10 Amazing and Inspirational Rags to Riches Stories

10 Inspirational and Inspiring Rags to Riches Stories
10 Inspirational and Inspiring Rags to Riches Stories

10 Amazing and Inspirational Rags to Riches Stories

How many of the people who read this list will have heard of the worldwide phenomenon that is Harry Potter?  The books about the boy wizard have been published worldwide, they have been tuned into a successful film franchise and Harry Potter has even spawned his own theme park in the UK.  Yet the author, JK Rowling, was once so poor that she had to write in her local coffee shop to have somewhere warm to sit.  The books were turned down by publisher after publisher but have now made her one of the most successful and wealthiest women in the world.

Stories like hers are inspirational and a lot more common than one might think.  Here we have listed 10 of the most inspirational rags to riches stories from human history and from around the world.  The stories are each so amazing that they could form the basis of a book or a film in their own right (and some are one or both).  Prepare to be inspired by these 10 truly amazing people.

10. Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass a real live rags to riches story
Frederick Douglass a real live rags to riches story

Frederick Douglass was born in 1818 as a slave on a plantation in Maryland.  He hardly knew his mother who died when he was just 10.  When he was 12 he was sent to live in Baltimore where the wife of the family taught him to read and write.  Young Frederick Douglass used his new skills to read newspapers and political pamphlets which helped to introduce him to the concepts of human rights.  He passed on his knowledge and skills at to other slaves during weekly church services.  Slave owners in the district took exception to these lessons and eventually broke them up.

Frederick Douglass was desperate for his freedom and escaped on his second attempt, moving to New York and marrying his love, a free black woman who had assisted his flight.  The couple settled in Massachusetts and started becoming active at local abolitionist meetings.  Frederick Douglass became a renowned public speaker and published his autobiography in 1845 after which, having exposed himself, he had to move to Ireland to escape capture.  He stayed away for 2 years until he had gathered enough money to purchase his freedom. On his return he started to publish a number of abolitionists papers, he also started to speak in favor of women’s’ rights.

During the war he liaised closely with President Lincoln regarding the treatment of black soldiers and, when peace was declared was appointed as the president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and ambassador to the Dominican Republic.  He subsequently served as ambassador to Haiti.  Frederick Douglass was even nominated as Vice President of the United States (for the Equal Rights Party in 1872) although he was not aware of the nomination and never campaigned.

9. Justin I of Byzantium

Justin I of Byzantium was a huge success but he started at the bottom
Justin I of Byzantium was a huge success but he started at the bottom

The story of Justin I is one of the most bizarre of all rags to riches stories.  Justin started his life as a lowly swineherd and ended it as the emperor of the most powerful empire at the time.

He came to Constantinople as a teenager dispossessed and orphaned by fighting in his homeland and joined the byzantine army.  He proved to be a very competent professional soldier and despite never learning to read and write he rose through the ranks to become the commander of the palace guard of the Emperor Anastasius I.  On the Emperor’s death Justin was elected to succeed him.

During his reign Justin did a lot to improve the life of the lower classes and work towards the partial abolition of class distinctions.

8. Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens a rags to riches story he didn't write
Charles Dickens a rags to riches story he didn’t write

One of the best known and most prolific writers of the 19th Century, Charles Dickens was one of the celebrities of his age.  He published prolifically in periodicals, gave speaking tours in the UK and US and often performed his work on stage as one man shows.

Many of his later works such as Bleak House and Dombey and Son expose the more unpleasant aspects on British society and it social inequalities at the time.  His novels are well known for combining wit and humor with social commentary.

Dickens’ interest in social issues was driven by the difficult experiences of his early life.  His parents struggled to ends meet and when Dickens was just 12 years old his father was sent to debtors’ prison.  The young Dickens was no longer able to go to school and had to go to work to help support the family earning a pittance in a boot-blacking factory.  After a period a family death and inheritance allowed his father to pay of his debts and Charles Dickens’ was able to go to school again.  The relief did not last for long, however, and age 15 he had, once again, to go out to earn money to support his family, this time as an office boy.

This mishap, however, turned out to be a stroke of luck as Dickens’ office sent him to report from the Law Courts.  He started to submit reports to two major newspapers and subsequently was able to start submitting ‘Sketches’ under the pseudonym Boz.  This launched his writing career which went from strength to strength.  His much loved novel David Copperfield is based on his life experiences.

7. Catherine I of Russia, Wife of Peter the Great

Catherine the 1st of Russia would not be denied.  She was a rags to riches success
Catherine the 1st of Russia would not be denied. She was a rags to riches success

Peter the Great is one of the most interesting Tsars in Russia’s history, bringing a backward nation into the modern day and building the new capital, St Petersburg, from scratch.  He was aided in his work by his devoted second wife Catherine I who succeeded him and ruled Russia after his death.  Catherine was, however, not the typical imperial spouse but a real life Cinderella. She was born in Lithuania to a catholic peasant family.  She worked as a housemaid and was, perhaps, the mistress of Peter’s good friend and confidante Aleksandr Menshikov who introduced her to Peter the Great.  The pair fell in love and married secretly when Catherine was converted to Orthodox Christianity.  Her friendship with Menshikov lasted her entire life and he was one of her key advisors after Peter’s death.

Peter and Catherine were devoted to each other and she was well known as being the only person who could calm Peter once he entered once of his famous rages or suffered an epileptic fit.  During the years in which St Petersburg was under construction they lived as a simple couple, she did the cooking and cleaning and he farmed the garden.  She accompanied him on campaign and was credited by Peter with saving the Russian army from annihilation during the Pruth campaign against the Turks when she used her jewels and those of all the other women in the Russian camp to bribe the Turkish commander to permit the Russian army to retreat.

Following this event Peter married her officially and created the Order of St Catherine in her honor.  He named her his successor over the inheritance rights of his grandson (son of Peter’s son by his first marriage).  She elevated her family to the nobility and two of her daughters ruled as empresses of Russia in their own right after her death.

6. Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie a rag to riches underdog
Andrew Carnegie a rag to riches underdog

Andrew Carnegie was born the son of a weaver in Scotland, UK in 1835.  By the time he died he was one of the wealthiest industrialist/philanthropists of the USA.

Andrew Carnegie arrived in the USA in 1848 when his family moved to Pennsylvania.  He started work in a telegraph office and then as a telegraph operator on the railroad.  He was soon promoted to a superintendent position.  During his time with the railroad he started to save and invest his money and, making wise choices enjoyed good returns on his investments.  By 1865 he had earned enough to leave paid employment to concentrate on building his own business interests.

Andrew Carnegie concentrated, at first, on the steel industry.  He operated a ‘start to finish’ model which meant that he owned everything he needed to cover each stage of the manufacturing and shipping process.  He even owned the mines which provided the coal to his factories which were strategically located around the country.  By 1889 Carnegie Steel Corporation was the largest company of its kind in the world.

Andrew Carnegie devoted a lot of time and effort to philanthropy; in particular arranging for libraries to be built in poorer communities, his family, although poor had always enjoyed a high level of literacy and he wanted to make books available to everyone.  He had a strong moral feeling that with great wealth came great responsibility and in 1889 published an article to encourage others to donate money to worthy causes.

In 1901 he sold his company to the United States Steel Corporation at a profit of over $200million and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropic work.  He put this money to good use opening more than 2,800 public libraries including a donation of $5m to the New York Public Library,.  He established the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

5. Nursultan Nazarbaev

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Nursultan Nazarbaev was born in 1940 to a poor family in what was, at the time the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.  Kazakhstan was ruled by a puppet government following orders from Moscow and was used as a gulag to house those who displeased Stalin.  After the war Kazakhstan was used by Moscow for extensive nuclear and biological weapons testing and the Aral Sea was all but destroyed by questionable agricultural methods.

As a young man Nazarbaev moved to the industrial city of Temirtau to work in the iron industry.  While he worked in the blast furnaces he also studied towards a degree in metallurgy and joined the Communist Party.  Once he received his degree he became an economist and the secretary of his regional communist party.  Nazarbaev was promoted through the ranks and eventually appointed the head of the Kazakh Communist Party. He was popular amongst Kazakhs and gained a significant loyal following through his insistence that Moscow cease the use of Kazakh land for testing (nuclear and biological) and in 1991, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, he led Kazakhstan to independence from Russia and  a break with communism.

Following independence Nazarbaev sought to ensure that Kazakhstan was allied, not only with Russia but also with the west and worked closely with the Clinton administration to dismantle all nuclear test facilities in Kazakhstan and make safe all nuclear weapons.  Touted as a human rights oppressor and autocrat by the western press Nazarbaev is widely respected in Kazakhstan.  He has been elected almost unopposed in every election since independence and is expected to retain his position in the 2015/16 elections.  The country has prospered due to his doctrine of economic growth and stability.

This man, who was born in a peasant hut now presides over the 9th largest country in the world and has unimaginable personal wealth.  He is revered as having successfully overseen the transition from soviet communism to (a form of) capitalism.  He is one of the very few former communist leaders to have made this transition so successfully.  He is also, currently, the only world leader who has personal experience of manual labor.

4. John D Rockefeller

John D Rockefeller a self made, but-kicking rags to riches story
John D Rockefeller a self made, but-kicking rags to riches story

Rockefeller may have been the first person in the world whose personal wealth passed the billion dollar mark but he was born the son of a travelling salesman who struggled to make ends meet.

In 1853, at the age of 16 Rockefeller went out to work on his own account earning 50 cents a day and by 1859 he had earned enough to start his first company trading in hay and grain.  Realizing that there was real potential in the growing oil business he invested in a refinery in the Cleveland area.  In 1870 he started the Standard Oil Company which dominated the petroleum business of the 19th Century until it was broken into parts for being too large, an effective monopoly.  It was broken up into Mobil and Exxon (also known as Esso (SO!)) two of the largest oil companies still in existence.

Rockefeller was not only a powerful industrialist but a dedicated philanthropist who felt that it was incumbent upon him to donate his wealth for the assistance of others.  He not only founded two universities (University of Chicago and Rockefeller University) but also founded the General Education Board with the aim of developing schools in rural areas.  A teetotaler he was very concerned with the need to improve public health and health education and donated millions of dollars to medical research as well as public health initiatives and medical training centers.  His philanthropic donations are estimated to be equivalent to more than $600 million making him one of the most prolific philanthropists of all time.

3. Bridget Mason

Biddy Mason was a success despite the many obstacles in her path
Biddy Mason was a success despite the many obstacles in her path

Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason is proof positive that almost anything is possible.  She was born a slave in Mississippi in 1818 and owned by a variety of owners; one of whom, a Mormon moved to Salt Lake City Utah bringing Biddy Mason with him.  She walked the whole 1,700 mile trail with her three young children and was responsible for setting up and breaking camp, cooking and herding cattle along the way.

A few years later and her owner’s family was on the move again, this time to California where slavery was illegal.  Although illiterate Biddy Mason heard from free black people that she could contest her status as a slave.  Her owner decided to move again to Texas so that his slaves could not be freed.  One of her friends alerted the authorities to the fact that Biddy Mason and her family were being held illegally and prevented the family leaving California.  The case was brought before the court and Biddy Mason and her family were declared free.

They moved to Los Angeles where Biddy Mason started work as a midwife.  She invested wisely in land which she sold at a profit moving on to purchase a number of commercial properties in downtown Los Angeles.  She was heavily involved in relief work and charitable causes, founded the first black church in LA and donated funds to feed the poor.  She was much loved by all who knew her and, when she died, owned $300,000; a far cry from her humble beginnings.

2. Chris Gardner

Chris Gardner an American rags to riches success story
Chris Gardner an American rags to riches success story

Chris Gardner’s story is so remarkable that he was even the subject of a film (he was played by Will Smith in the Pursuit of Happyness).   Chris Gardner was born in 1954 to a poor family living in Milwaukee where Chris who moved in and out of foster care was exposed to domestic violence and sexual abuse fuelled by alcoholism.

Chris Gardner joined the Navy for a while but then moved to San Francisco to work in medical research.  By this time he was the head of his own small family with a young son to support and he wanted to find a career that would provide him the means to do so.  Desperate to break into the world of finance he applied for and was accepted at a training program with a finance brokerage for a very small salary (but large potential rewards).  His wife left him and he and his young son became homeless when he was unable to pay the rent forcing them to live in shelters.

Chris Gardner’s gamble paid off when he became one of the biggest earners at his firm and he went on to found his own company Gardner Rich, initially working from his own home.  Always aware of the fact that his own struggles were not unique he has spoken widely on the problems caused by poverty and works to support homelessness initiatives around the country.  He is also heavily involved with organizations that provide support to single fathers and continues to support the Glide Memorial Church which helped him when he and his son were at their very lowest.

He aims, through his work to encourage people to realize that their circumstances do not define them and show that anything is possible.

1. Genghis Khan

Statue of Ghengis Khan, a true rags to riches story
Statue of Ghengis Khan, a true rags to riches story

The man who founded the Mongol Empire that ruled most of Asia and terrorized the Europe and Middle East of his day came from literally nothing.  He was born the son of a chief of a minor tribe but, when his father was killed Genghis (then called Temujin), his mother and brothers were cast out.  Life on the cold harsh steppe was difficult without the resources of the entire clan and the family faced a difficult few years trying to scrape together enough food to survive and materials to make shelters from the cold.  Genghis was even captured and enslaved for a while.

Once he won his freedom Genghis married his first love, Borte but she was kidnapped by his mother’s tribe the Merkid (his father had stolen his mother many years ago and this was seen as just retribution).  Allying with his powerful friend and blood brother Jamuka, Genghis rescued his wife.  Jamuka and Genghis subsequently fell out and, taking many of Jamuka’s followers, Ghengis left and had himself declared Khan of the Mongols.  Under his leadership, the Mongols, a minor clan, started to fight the more powerful tribes of the region such as the powerful Kereyids and Naiman.

Before long all the steppe tribes were united under Genghis’ leadership and the Mongols moved to conquer China, Central Asia and the Middle East.  At the time of his death the lands governed by Genghis Khan comprised the largest empire ever known.  He insisted on freedom of religious worship, protected the rights of women, outlawed cattle rustling and insisted on promotion by reason of merit not blood connection.


It is easy to believe that the circumstances of your birth define your life story.  What the stories of these 10 extraordinary people show, however, is that with grit, determination and intelligence, anything is possible. All born with some disadvantage they rose to become either fabulously wealthy, rulers of nations or both.

What is so heartening is the fact that many of these inspirational people remembered their humble origins and became noted philanthropists, using their wealth and position to help others less fortunate than themselves.