13 People Who Came To America With Nothing And Made A Fortune

andrew ly

Photo: Asian Pacific Fund

The American Dream drew nearly 14 million immigrants to the U.S. in the past decade. The belief that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps resonates in America more than any other country in the world.

But success is never guaranteed — there are high risks involved. 

We’ve compiled a list of 13 immigrants who came to the U.S. with practically nothing and emerged as testaments to hard work, passion and the will to succeed. And they have the money and acclaim to show for it.

Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo

Yang was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1968, and his father died two years later. He moved with the rest of his family to San Jose, California when he was eight years old. Upon arriving in America, Yang knew just one word of English: 'shoe.'

But in spite of these massive disadvantages, Yang excelled in school and attended Stanford, graduating in 1990. He started Yahoo in 1995 and recently stepped down from the company, accumulating a networth of $1.15 billion along the way.

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo

Born in Madras, India, the future CEO of PepsiCo grew up conservative and middle-class, studying physics, chemistry and maths. Her determination to study in the U.S. brought her to Yale University's Graduate School of Management in 1978.

Despite financial aid from Yale, Nooyi worked nights as a receptionist. She went in for interviews wearing a sari because she 'had no money to buy clothes.'

But she persevered and finished her degree, moving on to the Boston Consulting Group before joining PepsiCo in 1994. Since then, she has been a major part of reshaping the Pepsi brand, overseeing major acquisitions like Quaker Oats and Tropicana, and becoming CEO in 2001. Her salary is almost $20 million dollars annually.

Andrew Ly, founder of Sugar Bowl Bakery

Ly fled his native country after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975. After several failed attempts to escape, Ly lived for nine months in a Malaysian refugee camp before getting assistance from the United States Catholic Charity.

Coming to the U.S. in 1979 with just a dollar to his name, Ly settled in San Francisco. He lived for years with eight other family members in a two-bedroom apartment, learning to speak English as he attended classes.

In 1984, Ly and his four brothers pooled their savings to open the Sugar Bowl Bakery. The bakery saw great success and has expanded to a $400 million dollar business, and in 1993 the Ly Brothers Corporation was born.

Ly has been recognised as the Bay Area's 'Most Admired CEO' and earned the 'Immigrant Heritage Award.'

Dham was born in Pune, India and came to the U.S. in 1975. He was an engineering student with just eight dollars in his pocket, after refusing to bribe Indian officials for a larger grant. He survived upon his arrival thanks to a loan from the University of Cincinnati study abroad office.

After graduating, Dham worked for Intel and helped invent Intel's first flash memory chip. He went on to become the CEO of Silicon Spice, which sold for $1.2 billion in 2002.

He is now a venture capitalist, and is looking to give back to his native country.

Rajat Gupta, former managing director of McKinsey & Company

The second of five children born in Calcutta, India, Gupta dealt with adversity from his teenage years on. His father died when he was 16, and his mother when he was 18. The five siblings (one of whom was still just 8 years old at this point) decided to live together. All five were good students, and Gupta earned a scholarship to the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi.

An offer from Harvard Business School was waiting once Gupta graduated, and he took it. He joined McKinsey soon after and remained there until 2003, in the process becoming the first India-born CEO of a US transglobal corporation.

In 2011, Gupta was arrested by the FBI and charged with securities fraud and conspiracy -- a potentially inauspicious end to a rags-to-riches story. At the time of his arrest he was worth at least $100 million.

Elie Wiesel, author

Born in Transylvania -- which is now known as Romania -- Wiesel is a prolific Jewish author and activist. During World War II, members of the Wiesel family that had not emigrated to America were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Though Elie survived, his parents and younger sister did not.

After the war, Wiesel began writing. After being rejected several times, he received a $100 advance for his first book about the Holocaust to be published in the U.S. It wasn't until he moved to New York City in 1956 and published over 40 books that he became the most prominent name in Holocaust literature.

Since then, he has been recognised and received by the U.S. Congress and multiple U.S. presidents, and in 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mel Martinez, former U.S. Senator and current chairman of Chase Bank Florida

Martinez was born in Cuba in 1947. During 'Operation Peter Pan,' a joint operation by the U.S. government and the Catholic Church to 'save' the children of Cuba, Martinez was one of 14,000 kids brought to Miami. He spoke almost no English and lived in military camps until he was taken in by two foster families.

Martinez was eventually reunited with his parents, and went on to graduate from Florida State University. He became the first Latino chairman of a major party, a cabinet member during the administration of George W. Bush, and a senator representing Florida.

He is currently chairman of Chase Bank Florida. When he left office, Martinez was already worth roughly a couple million dollars.

Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel Corporation

Born in Hungary, the man originally known as Andras Istvan Grof spent much of his formative years hiding from the Nazis under a false identity. During Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Grove escaped into Austria and was one of hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans who migrated to the United States.

Grove arrived in the U.S. in 1957 with little money and less in the way of English-language skills. He worked as a busboy while studying chemistry at the City College of New York. His English grades were average, but he excelled in all other subjects.

Moving out to California, he co-founded Intel Corporation in 1968. He would later become the company's chairman and CEO in 1997, along the way helping Intel become a billion dollar company and one of the most important components of the information economy. He's worth a Forbes-estimated $400 million today.

Lowell Hawthorne, founder of Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill

The emigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1981, where he had to leave behind the family bakery to work for the New York Police Department. He puts it bluntly: 'Once I arrived, like most immigrants I had to find employment.'

After 10 years of accounting for the NYPD, Hawthorne decided he wanted to return to baking. With no prior business experience, he pooled money from family members (some of whom took out second mortgages to help him) and launched Golden Krust in 1989 in the Bronx.

Today Golden Krust can be found in 125 franchises in nine states along the Eastern seaboard, and grosses more than $100 million in annual sales.

Gene Simmons, original KISS bandmember

The man now known as 'The Demon' was originally Chaim Witz, born in Israel to a Hungarian couple. Simmons and his mother moved to Jackson Heights, Queens when he was eight, without the rest of their family.

According to Simmons, his family was 'dirt poor' in Israel, scraping by on rationed bread and milk. In New York, he attended a Jewish Yeshiva and became involved in music during his teenage years.

Simmons became the bassist for KISS, which holds the most gold records of any American rock band to date. Between his music career, his reality TV career and the KISS brand, Simmons' net worth today is in the area of $300 million.

Gurbaksh Chahal, founder of Gwallet

Chahal's family comes from Punjab, India, where Chahal was born in 1982. After winning the immigration lottery, the family moved to San Jose, California in 1986. They came to America with just $25 to their name.

For a family that struggled for years to get by, it must have been a shock when Gurbaksh dropped out of high school at 16. He started his own company, ClickAgent, which he sold for $40 million less than two years later.

BlueLithium, his second company, was bought by Yahoo was a cool $300 million in cash. He also had the opportunity to meet President Obama. He's worth more than $100 million today.

Ahmad Meradji, CEO of Booklogix

At age 21, Meradji left his home in Iran for America. Arriving in 1978, he spoke no English and hustled non-stop, working as a busboy, cab driver, waiter and deliveryman. He also started going to school in order to climb the corporate ladder.

The hard work paid off, and he reached executive positions at both Xerox and H&R Block before starting his own business in 2006: Booklogix, a self-publishing service in Georgia.

In an interview with AllBusiness.com, Meradji gave the an inspirational explanation for the success of people like him: '...if you are afraid to lose, you will never win. A lot of foreigners are not afraid because they have nothing to lose.'

Felix Sanchez de la Vega Guzman, founder of Puebla Foods

Guzman manages to make this list despite knowing virtually no English to this day. He arrived from Puebla, Mexico to New York City in 1970, and spent much of his first few years washing dishes and performing other low-paying jobs.

Noticing a demand for traditional products to feed a growing Mexican population, Guzman and his wife pooled their savings to create a tortilla-selling business in New Jersey. As his popularity grew, he went from selling tortillas door-to-door to distributing a variety of Mexican foods all the way to Los Angeles.

Though Guzman still speaks little English, he became an American citizen in 1985. With the help of his English-speaking children, Puebla is now worth about $19 million.

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