26 Billionaires Who Built Their Empires From Nothing

By Trista
26 Billionaires Who Built Their Empires From Nothing

The public both loves and hates billionaires. They’re a drain on our economy, funneling much of the nation’s cash to themselves. In turn, they can pull strings and encourage legislation favorable to them as the rest of us who are not as rich receive nothing. However, they are not always like prominent business people who ended up breaking the law on their way to the top. 

Yet there is more to most billionaires. They also remind us of the American dream of going from rags to riches and can inspire us to become more. When we read inspiring stories of billionaires who started with nothing, we want to do the same thing. Here are some billionaires who did not inherit their wealth but instead built it up by creating their own empires. Check them out according to Mind Power News, Inc., Business Insider below.

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26. Sam Walton 

The Walmart franchise is now the symbol of capitalism and the modern world that numerous books have critiqued the phenomenon of “Walmart-ization.” Nevertheless, the retail giant, which has been known to push out small local businesses, has humble beginnings. Sam Walton, the man who began Walmart, grew up during the Great Depression. To help feed his family, he milked cows and delivered milk. He also sold magazine subscriptions and delivered newspapers.

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During World War II, Walton joined the military and used his benefits under the GI Bill to attend college and get a loan for $5000. Coupled with a $20,000 loan from his father-in-law, he managed to buy a variety store in Arkansas that became the first of what would be the Walmart franchise. That $25,000 in loans to a milkman became the multi-billion-dollar industry that is the face of modern capitalism. There are thousands of Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs worldwide that deliver consumer goods at the lowest price point possible.

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25. Ursula Burns

Burns grew up among humble beginnings in the East Village housing projects of New York City. Her single mother ironed shirts and ran an in-home daycare so that she could earn enough money to send Ursula to a Catholic school rather than an underfunded, poorly-run public school in the East Village.

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Burns went on to attend New York University, one of New York’s most prestigious schools, and became an intern for Xerox’s well-known company. However, Burns did not remain an intern. Instead, she used the hard work and ingenuity her mother had demonstrated while growing up and became the CEO of Xerox, making her the first African-American woman to oversee a Fortune 500 company. She is one of the only African-American women who has achieved billionaire status.

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24. Guy Laliberté 

Anyone who attended Cirque du Soleil has been awed by the stupendous feats performed that require years of training. Many of those feats, such as eating fire, were learned by the franchise’s founder, Guy Laliberte, as a street artist in Quebec. Laliberte struggled to eat as he asked for spare change from passersby that he entertained with his acts. He played the accordion, walked on stilts, ate fire, and eventually pulled together a troupe of similar artists trying to survive in Quebec.

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In 1987, he took a massive risk by arranging for the troupe to travel to the Los Angeles Arts Festival. The actors had no money for return fare, so if their performance did not pay off, they would be entertaining for coins on LA’s streets. Nevertheless, the gamble did pay off, and the troupe received offers for shows in Las Vegas before becoming officially known as Cirque du Soleil. The franchise’s shows are now a must-see for people visiting the Las Vegas strip, and its actors travel all over the world.

23. Harold Simmons 

The town of Golden, Texas, barely has a spot on the map. Yet it was there Simmons grew up in a shack without running water or electricity. His parents both worked as teachers, earning a minute salary that managed to keep his family fed. Simmons went to the University of Texas, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree and then Master’s degree in economics. He put those degrees to work when he became a banker in Dallas and developed a philosophy of using all debt and no equity. 

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He applied that philosophy in business ventures to buy out businesses, including banks, using debt. Those questionable business practices routinely raised eyebrows from regulators and even the federal government, in part because of how Simmons was able to get around paying taxes. Despite the questionable legacy, Simmons showed business acumen and creativity can help a person get out of dire poverty and have a productive life.

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22. George Soros 

Billionaire philanthropist Soros grew up in Hungary during World War II, and his Jewish faith made him a target for deportation to a concentration camp. To prevent that fate, he pretended to be the godson of a worker at the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. Shortly after the war, in 1947, Soros left Hungary for London. He worked as a waiter while putting himself through the London School of Economics, and later moved to New York City. He worked at a souvenir shop and then as a banker before making a bet against the British pound, making him one of the wealthiest men in history.

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Back in 1992, Britain was experiencing a currency crisis. Soros made a short sale of $10 billion worth of British pounds and turned a profit of one billion dollars. Today, Soros is revered as a philanthropist and caricatured as a boogie man for some. He has given billions of dollars to promote democratic institutions and initiatives in Hungary’s now-demagogue country and is often accused of sponsoring efforts to overturn governments.

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21. Jin Sook and Do Won Chang

This husband and wife duo is behind the fast-fashion brand that caters to students and young working professionals that desire a youthful look. The couple had to persevere through great adversity in order to begin their business. The two grew up in South Korea, a region plagued by instability. Do Won Chang worked at coffee shops growing up, and after immigrating to the United States, worked at coffee shops in California. He never attended college.

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In 1984, the couple used up virtually all of their savings and opened their first clothing store in what would become Forever 21. The brand caught on, and within a few decades, there would be hundreds of branches all over the world. Forever 21 became a victim of the retail apocalypse that saw the collapse of many clothing and other retail brands in the late 2010s. However, the business venture caused Do Won Chang and Jin Sook to become billionaires, a far cry from their days of serving coffee to make ends meet.

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20. Shahid Khan 

Born in Pakistan, to a middle-class family and comfortable lifestyle, Khan immigrated to the United States as a teenager to attend college at the University of Illinois. On his first night, he paid $2 to stay in a room at the university’s YMCA and found a job washing dishes for $1.20 an hour. Khan began working at Flex-N-Gate, an automotive corporation that provided body parts for cars. After graduating, he became the engineering director. He also began the company Bumper Works to provide bumpers for custom-made vehicles.

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Khan went on to buy Flex-N-Gate and make Bumper Works part of the company. Today, it is one of the largest suppliers of automotive parts in the world. However, Khan’s interests have gone far beyond automotive, and he has put his money into his true passion, sports. Today, he is the principal owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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19. Howard Schultz 

Schultz’s father did not have stable employment; moving from one blue-collar job to the next, trying to keep the family fed in Brooklyn. Howard spent his free time playing basketball, and earned a basketball scholarship to college. Afterward, he found his first post-college job at Xerox, and soon left to manage a coffeemaker called Hammarplast, based in Sweden. This job inspired him to open up what would become the most widely-known coffee chain in the world.

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Schultz did not start Starbucks. It was originally a store based in Seattle that sold coffee beans. Schultz envisioned turning it into a coffee shop where people could order drinks and then sit down to enjoy them. He acquired the company in 1987 and turned it into the coffee shop, so many know today. Despite becoming immensely successful, Schultz never forgot his roots. With a father who had always been out of work while growing up, Schultz decided that he would provide health insurance to employees who worked more than 20 hours per week. 

18. George Joseph 

Stories of people who grew up during the Great Depression reveal the extreme hardship that the financial crisis posed to children and families. During this time, Joseph grew up in West Virginia as the son of a Lebanese immigrant who was struggling to keep a restaurant open. World War II pulled the United States out of the depression, and it also pulled children who had grown up in dire poverty off family farms and desperate lives. Joseph was one of those who joined the military and went overseas to fly a B-17.

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Upon returning home, the GI Bill, which allowed returning soldiers to attend college, paid for him to attend school. After graduating, he went to work for the insurance company Occidental Life; his tenure there made him realize what opportunities were available in the insurance industry. In 1962, Joseph raised two million dollars in funds and opened Mercury General, an insurance company that offers fire, home, and automotive. To make his company attractive to new customers, he offered lower rates to drivers who had safe driving records. Today, the company, of which Joseph owns one-third, earns $3.5 billion per year.

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17. Alan Gerry 

School is a path to opportunity for many people who grow up in dire circumstances, but Gerry never found out for himself. He dropped out of high school and joined the Marines, fighting in World War II. Since he had not graduated from high school, he could not use the benefits of the GI Bill to pay for college as many other soldiers did. Instead, he used his benefits to learn how to repair televisions and opened up a television repair shop. He must have realized that during the late 1940s and early 1950s, television was on its way to becoming a central fixture of American life.

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In 1956, Gerry used the $1500 that he had saved to begin a cable company that eventually became Cablevision Industries. He was careful not to offer initial stock offerings or borrow without equity partners so that he would be in control of his own business. By selling Cablevision Industries to Time-Warner Cable in 1996, his company was the eighth-largest cable provider in the United States. The high-school dropout who learned how to fix televisions had 1.3 million subscribers and provided for 2500 employees.

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16. Kenneth Langone 

Langone grew up in an area of Long Island known as Roslyn Heights. His father was a plumber and his mother was a cafeteria worker He was so determined to attend college that he worked as a caddy and dug ditches to help pay for school. His parents also re-mortgaged their home so that they could pay some of his expenses. Langone graduated from Bucknell University and went on to earn an MBA from New York University. He partnered up with Ross Perot to take Perot’s company, Electronic Data Systems, public in 1968.

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A few years later, Langone partnered with Bernard Marcus and they started Home Depot. Most cities in the United States today have a Home Depot. Langone did not forget where he came from. He values the opportunity that education provides for kids who grow up in rough situations but show potential. He has twice made gifts of $100 million to his alma mater, New York University.

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15. Stephen Bisciotti

When we think about the ingredients for becoming a billionaire, temp work is usually far down the list. People usually do temp work because they are unable to work a full-time job. Nevertheless, Bisciotti showed that temp work could be the path to billions. His father died when he was only eight and his mother had to raise him and his two siblings by herself. He had to work his way through school and upon graduating realized that managing temp work could lead to a lucrative career.

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After all, employers want a company that can provide a temp who will show up on day one and get to work. At the age of 23, shortly after graduating, he and his cousin founded Allegis Group in his basement. Allegis Group went on to become one of the largest staffing and talent-management companies in the country. Bisciotti bought an NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, in 2004, and now dedicates himself to his love of sports. 

14. Thomas Peterffy 

Peterffy was born in the Hungarian capital of Budapest in 1944 during a bombing raid that threatened to destroy the city. He was a promising student and was studying to become an engineer, but in 1965, he dropped out of engineering school to flee the communist regime. When Peterffy arrived in New York City, he spoke no English and found work as a draftsman. While learning English, he also taught himself computer coding to apply computer-based models to trading.

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The idea worked. In 1977, Peterffy bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and began trading. During the day, he wrote code in his head to improve his trades and at night he went home and wrote it down. A few years later, he brought a hand-held computer to the floor to start using his model. The hare-brained scheme became Interactive Brokers Group, an internet-based trading firm that boasts upwards of one million trades per day.

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13. Carl Berg 

When Berg was 10 years old, his father died, and his mother had to raise him and his brother on a schoolteacher’s salary in rural New Mexico. She had to stretch every penny in order to keep the two brothers fed and clothed. After graduating from high school, Berg worked two jobs to put himself through college. He repaired vending machines during the day, and at night, worked as a clerk at a hotel. His goal in working at the hotel was to meet an investment banker who would give him a job.

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That opportunity came. One of the hotel’s regular patrons represented the largest home-building company in the United States, and he offered Berg a job in a local office. Upon graduating college, Berg moved up to running the national office’s mortgage business. Berg later branched out on his own and opened Midtown Realty to do real estate in California’s Silicon Valley. He turned his attention to the booming tech business and rebranded the company as Mission West Properties, a multibillion-dollar real estate trust.

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12. Leon Charney 

Charney grew up dirt poor in New Jersey. He was close enough to New York to see the skyline but far enough that his big-city dreams were just out of reach. His parents were immigrants, and his father, who sold sewing supplies, died when Leon was young. The family became destitute. Charney worked to put himself through college and later law school, sometimes even singing for money. Not that he had a lousy voice; until he died in 2016, Charney worked as a cantor for his synagogue. However, his ambitions were not in music, and he opened up his law firm with only $200.

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As a lawyer, Charney worked for the Good Samaritan Law, which protects people from being sued if they help someone they see is in trouble. He also worked in the Camp David Accords. The law firm that he owned made him one of the 400 wealthiest people in America. Today, his rags to riches story is inspirational to many people.

11. Carl Lindner Junior 

Born shortly after World War I, Lindner grew up during the Great Depression. Like many children during the period, he dropped out of school at the age of 14. However, he showed an acumen to help his family survive. In 1938, at the age of 19, Lindner had a brilliant idea. At the time, most milk had to be delivered by hand, door to door, by delivery boys that dairy farmers hired. The process was expensive and cut into the profits for the farmers. Lindner wondered at the possibility of delivering milk directly to grocery stores, then selling it to customers.

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For the next few years, from the end of the Depression through World War II, Lindner and his siblings ran dairy routes to support the family. Those dairy routes became the basis of United Dairy Farmers, one of the largest chains of convenience stores throughout the Midwest. Lindner would eventually branch out into other ventures, including real estate and insurance. Like several other billionaires, he put his money into sports through an interest in the Cincinnati Reds.

This man wisely looked for underperforming companies.

10. Alec Gores 

As a teenager, Gores worked at his uncle’s grocery store stocking shelves, butchering meat, and doing whatever else. While working there, he also put himself through college at Western Michigan University. Gores’ degree was in science and math, and he went on to start his own company for selling software and hardware to businesses. He later sold the company to Continental Telephone and decided that instead of starting another company from scratch, he would look for underperforming companies and buy them.

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The companies that Gores would buy out were not just losing value or market shares; they had to appear to be promising but not actually perform up to their potential. Since 1987, under what would become Gores Group, Gores has acquired over 80 underperforming companies to the tune of nearly three billion dollars. Not to be confused with the former Vice President of the United States, this businessman has a rag to riches story.

9. Albert Ueltschi 

Ueltschi was one of many who did not choose to grow up during the Great Depression and had to make their way due to poverty. After finishing high school, he opened up a hamburger stand, but not just so that he could make ends meet. Ueltschi wanted to use the hamburger stand to help make his dreams come true of flying. In the few decades since the Wright brothers had first flown their makeshift plane at Kitty Hawk, flying had become more of a possibility for many in America. 

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Ueltschi used the hamburger stand as collateral to get a $3500 loan to buy a bi-wing airplane. He used the airplane as a business venture, selling rides to people who had the money to pay. Many of the rides were for fun, but as air travel became safer, he began flying people worldwide as a private pilot. He went on to open Flight Safety International in 1951 to train new pilots. The venture cost him $15,000, for which he had to take out a loan, and he later sold it to quintessential billionaire Warren Buffet for $1.5 billion.

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8. David Murdock 

The former CEO of Dole Foods was born into dire circumstances during the 1920s. His father worked as a traveling salesman and his mother scrubbed floors to keep the family fed. During the Great Depression, he dropped out of school to work. When the United States entered World War II, Murdock was drafted. After the war, he had only a few cents in his pocket but encountered a kind person who loaned him about $1000 to buy out a diner that was going out of business. Murdock flipped the diner and turned a $700 profit when he sold it.

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Murdock began buying out and flipping more businesses, particularly in the Los Angeles area. One business that he acquired was a banana and pineapple growing company known as Dole Food Company. He then turned it into one of the world’s largest food companies, one that is famous on grocery store shelves today. Well into his eighties and long after becoming a billionaire, Murdock received his GED. Not having an education did not prevent him from becoming immensely wealthy, but he recognized the importance of education by giving millions to university research projects.

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7. Oprah Winfrey

Winfrey was born in Mississippi at a time when Jim Crow laws ensured African Americans would have no opportunity for education or employment beyond being a field hand or domestic servant. Living in extreme poverty with a single teenage mother, Oprah later moved to Tennessee. The state that also knew the South’s harsh poverty but had more opportunities than Mississippi. She landed her first job in radio while in high school and at the age of 19 was the co-anchor of a news show. 

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She moved to Chicago and took over a third-rate daytime talk show that quickly moved up in the rankings. Her delivery style, which was extemporaneous and often emotional, attracted viewers, making her show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, one of the most-watched in the entire country. Oprah is now known worldwide and is an activist for African-American advancement and women’s rights. She is often the only African American to make the Forbes 400 list and one of the most influential African-American women in history.

He was a foster child before becoming one of the most recognized names in the hair industry.

6. John Paul 

John Paul DeJoria, the co-founder of the John Paul Mitchell line of hair-care products, was born into adversity. He grew up in and out of foster homes in East Los Angeles, and after a period serving in the United States Navy, was often homeless. He worked odd jobs where he could, serving as a janitor and as an attendant at a gas station. DeJoria found stability working in hair care. In 1980, he partnered with Paul Michell to start a company that would sell hair-care products. DeJoria’s initial investment was only $700. The company initially printed labels in black and white because color printing was too expensive.

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Today, John Paul Mitchell products are a staple of hair salons all across the world. DeJoria also co-founded the Patron Spirits Company and the nightclub chain House of Blues. Today, he has a wide array of investments that take him far from his upbringing as a foster kid in some of the most challenging parts of L.A.

5. Kirk Kerkorian 

A son of Armenian immigrants, Kerkorian had to start working at the age of nine to help feed his family. He never even began high school, dropping out in the eighth grade to earn money as a boxer. The uncompromising boxing style that helped earn money to support his family carried Kerkorian into business ventures that defined the Las Vegas strip. He built three hotels, each of which would be the largest on the strip at the time of its opening. They included the International Hotel, the MGM Grand Hotel, and the MGM Grand. 

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After opening the MGM Grand, Kerkorian took his no-nonsense business style into the auto industry. He bought large amounts of stock in Detroit’s automaking companies, making him the savior that rescued them as well as a person that they became beholden to. Despite a no-nonsense approach to business, Kerkorian engaged in philanthropy, particularly with his parents’ home country of Armenia. He donated over one billion dollars to rebuilding efforts after a devastating earthquake in 1988 and contributed to a film on the Armenian genocide.

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4. Ralph Lauren 

The man whose name is now synonymous with Polo shirts, men’s ties, and luxury towels and sheets grew up in the Bronx, the country’s poorest urban county. He attended Baruch College for a while before dropping out. Listless and aimless, Lauren enlisted in the Army reserves and also worked as a clerk at clothing store Brooks Brothers. He later sold ties, and that menial profession inspired him to begin designing ties that were wider and more colorful.

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In 1967, Lauren began designing ties for Beau Brummel Cravats, a St. Louis company named after the progenitor of men’s fashion. That year, he sold half a million dollars’ worth of ties. Clearly, the man was onto something: men’s fashion could be a lucrative enterprise. The following year, Lauren began the Polo Clothing Company, known also as Ralph Lauren. Today, his products are luxury goods; however yet accessible to those in the middle class.

This future billionaire grew up in a rough Boston neighborhood before creating trade shows in Vegas.

3. Sheldon Adelson 

The proprietor of the Las Vegas Sands was the son of a cab driver in Boston’s notorious Dorchester neighborhood. At the age of 12, Adelson began selling newspapers. Although he finished high school, he dropped out of college. Adelson became a court reporter, then sold toiletry kits to motels. He also tried his hand at mortgage brokering. However, his lucky break came when he organized a computer trade show known as Comdex.

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Conventions and trade shows became the backbone of Adelson’s successful career as an entrepreneur on the Las Vegas strip. Instead of building his hotel empire around casinos as many other investors did, he build it around trade shows that would attract thousands of people to his hotels. Adelson’s hotels also had casinos, and the people who attended the conventions and trade shows gambled their money at them. By 2006, the kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks added one million dollars to his wealth every single hour.

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2. Harold Hamm 

Sharecropping is where tenants lived on a wealthy landowner’s land and he leased the sharecroppers land and materials for growing crops. When the harvest came in, the sharecroppers had to repay their patron before taking any return for themselves. The landowner often extorted them for the cost of land and materials. Many sharecroppers lived in perpetual debt and were never able to leave. Hamm, the youngest of 13 kids, grew up in this paradigm, and he cannot remember a time when he was not working. While many people resent having to work hard at a young age, Hamm internalized the hard work ethic that his parents instilled in him and combined it with his ingenuity.

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When he was 20, he bought a truck to deliver water and necessary supplies to oil rigs. The delivery routes that he serviced on that truck became Continental Resources, one day becoming a multibillion-dollar company. In keeping with his upbringing, Hamm enlisted his family in running the business. His wife, rather than a hired accountant, managed the books, and his kids began doing jobs when they were in kindergarten. Hamm served as a role model to them, continually working hard and enjoying the work rather than becoming bitter and resentful.

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1. Larry Ellison 

Ellison was born in the Bronx, the poorest of New York’s five boroughs. His teenage mother asked his aunt and uncle to raise him in Chicago and they became his adoptive parents. Ellison attended college and then co-founded Software Development Labs in 1971, which obtained a contract from the federal government to build a data management system. In 1977, he and his partners called the system Oracle and it became the company’s best-selling product.

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Four years after releasing Oracle, Software Development Labs received a contract with IBM and doubled profits every year. Ellison and his partners soon renamed the company after its best-seller, and it became Oracle Corporation. After some challenges in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Oracle Corporation became the database management leader. Today, it is one of the world’s largest software firms, and Larry Ellison is one of the wealthiest people in the United States.

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