10 People Living the American Dream

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Times may be tough, but the "American Dream" is alive and well.

The idea that hard work and perseverance can pay off is embedded into the American psyche and a cause for celebration.

The following are 10 people whose poor, mundane or troubled pasts didn't hold them back from becoming true American success stories, starting with:

John D. Rockefeller

One of six children, he was raised almost single-handedly by his devout Baptist mother while his father, a traveling salesman of questionable character, was on the road. It would later be learned that his father had a secret second wife.

Rockefeller is America's first business superstar, and that his rise to legendary status came after a impoverished childhood makes his story all the more legendary.

At 16, after helping support his family by taking on small jobs and even loaning his meager savings (with interest) to neighbors, Rockefeller was hired as a bookkeeper by a produce company. His analytical skills and adeptness at number-crunching led to a variety of other ventures.

The skills honed during these days served Rockefeller well as he and a brother entered the oil business. The firm they started would later become Standard Oil, perhaps the most successful U.S. company in history due to its monopoly on the nation's oil refining and distribution. At the time of his death, Rockefeller's personal net worth accounted for nearly 10% of the nation's GDP, a metric that places him as one of the wealthiest men ever.

Andrew Carnegie

The titan of the industrial age made billions in the railroad and steel industries and holds a place in history as one of the nation's greatest philanthropists (Carnegie Hall is just a small part of his legacy) and the second-richest man of all time (behind John D. Rockefeller).

He rose to that wealth and stature after enduring an impoverished childhood that forced his jobless father to relocate his family to America amid tough times in his native Scotland.

As a young man, Carnegie worked to make ends meet as a messenger boy for a telegraph company and in a factory that made sewing machine bobbins.

It was in 1853 that Carnegie was hired by Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. as a secretary and telegraph operator, kicking his off gradual ascension to historic wealth. Earning just $4 a week, he rose, step by step, within the ranks of the company -- eventually put in a high-profile, lucrative post overseeing military transportation efforts during the Civil War.

Scott, serving as a mentor to the young man, helped introduce him to investment opportunities, the first of which was cobbled together when Carnegie's mother fronted their family home as collateral. Other modest investments in railroad companies followed. Success led to re-investing gains and, over time, Carnegie's holdings became substantial.

Oil speculation made Carnegie a millionaire on an initial $40,000 investment in an oil-rich property. Flush with cash, he turned his focus to the steel industry which, amid postwar rebuilding efforts and the escalating pace of industrialization, multiplied his wealth greatly.

He was later a key player in the merger of several steel companies to create United States Steel, the first corporation to have a market cap of more than $1 billion.

At the time of his death in 1919, Carnegie had given away more than $4 billion of his fortune to charity.

Oprah Winfrey

The queen of daytime TV, who abdicated her role this year to pursue opportunities with her OWN cable network, was born out of wedlock. Her teenage parents separated after the birth, leaving Oprah to be raised by her grandmother. A rebellious teen -- prone to running away and stealing -- she would later spend time with both parents, bounced between Wisconsin and Tennessee.

Beyond poverty, Winfrey faced other hardships. She claims to have been molested repeatedly by family members as early as the age of 9. As a 14-year-old, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son who died shortly thereafter.

Broadcast and media training in high school led her on the path to success. By the age of 19 she was co-anchoring a local newscast. Other TV jobs followed, leading to her hosting a daytime talk show in Chicago. Over time that popular show was syndicated -- aided and encouraged by Chicago area film critic Roger Ebert -- laying the foundation for phenomenal success.

Adding actor, author, magazine publisher, theater producer and philanthropist to her lengthy resume, Winfrey's has amassed personal wealth of nearly $3 billion.

Ursula Burns

The CEO of Xerox (XRX) faced numerous struggles to arrive atop that company.

Raised by a single mother -- a Panamanian immigrant -- in a New York City housing project, she attended parochial school and discovered an aptitude for math and figures. While she was pointed by teachers toward a traditional woman's career such as nursing, she made another calculation: What high-paying work was available with the degree she knew she could get in math or science? She attended Polytechnic Institute of New York and Columbia University with that in mind.

Her career at Xerox started with a summer internship in 1980. A decade later, her hard work caught the eye of a senior executive who offered her the position of assistant. Climbing the ladder, she would later take on the same role for then CEO Paul Allaire.

In 1999, she was named vice president for global manufacturing and, in 2000, senior vice president of corporate strategic services, heading up manufacturing and supply chain operations. She then took on a broader role leading Xerox's global research and product development, marketing and delivery.

In April 2007, Burns was named president of Xerox and elected a member of the company's board of directors. She was named chief executive in July 2009 and assumed the role of chairwoman of the company last year.

John Paul Dejoria

Dejoria sold newspapers as a young boy to support his struggling family, which was headed by a single mother, but poverty forced him into the care of a foster home in East Los Angeles anyway.

Things did not seem to be going in the right direction: He ran with a street gang during school, and joining the U.S. Navy after graduation didn't seem to put him on path to success. When dental school didn't work out, because he lacked tuition money, he went into sales, trying encyclopedias, copying machines, insurance, medical linens and ad space. Finally: hair care products at Redken Laboratories in 1971 and two other beauty companies, earning well but stymied in terms of professional advancement.

In 1980, Dejoria brashly decided to start a Redken competitor. With a mere $700 in loaned money, he partnered with long-time industry acquaintance hairdresser Paul Mitchell and founded the hair care product company John Paul Mitchell Systems. The business, for which he serves as CEO, draws roughly $900 million in revenue a year.

Dejora has expanded into other avenues as well, including tequila giant Patron, and is a founding partner of the House of Blues nightclub chain.


Like many rappers, Jay-Z -- real name Shawn Corey Carter -- rose to success from a hardscrabble upbringing.

Raised in a Brooklyn housing project, his local notoriety as a freestyle rapper gained enough of a following that he decided to try his hand at a professional recording. Rejected by major labels, however, he and two partners founded the independent label Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995.

In 2004, Jay-Z was named president of Def Jam Records and, after disputes led his initial partners to sell their interest, he took sole control of Roc-A-Fella Records. A multimillion-dollar deal with Live Nation (LYV) led him to step away from Def Jam in 2009.

Other entrepreneurial efforts -- among them a clothing line, chain of sports bars, branding position with Budweiser (BUD) and part ownership of the NBA's New Jersey Nets -- have solidified his success in business as well as hip-hop. The ventures have paid off greatly over the years, and Forbes has estimated that the rapper is worth $450 million, with another $50 million in the pipeline due to his savvy decision to retain possession and sole rights to his catalog's master tapes.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Body Builder. Action hero. Governor. Adulterer.

Say what you will about Schwarzenegger and his many incarnations, there's no denying that he rose to worldwide fame from very humble beginnings -- that he went from 'roids to riches.

Born in a small Austrian village, the future Terminator star had a rough childhood, including claims of physical abuse by his father. He had set moving to America as a goal and, as a competitive bodybuilder, had the chance to make that move in 1968.

His success as a muscled poser led to endorsement deals, a book for would-be bodybuilders and being featured in an influential documentary about the sport, Pumping Iron. Bit movie parts followed, with a big break coming in the lead role of 1982's Conan the Barbarian. Even greater success came with the 1994 release of The Terminator. A steady slate of action and comedy films, many of them huge hits, followed.

In 2003, Schwarzenegger was elected through a recall election as governor of California and later was re-elected to a final term that expired in January.

Estimates of his net worth are all over the place, from $100 million (the San Francisco Chronicle) to $300 million (celebritynetworth.com) to $3 billion (dubious biographer Hans Janitschek in equally dubious reports in the New York Post and newsmax.com), but whatever money he has, count on it being cut neatly in half when he divorces Maria Shriver after fathering a child with a house cleaner.

Michael Oher

An offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, Oher's early life was chronicled in the hit Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side, based on Michael Lewis' best-selling book of the same name.

Born in Memphis to a family of 12, Oher's mother was a crack cocaine addict and his father was in and out of prison. His early life alternated between homelessness and foster homes.

In 2004, while a student at Briarcrest Christian School in Mephis, he was invited into the home of Leigh and Sean Tuohy -- parents of two of Oher's classmates -- and they later legally adopted him. Their support helped the young man parlay his football skills into a scholarship at the University of Mississippi.

A standout player in college, he was drafted by the Ravens in the first round of the NFL's 2009 draft.

Chris Gardner

His life story dramatically retold in the Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Gardner was raised by a single mother but forced from his home as a young man as a result of her bad relationship with an abusive boyfriend. At one point he was placed in a foster home after his mother was arrested and convicted of trying to kill her boyfriend by setting fire to his house.

Later Gardner joined the Navy and, working as a medical supply salesman, married and had a child.

Fatefully, after seeing a well-dressed man in a sporty Ferrari, Gardner asked what he did for a living. The man, Bob Bridges, answered that he was a stockbroker and offered to help Gardner with interviews for training programs at some of New York's largest brokerage houses.

He was accepted into a training program at E.F. Hutton, but his spate of bad luck returned quickly. The man who hired him was fired and the program was no longer open to him. Soon thereafter, he was arrested and had to spend a brief stint in jail for having amassed $1,200 in parking tickets. He returned home to discover that his wife had left him.

Gardner was able to earn a position in the training program at Dean Witter Reynolds, pass the licensing exam and be offered a position by Bear Stearns in San Francisco. But he was still destitute and homeless, forced to work the job by day and at night, after getting his son from day care, search for a hot meal and safe place to sleep. He later was admitted to a homeless shelter and, throughout the ordeal, never let on to his co-workers that his personal life was in such dire straits.

Hard work eventually paid off. Gardner was able to finally provide for himself and his son and growing success led to the formation of his own firm, Gardner Rich & Co., in Chicago. (Started with a mere $10,000 in seed money, it was run out of his apartment.) The firm grew, was later sold in a multimillion-dollar deal, and Gardner went on to be CEO of a new venture, Christopher Gardner International Holdings.

In talking about the man he learned to portray in The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith said it: "Chris represents the American Dream."

Tyler Perry

With the regularity of an alarm clock, writer-actor-director Tyler Perry has churned out movies and television shows boasting his name above the title.

Among the most successful African-American filmmakers of all time, Perry's road to being a media mogul was far from smooth.

Born in New Orleans, Perry has described being beaten by an abusive father and molestation at the hands of various men and a female friend of his mother.

Never finishing high school (he earned a GED), Perry credits a motivational segment on Oprah Winfrey's show for inspiring him to take up writing. The result, a journal that was adapted into a stage musical, I Know I've Been Changed. Perry financed a live production at a church community center with his life savings. Its success led him to tour an urban theater circuit with it and other plays. Over the course of 15 years, ticket and merchandise sales netted him close to $150 million.

Stage success led to movies, and the $5.5 million budget that backed Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the film debut of his popular Madea character, netted a domestic gross of more than $50 million. Subsequent movies have, for the most part, had similar success and two sitcoms bearing his name are in heavy rotation on the TBS cable network. Perry's success and hands-on approach led him to build his own studio and soundstage in Atlanta.

Critics may not speak highly of the work he produces, but no one can begrudge Perry his success.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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