From Rags to Riches: 15 Best Success Stories to Inspire You

Anything is possible with hard work, determination and a little luck!

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Celebrity success stories - Photos of Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Celine Dion, Michael Jordan and Richard Branson

For many people, stories about success can be truly motivational. Indeed, reading about someone’s journey, the hardships they overcame and how they eventually achieved success can become the sort of examples that encourage us to persist in achieving our own goals.

So, if you’re looking for some inspiration, you’re in the right place.

These 15 amazing success stories of famous entrepreneurs, writers and creators will become a source of endless inspiration for you.

Prefer video? Watch these celeb stories to see how they went from rags to riches!

1. Oprah Winfrey

One of America’s most powerful women, Oprah Winfrey had to overcome a myriad of obstacles throughout her life. Growing up in a broken home, Winfrey lived in poverty and endured sexual abuse from male family members for many years. But after moving in with her father, she managed to overcome this trauma and went on to become an honors student with a full scholarship ride to college.

Her career took off while she was still in her sophomore year, working for CBS in Nashville as a news anchor. This was merely the beginning of Winfrey’s successful career, as she climbed her way up the television industry and became America’s favorite TV persona.

Today, she is the founder and CEO of Harpo Productions, a multimedia production company, as well as a best-selling author and philanthropist, all while maintaining her rein on daytime television.

2. JK Rowling

The way the story goes, JK Rowling first conceived the idea about a young wizard on a delayed train travelling to King’s Cross Station in London. She scribbled her thoughts on pieces of scrap paper, gradually developing the story while raising her daughter as an unemployed single mother living on welfare benefits. Five years later, her finished manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12 publishers before finally getting picked up by Bloomsbury Publishing.

The Harry Potter series went on to shape an entire generation of children, selling over 500 million copies worldwide, and made Rowling the first billionaire author in the world. A title, however, which she gave up after donating a large sum of her fortune to charitable organizations.

3. Stephen King

The master of horror has penned over 90 stories throughout his career, most of which have been a definitive success. But the going wasn’t always easy for King.

Raising a family with his wife Tabitha, who is also a writer, the pair could barely make ends meet. When he wasn’t working as a teacher, King worked odd jobs at a laundromat, and as a gas station attendant and a janitor to keep a roof over his family’s heads.

His first novel Carrie, which tells the story of a troubled teen with telekinetic powers, was rejected 30 times before finally getting published, eventually becoming one of the best-selling novels of all time.

4. Michael Jordan

The NBA star is dubbed as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But back in high school, Jordan struggled to showcase his abilities, as he couldn’t make the cut for the varsity team, all because of his height. While this was a demoralizing experience for him, it also pushed him to train even harder than before.

It goes without saying that his determination paid off, as two years later he would join the All-American High School Team. Two Olympic medals, six NBA Championships and fourteen MVP awards later, Michael Jordan’s impeccable work ethic and love for the sport led him down the road of success.

5. Anita Roddick

The late founder of The Body Shop could never have predicted the success that her business would bring. Indeed, when Roddick founded The Body Shop, she had a simple plan: to sell cruelty-free cosmetics made from natural ingredients.

Soon after opening the doors to her first store in 1976, its vast popularity led to numerous franchises, resulting in over 700 global stores by 1991.

Thanks to Roddick’s unique vision, The Body Shop became the forefront for ethical consumerism, becoming one of the first businesses to shun animal-tested ingredients and promote fair-trade products. Roddick also used her booming business to support and advocate several environmental and social causes, often working with organizations such as Greenpeace.

6. Sara Blakely

From a young age, Sara Blakely wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. But despite her best efforts and raw ambition, she failed the LSAT exam twice, getting an even lower grade the second time around. Feeling defeated, she got a job at Disney World and eventually moved back home with her mother.

Blakely spent the next seven years selling fax machines before she had her “Eureka!” moment. After cutting off the feet of her pantyhose to fit into a pair of white jeans, she saw a new product opportunity. But even after developing the first Spanx prototype, it took months for her to find a manufacturer willing to take on the project.

Fast forward to today, Blakely has established herself as a powerful entrepreneur who built a multibillion-dollar shapewear company based on a simple idea.

7. Eric Yuan

Born in China's Shandong Province, Eric Yuan would often make a 10-hour journey to visit his girlfriend (now wife) as a college student. Wondering about alternate ways of communication, it was during one of those train rides that he conceived the initial idea that became the backbone of Zoom.

Determined to work in Silicon Valley, he chased his dreams to the US, but it took Yuan eight failed attempts before being granted his visa. There, he worked for WebEx, one of the first videocall products on the market. After WebEx was acquired by Cisco, Yuan continued to work on developing the video tool, but he later made the decision to leave the company and pursue his own aspirations.

Yuan’s determination to build a product that would be both fun and accessible to its users soon paid off, leading to the creation of Zoom, which is now worth billions.

8. Sidney Poitier

Born in Florida to Bahamian parents, Sidney Poitier grew up in poverty and received little education as a child. After spending most of his childhood in the Bahamas, he moved back to Florida when he was 15 in search for a job. A year later, he moved to New York City, where he worked odd jobs before enlisting in the army.

Following his brief stint in the military medical unit, he applied to the North American Negro Theater, where the casting director told Poitier: “Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?”.

Despite the harsh critique, Poitier spent six months honing his craft and finally had a breakthrough, starring as a lead in a Broadway musical. Soon enough, he became the first Black male artist to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Throughout his career, Poitier redefined the industry by refusing to play parts that were based on racial stereotypes. He received numerous accolades, as well as six Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. Following his passing in January 2022, he has left behind an important legacy and is regarded as one of the most distinguished actors and directors of his time, having led the way for other African American artists.

9. James Dyson

As Britain’s richest man, James Dyson has taken the world by storm with his inventions. However, his schooling is not what you’d expect from a world-renowned inventor. Indeed, Dyson was inclined towards the arts as a student and studied furniture design at the Royal College of Art in London.

But his career path would take a turn one day after becoming frustrated with his home vacuum. After breaking it apart and identifying a design flaw in the product, Dyson set out to create what would become a market-changing invention: the first bagless vacuum cleaner.

It took him 5 years and 5,126 failed prototypes before he made one that worked. But after being unable to find a manufacturer that would produce it, Dyson put his house on the line to become a manufacturer himself. Even then, getting sellers and shops to stock his vacuum cleaner was a struggle, and being a one-man operation, he acted as the sole designer, engineer, manufacturer and salesperson of his product.

Although it took a while for his invention to get any attention from consumers, once it did, it inevitably became a billion-dollar idea that set the foundations for Dyson’s empire.

10. George Soros

After surviving the Nazi occupation in Hungary, hedge fund tycoon George Soros moved to the UK following the end of World War II. There, he worked odd jobs to make ends meet while studying at the London School of Economics, where he earned both his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees.

After moving to New York City, Soros begun working as an arbitrage trader, making his way through different brokerage firms. Nearly two decades later, he launched his own hedge fund, Soros Fund Management. One of his most notable achievements in his career took place in 1992, after he made a profit of $1 billion in a single day, earning him the title of “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England”.

But despite his world-renowned reputation as an investor, Soros has placed a huge emphasis on his charity work, having donated over $32 billion to support philanthropic causes around the world.

11. Dolly Parton

The Queen of Country music comes from humble beginnings.

The fourth of twelve children, Dolly Parton grew up in rural Tennessee in a one-room cabin, where she would share a bed with three to four of her siblings. Despite her family’s financial struggles, Parton has credited her success to her parents’ endless love and support as well as their musical influence. Her mother, Avie Lee Owens, was a singer and guitar player who often entertained her children with her talents, and her father, Robert Lee Parton, also played the banjo and guitar.

She wrote her first song when she was five years old and, two years later, using an old mandolin and two guitar strings, she made her first guitar. Her uncle, Bill Owens, helped her launch her career, landing her first gig on The Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour in Knoxville when she was just 10 years old.

Today, Parton has established herself as a country music legend, a showbiz icon and a multimillionaire using her resources for good.

Throughout her career, Parton has been a passionate philanthropist, supporting numerous causes from childhood literacy to environmental conservation. Her nonprofit organization The Dollywood Foundation, established in 1988 with the objective of offering scholarships to high school students, was transformed into the Imagination Library in 1995, a program that sends free books to children around the world.

12. Do Won Chang

The man behind Forever 21 faced numerous struggles before launching the international fast fashion company.

Do Won Chang immigrated to the US from South Korea when he was 27 years old.  For three years, he juggled three jobs as a gas station worker, janitor and coffee shop employee, before opening a 900-square-foot shop named Forever 21 in Highland Park, Los Angeles with his wife Jin Sook.

The shop’s success was almost instant, achieving $700,000 in revenue the first year alone. This prompted the couple to expand their business by opening a new store every six months. Forever 21’s revenue peaked in 2015, reaching an estimated $4.4 billion.

While the company enjoyed great success, its rapid expansion led in its filing for bankruptcy protection in 2019. Despite this, Chang and his wife had a combined $3 billion net worth during the same year.

13. Céline Dion

The legendary Céline Dion is the youngest of 14 siblings. While growing up in Quebec, Canada, her family often struggled financially, living in an overcrowded house. In an interview with CBS News, the singer said that she slept in the same bed with three or four of her siblings: “I did not have a bedroom. Up the stairs, before going in the bedrooms, there was a little ramp. And my bed was there. So, everybody went up, they saw me, and I could wave goodbye and goodnight”.

Despite her family’s financial shortcomings, the Queen of Las Vegas told Vanity Fair that she and her siblings were never short of love and affection: “We were safe and warm and taken care of”.

Being part of a musical family led to Dion performing in small local events before being discovered by René Angélil at the age of 12, who helped her break into the music industry. From there on, she went on to win numerous awards, release record-breaking albums, singles and number-one hits, and claim the title of Queen of Pop.

14. Halle Berry

Born and raised in Ohio, Halle Berry grew up in a broken household — her father was often abusive to her mother who, following their divorce, raised her children as a single mom.

During her time in high school, she was a cheerleader, an honor student, editor of the school newspaper, and prom queen. She also entered numerous beauty pageants, and was the first African-American Miss World entrant in 1986, where she placed in sixth place.

Berry eventually moved to New York City to pursue an acting career but, as a starving artist, faced homelessness and slept in a shelter for short periods of time. Eventually, she relocated to Los Angeles, where her career really took off, earning her worldwide recognition and becoming one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood during the 2000s.

15. Steve Jobs

Apple’s founder Steve Jobs was given up for adoption by his biological parents. He was then adopted by Clara and Paul Jobs.

As a high school student, Jobs was a known troublemaker, but thanks to his fourth-grade teacher Imogene Teddy Hill, he soon flourished academically and even skipped a grade. However, the intense bullying he faced by his classmates led to his family transferring him to a new school.

Although he was admitted to Reed College, his parents’ financial struggles led to him dropping out and pursuing part-time courses. During this time, Jobs would crash on different friends’ sofas and use tactics like returning empty Coke bottles to get enough money for food.

Despite his circumstances, he persevered, driven by his curiosity and passion for learning. In 1978, he founded Apple Inc with Steve Wozniak, and two years later, at 23 years old, he hit a $1 million net worth. The rest is history.

Final thoughts

So, what is the secret to success? Sheer determination, ambition and willpower to see your goals to fruition! Of course, that’s easier said than done and, as these stories convey, there will always be obstacles in the way.

But for many of these inspiring individuals, failure was not the endgame; it was merely a part of their journey to success.

What other success stories have inspired you? Share them with us at the comments section below!

Originally published on December 5, 2018.