From Rags to Riches: 10 Best Success Stories to Inspire You

Illustration depicting a woman's evolution from an infant to a star walking on the red carpet

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

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, Oprah 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 to become an honours 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 Oprah’s successful career, as she climbed her way up the television industry and became America’s favourite 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. 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 organisations.

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 demoralising experience for him, it also pushed him to train even harder than before.

It goes without saying that his determination payed 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 organisations 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.

Learn all about self-made entrepreneurship with Sara Blakely here.

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 payed off, leading to the creation of Zoom, which is now worth over $48 billion (£37.9 billion).

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, Sidney Poitier became the first black male artist to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

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

9. James Dyson

Britain's richest man has taken the world by storm with his inventions. However, Dyson’s 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 salesman 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, the hedge fund tycoon moved to the UK following the end of the Second World War. 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 (£789 million) in a 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 (£25.3 billion) to support philanthropic causes around the world.

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!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 5 December 2018.