How To Succeed In Business With The Odds Against You

Your circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start. Here are stories about individuals who were born in unfortunate circumstances, but decided to play the cards they were dealt, and to thrive, beating the odds.

Everyone has a unique circumstance in life. Some are born with a debilitating disability, some are disadvantaged because of their ethnicity, and some are born into poverty. Each situation comes with its own set of struggles and makes it difficult to succeed in its own way. Despite your circumstance, it’s crucial to maintain a positive mindset and to understand that just because you are disadvantaged does not mean it is impossible to succeed. Your circumstance shouldn’t and doesn’t determine your potential.

Many successful entrepreneurs come from a rough upbringing which they claim shaped who they are today and helped instill all the good qualities that make them great. Nobody wants to be in a bad situation, but depending on how you look at it, it may actually be a blessing in disguise. While the majority of self-made entrepreneurs succeeded despite misfortune, here are a few stories about underprivileged individuals who beat the odds, and how they did it.

The First Female Self-made Millionaire

Madam CJ Walker is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. Madam Walker was born in 1867 during a difficult time for African-Americans with segregation, slavery, and racism still very prevalent. She worked as a poorly paid washerwoman for over a decade and joined a Church, where she sang in the choir and was mentored by teachers and members of the National Association of Colored Women. 

During that time she tried various commercial hairdressings and began experimenting with her own formula to cure scalp infections that caused baldness. For about two years, she was a sales agent for Annie Turnbo’s hair product business—The Poro Company.

After moving to Denver in 1905, she worked as a cook for a pharmacist. There, she learned the basic chemistry she needed to perfect an ointment that healed dandruff and other hygiene-related ailments that were common during a time when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing. A year later, she married and began achieving local success with what later became known as the “Walker Method” or the “Walker System of Beauty Culture.”

Madam C.J. Walker driving a Ford Model T, 1911.

She continued to develop her business by traveling across the United States and providing career opportunities and economic independence for thousands of African American women who otherwise would have been stuck to jobs such as cooks, laundresses, maids, and farmhands. In 1913 she expanded internationally when she visited the Caribbean and Central America. By 1919 she had claimed 25,000 active Walker sales agents. According to Guinness, her assets were worth over $1 million, which is equal to $14.9 million today. Aside from her hair business, Madam Walker was remembered for her generosity and work in philanthropy. She has been an inspiration to people for decades and will forever be known for thriving despite her circumstance.

Netflix made a four-episode series depicting the life of Madam Walker, her struggles, and her triumphs.

Homeless To Billionaire

John Paul DeJoria was raised by his single mother in LA before landing in a foster care home when she could longer provide for him. DeJoria never had much money and always worked hard to afford the basic needs to survive. At one point, he even lived out of his car as he struggled to get by. His struggles never discouraged him but were an opportunity for him to work hard. So he decided to take challenges head-on early in his career The only way I could go was up, he said. At 9 years old he was selling Christmas cards and newspapers to afford food. And when he couldn’t afford to pay for college, Dejoria worked as a janitor, and at a local gas station just to afford tuition. He never relied on others “If you expect free lunch to come your way, you’re not going to go far and you’ll be very bored. Go out there and do something. Get involved,” he said.

In his teenage years, DeJoria was a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman which he did for three-and-a-half years. The gig was tough, he was paid commission and had no leads to work with. But it was during this time as a salesman that DeJoria was able to assess how people really think and it helped him in his later years in business.

Be prepared for a lot of rejection, because you are going to get it. If you are prepared for it, it’s not going to hurt you as much. Be just as enthusiastic on door 101 if 100 have been closed in your face. Eventually you’re going to do it.”

John Paul DeJoria, in an interview with CNBC

DeJoria first became homeless in his early 20s when his wife decided to leave him and their two-year-old child. When she left them, she took their last bit of money that they had saved up over the years. They had also been three months behind on rent, leaving Dejoria and his son evicted with nowhere to go. DeJoria recalls being optimistic during this period in his life despite everything he was going through “when you’re this down south, there’s no way to go but up.”

After a few years of hustling to get by, DeJoria reunited with a longtime friend, Paul Mitchel, who was a well-known stylist but was “going broke,” according to DeJoria. Mitchel had been selling his hair care products quite well but struggled to get customers to reorder the products. So DeJoria, with his sales skills, approached Mitchel to combine forces to start their own company. The two managed to get an investor who verbally committed to providing $500,000 to start their company, but he never showed up. Even after their first failure, DeJoria affirmed “That’s not gonna get me down.”

He and Mitchell combined all savings they had and came up with $700 to start the John Paul Mitchell Systems. They adapted a word-of-mouth selling model until they eventually got the attention of their first distributor. From there, the hair care products were eventually sold in several salons and the John Paul Mitchell Systems became a million-dollar company after just two years. Today, the company makes over a billion dollars in revenue each year.

After JPMS became a huge success, DeJoria never took his foot off the gas. His whole life, all he knew was to work hard and to never give up. His next big success came in 1989 when DeJoria’s friend Martin Crowley promised to bring him back some tequila from a trip to Mexico. Instead, Crowley returned with an idea. He believed the world was ready for a higher-end tequila product than what existed in the U.S at the time. Patrón Spirits produced a thousand cases in its first year and have now grown that to over two million, according to its website.

After amassing a $3.2 billion net worth, John Paul DeJoria has made a name for himself in the philanthropy world and has committed to some incredible charitable causes. His inspiring journey from homelessness and living out of his car to billionaire teaches us the possibilities when we decide to persevere and work smart. His story also teaches us that even the worst of hands can be turned into a Royal Flush if you refuse to accept your circumstance as an immutable fate.

Honorable mentions:

Taylor Lindsay-Noel‘s story is one of triumph over tragedy. In 2008, Taylor Lindsay-Noel was a 14-year-old elite gymnast on track to represent Canada at the 2012 Olympic Games. She broke her neck while attempting an extremely difficult and dangerous maneuver and was left a quadriplegic, immobilized from the neck down. Taylor proved to everyone that you can reinvent yourself even after a life-changing tragedy. In 2016 Taylor launched her podcast Tea Time with Tay and became a hit. Shortly after, she started the Cup of Té shop, known for its premium loose leaf teas. Taylor made her mark in the tea industry, even earning Cup of Té a spot on the annual Holiday list of Oprah’s Favorite Things. Today, she continues to inspire others and thrive in her life and her business.

Stephen Hawking was an English theoretical physicist mostly known for his work on black holes, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and space-time singularities. In his early years, Hawking contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis which is an incurable degenerative neuromuscular disease. He continued to work despite the disease’s progressively disabling effects. Hawking’s work cultivated efforts to theoretically familiarize the properties of black holes, which was previously thought that nothing could be known. His work was also important because it showed these properties’ relationship to the laws of classical thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. Hawking’s contributions to physics earned him many exceptional honors and he will be remembered as one of the most intelligent humans to walk the earth. Had he given up when was first diagnosed with ALS, we as humans would have missed out on the advancements made thanks to Hawking’s brilliance which stemmed from his optimism and resilience.