10 Self-Made American Entrepreneurs

Generation after generation, the tale of the self-made entrepreneur has echoed through American history, bringing inspiration and hope to individuals that weren’t born into the life of the rich and famous.

Considered household names, these ten self-made entrepreneurs worked their way up from the bottom to become leaders of American industry. Here’s how each of them got their start.

1) Walt Disney (Walt Disney Co.) - Prior to building a global empire of family-oriented films, theme parks, resorts, and Goofy t-shirts, the man behind the famous mouse ears was just a young boy with a knack for doodling. A high school dropout at 16, Disney served in World War I as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross before he discovered his passion for animation at a small ad company in Kansas City.

2) Amedeo Obici (Planters Peanuts Company) - At age 11, Obici immigrated to Pennsylvania where he worked as a bellhop and fruit stand vendor. Before making his fortune, Obici began with a peanut roaster, horse, and wagon and peddled his goods under the identity of “The Peanut Specialist.” Today, the company mascot, Mr. Peanut, is still one of the most memorable marketing characters around.

3) Bill Gates (Microsoft Corp.) – Originally working out of his garage, the self-made billionaire turned a fledgling tech company into a powerhouse that touches every corner of the globe.  Today, Gates spends the majority of his time focusing on philanthropy work through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

4) Conrad Hilton (Hilton Hotels) – Nearly losing everything during the Great Depression, Hilton’s unbreakable entrepreneur spirit led him to create the first international chain of hotels. Now, his great-granddaughter Paris  ensures that the family name remains well-known (in tabloids, that is).

5) Andrew Carnegie (U.S. Steel) – A Scottish immigrant, Carnegie worked his way up from the factory floor, emerging as one of the wealthiest self-made entrepreneurs the nation has ever known. A leader in the steel industry, he devoted much of his wealth to philanthropy and public education.

6) Henry Ford (Ford Motor Co.) – Discontent with life on the family farm, Ford brought the automobile to the masses with the introduction of the Model T in 1908. At the same time, he revolutionized the manufacturing industry of the nation, using the assembly line for mass production.

7) Dolly Parton (The Dollywood Co.) - Known as the Queen of Country Music, Parton grew up with 11 siblings in a cramped one-room cabin, deep in the Appalachian Mountains. With her music earnings, she became a self-made entrepreneur, venturing into theme parks, dinner theaters, and a film and television production company.

8) Steve Jobs (Apple Inc.) – Credited with helping to develop and market the first popular line of personal computers in the 1980s, Steve Jobs spent many nights of his life sleeping on floors and scavenging for recyclables that he could trade in for food. Today, it’s impossible to walk the streets without noticing someone with an iPhone or iPod glued to their hand.

9) Sean Combs (Bad Boy Entertainment) – With as many nicknames (P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, etc.) as business ventures, Combs used his streetwise background from Harlem, NY to his advantage, becoming a self-made entrepreneur with interests in the music, television, and clothing industries.

10) Oprah Winfrey (OWN, O Magazine) – Born to a single teenage mother in rural Mississippi, Oprah beat the odds, escaping a life of poverty to become one of the most recognized and adored personalities on the planet. A celebrated talk show host, actress, writer, producer, and most recently, a television network founder (OWN), Winfrey has proven that social background does not dictate the path to becoming a successful self-made American entrepreneur.

Which self-made entrepreneurs inspire you?

Bill Gates photo by OnInnovation, via Flickr Creative Commons

About Joe Greek

Joe Greek grew up in a family of small business owners in Tennessee. As nature dictated, he found himself writing for business and economic publications, including The Business Journal of Southern Kentucky and The Cumberland Business Journal.
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