Rags to riches is a theme that has been at the core of history’s best loved true stories as far back as Joseph in Egypt–the falsely accused servant sentenced to prison, who became a high ranking government official–all the way to the modern day likes of Tyler Perry, former homeless man.
In my former career in Human Resources in a Fortune 500 company, I reported to the Vice President of Human Resources. I survived the topsy-turvy world of mergers and sales of the company better than some of them. As a result, I had the good fortune to work with a number of really dedicated, ethical executives . . . and some duds.
Two mentors to me over the years were a white female who had a degree in Organizational Development. She knew the in’s and out’s of corporate hierarchies and the inner motives of the people within the structure. My other mentor was a well educated and worldly wise black man from Chicago. His name was Warren. He took me under his wing and coached me into promotional opportunities. Together we stood the HR ground against greedy sales managers and line-crossing supervisors who couldn’t seem to grasp the connection between wages and performance.
Warren was all about working hard and smart. He had a degree and had also earned his SPHR, Senior Professional in Human Resources. which is the senior-most human resources certification for those who have also demonstrated a strategic mastery of the HR body of knowledge. For all his good sense and the taking on of such a lofty body of responsibility, I loved Warren.
I don’t know if Warren sprang from rags. But he expressed openly and demonstrated that education and nose-to-the-grind-stone action leads to accomplishment and the respect of others. It was the content of his character that made him the man he was.
With all the varying opinions flying around about how to save young black men from a violent end, I’d like to offer Warren’s recipe. Put on blinders and focus on family values, and seek an education and productive work. I know it’s easier said than done. I know that.
Having said that, inspired by Warren and by Joe For America’s own Hobo John, (who may not be able to claim riches and fame) I cannot help but share this article about ten former paupers who, through persistance and hard work, made it to the very top of their game.
Interestingly, four of the ten featured are black men who started off with the odds against them. The content of their character helped them stay on the course of their choosing, and the road to immense success. A more modest version of their stories is available for young black men in America, if they want to work toward it.
General George S. Patton once said, “The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” No one embodies that more than the 10 people on this list. They’re a group of people who were at rock bottom, yet worked hard and eventually became immensely successful. They showed that when things look their worst, the only way left is up.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee to an alcoholic and crack-addicted mother, Michael was one of 12 children. His father wasn’t around much, because he was in and out of prison. This left Michael with very few options — he’d be put in foster care, only to run away and live on the streets. In his first 11 years of schooling he went to nine different schools and had to repeat the first and second grade.
His luck changed when he started playing football in public school. He was a very talented player, and when he applied for enrollment in a private Christian school he was accepted based on his notable football skills. Once in the school, Michael kept bouncing around foster homes before the Tuohy family took him in. Understanding his difficult childhood, they hired a tutor and treated Michael like he was one of the family. He raised his GPA so he could attend the University of Mississippi, which he chose because it was his adopted family’s alma mater.
Michael became one of the best offensive linemen in the NCAA. He was drafted 23rd overall by the Baltimore Ravens, signed a $13.8 million, five year contract and helped them win Super Bowl XLVII. In 2014 he signed a $20 million, four year contract with the Tennessee Titans. Michael is, of course, Michael Oher, the subject of the book and Academy Award winning film The Blind Side.
Chris was a bright young man who, after putting in four years of service in the Navy, got a job as a lab assistant from a doctor he had met while serving. Eventually he was able to run his own lab, despite not having a college education.
After his son was born, Chris needed a better paying job, so he was hired as a salesman for a medical equipment business. However, Chris decided that what he really wanted to do was be a stockbroker. He was able to get a training position at a brokerage, but that job fell through. Then he was arrested for not being able to pay $1200 in parking tickets and was put in jail for 10 days. When he got home, he found his apartment was empty. He had nothing except the clothes on his back.
He was able to get another internship, but it didn’t pay. Yet he came in early and stayed late while selling medical equipment on the side. He was barely scraping by, but his hard work was starting to pay off and Bear Stearns & Company in San Francisco recruited him. He moved and was able to rent a flophouse with his small salary.
Things got even more complicated when Chris’ estranged wife dropped off their son with him.He couldn’t afford a place to live while also paying for daycare so he could continue to work. So they moved around a lot, eating in soup kitchens and sleeping where they could: his office, the airport and even public washrooms.
Tyler was born into a dysfunctional family with an abusive father. If that wasn’t bad enough, four men also sexually abused him as a child. Needless to say, Tyler was a troubled teenager. One particular outburst got him kicked out of school, although he eventually did get his GED.
Tyler took refuge in writing, the only thing he’d ever found solace in. He decided to take a gamble and moved to Atlanta to launch his play, I Know I’ve Been Changed. The play bombed, but Tyler didn’t quit. He tried to launch the play six times and it was never successful. The costs left Tyler living in his car, but in 1998 the play finally took off and launched his career. Tyler Perry is now one of the highest paid men in the entertainment business, where he writes, produces, directs and stars in numerous movies and television shows.
Growing up in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, John’s family got by but were fairly poor. He had to help support his family, starting at the age of nine, by selling Christmas cards. As a teenager, he got caught up with street gangs and did lousy in school. One of his teachers said he was “least likely to succeed.”
When he was 22 he found himself homeless and collecting pop bottles for refunds for money. He finally found some steady work at a haircare product company. In 1988, he and a hair stylist named Paul planned to launch their own line of haircare products. Meanwhile, John and his wife hit a rough patch. John decided to give his wife all his money and move out. A backer was going to give John and Paul $500,000 for their product line, but the money never came and again, John found himself homeless — he lived in his car for the next two weeks.
In his 30s, Steve decided to follow his dream and become a comedian. The problem was that Steve had just split up with his wife and was giving 75% of his paycheck to her for child support. Also, this was the late ’80s and he was making $75 a week (about $150 in 2014 value).
That forced Steve to live out of his 1976 Ford Tempo for three full years. He showered and washed in gas station restrooms, pool showers and hotel bathrooms. If he was lucky he could land a gig where he they would put him up into a hotel room, but after that it was back in his car where he slept in the reclining front seat.
Eventually, he started to get steady work in stand up clubs. His big break came when he performed on Showtime at the Apollo, and he’s been on TV ever since. Today, Steve Harvey is a beloved comedian, best selling author, radio personality and the host of Family Feud, which found renewed life with Harvey as the host. Harvey is now considered to have a net worth of $100 million.
Dani had a rough upbringing due in large part to her abusive, drug addicted parents. She said she hated drugs, but somehow found herself addicted to cocaine as a young adult. Living in Hawaii, she worked as a cocktail waitress and wasn’t making enough money. At one point she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on cocaine. Luckily, she survived and decided it was time to turn her life around.
Dani knew that saving up $4500 for an apartment would take her four months. She wasn’t sure if she could live four months in her car, and while looking around her car for inspiration she saw a booklet for a weight loss program and thought she might try selling them. Not having much to lose, Dani drew up posters advertising the program. She worked out of a phone booth, and when her first attempt at a sale failed she adjusted her strategy and made sales to the next 24 customers she called. There was one problem — in order to send the weight loss programs, the company needed an address. She was able to convince a liquor store to let her use their address, in what we hope was billed as an unusual cross-promotion where customers could get two kinds of six packs.
In her first year, Dani Johnson made $250,000. In less than two years she made her first million dollars. From there she expanded her sales, bought a weight loss center and then produced her own weight loss products. Today, Dani is a millionaire from her weight loss products and is also a motivational speaker.
Related: Tyler Perry speaks about his newborn son’s birth.
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