Some people know what they want to do from an early age and focus on it relentlessly.
Others reinvent themselves, changing careers and industries until they find something that works.
Billionaire Mark Cuban struggled when he first started, writing in “How To Win At The Sport Of Business“ that “when I got to Dallas, I was struggling — sleeping on the floor with six guys in a three-bedroom apartment.”
Martha Stewart was a stockbroker for the firm of Monness, Williams, and Sidel, the original Oppenheimer & Co.
Photo: Courtesy Martha Stewart
Before her name was known by every American household, Martha Stewart actually worked on Wall Street for five years as a stockbroker. Before that, she was a model, booking clients from Unilever to Chanel.
“There were very few women at the time on Wall Street … and people talked about this glass ceiling, which I never even thought about,” Stewart said in an interview with PBS’ MAKERS series. “I never considered myself an unequal and I think I got a very good education being a stockbroker.”
In 1972, Stewart left Wall Street to be a stay-at-home mom. A year later, she started a catering business.
Mark Cuban was a bartender in Dallas.
“When I got to Dallas, I was struggling — sleeping on the floor with six guys in a three-bedroom apartment,” Cuban writes in his book “How to Win at the Sport of Business.” “I used to drive around, look at the big houses, and imagine what it would be like to live there and use that as motivation.”
Arianna Huffington was traveling to music festivals around the world for the BBC with her boyfriend at the time.
For the next few years, Huffington traveled to music festivals around the world with Levin as he wrote for the BBC. Her relationship with Levin eventually ended because he did not want to marry or have children and Huffington moved to New York City at the age of 30. That year, her biography of Maria Callas was published, which she dedicated to Levin.
She told William Skidelsky at The Observer:
“[Levin] was my mentor. Our second date was to see ‘The Mastersingers’ at Covent Garden. Our first trip abroad was to Bayreuth to see ‘Wagner’s Ring.'”
Lloyd Blankfein was an unhappy lawyer.
“I was as provincial as you could be, albeit from Brooklyn, the province of Brooklyn,” Blankfein told William Cohen at Fortune Magazine.
At the time, he was a heavy smoker and occasional gambler. Despite the fact that he was on the partner track at the firm, he decided to switch to investment banking, joining J. Aron at the age of 27.
Photo: Getty Images
Ralph Lauren was a sales assistant at Brooks Brothers.
At 26, Lauren decided to design a wide European-styled tie, which eventually led to an opportunity with Neiman Marcus. The next year, he launched the label “Polo.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
JK Rowling came up with the idea for the Harry Potter series on a train.
She started writing the first book that evening, but it took her years to actually finish it. While working as a secretary for the London office of Amnesty International, Rowling was fired for daydreaming too much about Harry Potter and her severance check would help her focus on writing for the next few years.
During these years, she got married, had a daughter, got divorced, and was diagnosed with clinical depression before finally finishing the book in 1995. It was published in 1997.
Jay-Z was already in the rap scene, but was ‘relatively anonymous.’
Marissa Mayer had just started her job as Google’s 20th employee.
Google didn’t have the sorts of lavish campuses it does now, Mayer said in an interview with VMakers, “During my interviews, which were in April of 1999, Google was a seven-person company. I arrived and I was interviewed at a ping pong table which was also the company’s conference table, and it was right when they were pitching for venture capitalist money, so actually after my interview Larry and Sergei left and took the entire office with them.”
Since everyone in the office interviewed you those days, Mayer had to come back the next day for another round.
Warren Buffett was working as an investment salesman in Omaha.
New York just wasn’t for him, Buffett told NBC. “In some places it’s easy to lose perspective. But I think it’s very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha.”
Ursula Burns started out as an intern, but worked her way up at Xerox throughout her 20s.
Since then she’s been a Xerox lifer. She started as an intern at age 22 in 1980, and joined full time a year later after getting her masters. She rose rapidly through the ranks, working in various product development roles and was named CEO in 2009.
“When I came to work at Xerox, I just chose to work. Somebody said ‘how about this?’ And I said OK, and I would go do that in the lab,” Burns said in an interview for the PBS documentary, “Makers.” “Then somebody said how about doing some business planning. Then I started leaning more towards larger global systems problems. And systems problems are the business.”
Photo: AP Images
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook was cash positive for the first time and hit 300 million users.
Mark Zuckerberg had been hard at work on Facebook for five years by the time he hit age 25. In that year — 2009 — the company turned cash positive for the first time and hit 300 million users. He was excited at the time, but said it was just the start, writing on Facebook that “the way we think about this is that we’re just getting started on our goal of connecting everyone.”
The next year, he was named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine.
Tina Fey was a child-care registrar at the Y.M.C.A before joining famed improv troupe Second City.
Fey told The New Yorker that she joined Second City because she “knew it was where a lot of S.N.L. people started,” and in 1997 she sent scripts to Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels who then hired her as a writer.
Tim Allen was arrested and served the next two years in Federal prison.
The experience was so bad that he was forced to turn himself around. He told Esquire, “When I went to jail, reality hit so hard that it took my breath away, took my stance away, took my strength away. I was there buck naked, humiliated … this is a metaphor. My ego had run off. Your ego is the biggest coward.”
Allen became known to the public for his role on the sitcom “Home Improvement,” which premiered in 1991.
Richard Branson had already started the Virgin Records record label.
Those early years were tough, he told Entrepreneur: “I remember them vividly. It’s far more difficult being a small-business owner starting a business than it is for me with thousands of people working for us and 400 companies. Building a business from scratch is 24 hours, 7 days a week, divorces, it’s difficult to hold your family life together, it’s bloody hard work and only one word really matters — and that’s surviving.
Sheryl Sandberg had met mentor Larry Summers and was getting a Harvard MBA.
She went on to work at McKinsey, and at age 29 was Summers’ Chief of Staff when he became Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary.
Her time at HBS was a ways before Google, but that experience helped her see the potential of the internet, she said in a commencement speech to HBS grads last year:
“It wasn’t really that long ago when I was sitting where you are, but the world has changed an awful lot. My section, section B, tried to have HBS’s first online class. We had to use an AOL chat room and dial up service (your parents can explain). We had to pass out a list of screen names, because it was unthinkable to put your real name on the internet. And it never worked. It kept crashing … the world wasn’t set up for 90 people to communicate at once online. But for a few brief moments though, we glimpsed the future, a future where technology would power who we are and connect us to our real colleagues, our real family, our real friends.”
Photo: 60 Minutes
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was building a deep background in computer science.
He spent those summers working at the famed Xerox PARC labs, which helped create the computer workstation as we know it. There, he met the founder of Sun Microsystems, where he had his first corporate job.
In his early years as a programmer, “all of us never slept at night because computers were faster at night.”
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was on her way to becoming Florida’s youngest female legislator.
After he won, he encouraged her to run for his seat in the Florida House of Representatives. At 26, she won, becoming Florida’s youngest ever female legislator. To win that seat, she personally knocked on more than 25,000 doors over six months.
Photo: Studio08Denver via Flikr
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz hadn’t even started out in the coffee business; he was a Xerox salesman.
While working for that company, he encountered the first Starbucks outlets in Seattle, and went on to join the company at age 29.
On his job in Xerox, Schultz writes in “Pour Your Heart Into It”: “I learned more there than in college about the worlds of work and business. They trained me in sales, marketing, and presentation skills, and I walked out with a healthy sense of self-esteem. Xerox was a blue-chip pedigree company, and I got a lot of respect when I told others who my employer was … But I can’t say I ever developed a passion for word processors.”
Billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich had already set up and liquidated at least 20 companies.
At 26, he was arrested for theft of government property, and by the age of 35 became Governor of Chukotka in Russia.
He maintains that he was innocent in that early case, saying, “There were problems with the banking system … at the time when the refinery discovered they haven’t got the money, whilst I was under arrest, they received the money and I was released.”