What does it take to get to the top in business? What better way to find out than to look at some of the people who have achieved it? These 10 people all found different routes to the top, and several of them are now focused on helping others to follow in their footsteps.
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Taiwan-born Steve Chen moved to the US as a child and grew up in Illinois, where he pursued his passion for computers, with impressive insight into their potential. He worked at PayPal and Facebook before founding YouTube with partners Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim. Overseeing its technological development, he was instrumental in persuading investors of the potential of the site, and managed the technical challenges underlying its expansion. After selling it to Google, he moved on to develop a hedge fund that introduced AI to the world of investment.
Janice Bryant Howroyd
The first African American woman to build up a company worth more than $1bn, Janice Bryant Howroyd began her career as a secretary at Billboard magazine and used the opportunity to make valuable contacts. She launched the ActOne Group with just $1,000 and quickly built up a strong client base by paying attention to the specifics of clients’ needs, turning it into one of the largest personnel companies operating in the US today. Recognizing the importance of adequate starting capital and support for the majority of start-ups, she works on assisting and mentoring the next generation of business leaders.
Raised in the projects, where she often went hungry, Cathy Hughes lied about her age in order to get a job at just 14 and relentlessly pursued an education, which she managed to fit around an early pregnancy. She worked her way up through radio before buying her own station, Urban One. Although divorce and massive debts left her homeless and she had to spend some time living in the station itself, she devoted herself to building up her company. It is now one of the largest broadcasters in the world, with 55 stations and a cable network.
Beginning his career as a humble retail associate at Macy’s, working on the shop floor, Jeffrey Gennette showed a natural flair for organization and an intuitive understanding of customer needs, which saw him quickly promoted. Committing himself to the company’s success, he worked his way up through store operations and merchandising to become its president in 2003, and then its CEO. His outstanding talent lies in his ability to identify the relationship between impending social changes and changes in business culture, enabling him to keep the $7bn company one step ahead.
A graduate of Duke University and Stanford, Deborah Liu (known as Deb) may have started out with advantages in life, but the scale of her achievement is still awe-inspiring. She spent several years at Facebook, a fitting choice given her particular talent for bringing together people and organizations – she would go on to lead the integration of services between eBay and PayPal, recognizing the value of a smooth customer experience. She is now CEO of the world’s largest genealogy company, Ancestry.com, and she also supports start-ups with advice and seed funding.
Making it to the top is a bigger challenge for some people than for others. Due to his dyslexia and ADHD, Paul Orfalea never learned to read properly, but he became an expert at memorizing useful information, made his way to university anyway, and founded Kinko’s with a $5,000 loan. As the business expanded, he chose to set up new outlets as partnerships rather than franchises and developed a stellar reputation for looking after his employees, ensuring loyalty and commitment. He sold the business to FedEx in 2004 (it became FedEx Office) and set up a foundation to help other young neurodivergent people.
Born into a poor rural family, with seven siblings, Beth Ford made just $2 an hour at her first job, but went on to pay her own way through college. She built a career in supply chain management, working at ExxonMobil and Pepsi before joining the agricultural cooperative Land O’Lakes, where she spent seven years working her way up to become its president and CEO. Dedicated to helping small farming communities cope with climate change, she has always focused on innovation and the implementation of new technologies, as well as lobbying for an expansion of broadband services to help them connect.
The son of an insurance salesman, Jeffrey Sprecher graduated with an excellent set of contacts and immediately set about using them, securing a position with Western Power Group just in time to take advantage of energy market deregulation and demonstrate what he was capable of. He founded Intercontinental Exchange to facilitate international energy trading and managed to keep it running despite stiff competition from Enron, until the latter company collapsed, freeing up space for it to expand into a dominant player in the sector.
David W. Anderson
Growing up on an Ojibwa reservation and getting below-average grades at school, David W. Anderson nevertheless knew that he was destined for great things. He found his path through his love of food, opening barbecue restaurant Famous Dave’s in Hayward, Wisconsin. After it won multiple awards and expanded into a nationwide chair, he took time out to serve in government under George W. Bush and open another chain, before returning, when the company was struggling, to make it a success all over again.
Great leaders help others to follow in their footsteps. Izzy Obeng studied politics at the University of Bristol before moving on to Cambridge to qualify in coaching. She worked her way up through banking and investment before launching her own company, Foundervine, which sets up accelerator programs for small British businesses run by people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It focuses on building capacity, teaching vital skills and providing financial support where necessary, with a view to increasing their capacity to do social good.
What these examples show us is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are – if you have the drive to succeed and you’re willing to put in the work, then the sky’s the limit.
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