a few years later — she was only in high-school.
5. Cesar R. Hernandez
By the age of 21, Omni Public founder Cesar R. Hernandez had been arrested six times on wrongful charges. Growing up in South Brooklyn as a BIPOC, he experienced police brutality and poverty.
“I am persistent in my mission to prove that a BIPOC entrepreneur from Brooklyn, N.Y. can survive, make it out alive, and thrive. I am persistent because I am a catalyst for change and serve as an example to young BIPOC entrepreneurs that our future is not defined by statistics or our current environment, but instead by our ambitions,” he told Forbes.
Before creating the public affairs firm that now represents the likes of Tesla, Ford, HyperloopTT, Bird, Hernandez started his career working with youth. As a community organizer, he acted as a liaison between the University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC) and law enforcement.
6. Mark Cuban
Shark tank star and self-made billionaire Mark Cuban picked up a lot of his business sense working odd jobs as a teenager.
“I sold garbage bags door-to-door when I was 12 years old because my dad told me the only way I could get new basketball shoes was if I had a job,” he shared in a 2019 episode of GQ’s “Actually Me.”
From working as a box boy to laying carpet and slicing meat at a deli, Cuban was always eager to get his hands dirty and find clever ways to earn money. After years of trying different jobs and only finding satisfaction in entrepreneurial pursuits, he made it big by creating and selling his first computer consulting company for $6 million.