By Pradip Rodrigues
Last week businessman Steve Gupta received a Doctor of Laws honoris causa (Latin: “for the sake of the honor”) it’s an academic degree for which a university has waived requirements) from Ryerson University. In his acceptance speech this humble multi-millionaire reminisced about arriving in Canada with exactly $ 108. He worked hard and built his business. Whenever I’ve met and interviewed millionaires (and a couple of billionaires) I am
curious to understand what propels them to achieve greatness and amass vast fortunes, I never fail to ask them about it. Invariably I find that they have started out with little or nothing. These millionaires and very successful professionals will often open with, “I came to this country with $100. Or I was really poor growing up…”. There is no shame in admitting to experiencing poverty and hardship in one’s past when one is a millionaire. In fact it is often announced rather triumphantly like it is a badge of honor. It is the middle-class immigrant who will do everything to hide the fact that they came from families with modest means or grew up poverty.
Self-made individuals often start with little
According to Forbes 30 percent of the Forbes 400 members inherited their wealth and the remaining 70 percent are entirely “self-made.”
Here are two examples of individuals who went from rags to riches. Whatsapp co-founder CEO Jan Koum who immigrated to the US from Ukraine with his family 20 years ago lived off food stamps. Today, he’s worth an estimated $6.8 billion.
Starbucks’ Howard Schultz grew up in a housing complex for the poor. Today he is a latte-sipping billionaire.
Pakistani -American Shahid Khan can’t stop reminding everyone that he once washed dishes for $1.20 an hour. He owns Flex-N-Gate, one of the largest private companies in the U.S. and has an estimated net worth of $8 billion.
All these stories seem to confirm my suspicion that starting off poor or with very little plays a significant role in the lives of many successful people. The late Dhirubhai Ambani founder of Reliance Industries grew up poor, it was poverty that was probably a factor that propelled him to create wealth.
Denying children luxuries is a good thing
The role of poverty should make a lot of parents start thinking whether providing so many luxuries to their children and making their lives as comfortable as possible is actually diminishing their chances to be truly successful. Sure many of these pampered brats may end up working as mid-level professionals in some corporation or the other, but will they ever be visionaries, inventors and entrepreneures? Many immigrant parents, especially those who’ve experienced a level of hardship back in the old country end up pampering their children to their own detriment. In an interview with me years ago, Gautam Singhania, Chairman & Managing Director of the Raymond Group, said that although he was born into wealth, his father shielded it from him for a very long time. While all the other millionaire teenagers in South Mumbai were driving around in BMW’s and Mercedes Benz cars, Gautam Singhania drove an old Fiat car for the longest time. He had to apprentice at the factories and spend time in all departments before he got to be boss. It built his character.
Poverty can be a great motivator
I think poverty or limited resources forces people to think outside the box and become inventive. Some wealthy and enlightened parents deliberately create conditions of poverty for their children who are forced to live on a limited budget on campus or service their own loans. I once knew a Caucasian millionaire’s daughter who worked at a retail store because she needed to generate her own pocket money for things like clothes, movies and outings with friends. Her parents provided her the bare minimum. The experience of living middle-class with limited means made her empathize and identify with the less fortunate, it also helped her understand the value of money and the ethic of hard work.
Many successful immigrants admit things were hard when they arrived in Canada. Some worked in factories, others delivered newspapers or bagged groceries in order to put food on the table. By the time their children came of age, they saw nothing but the fruits of their parents’ labour. They’ve never had to work two jobs, or work 7 days a week and get by with just four hours of sleep. These parents often end up shielding their children from the hardship they went through in the misguided belief that an experience of hardship or poverty would prove to be too traumatic for their children.
Students living hand to mouth
On two American campuses, I’ve had conversations with starving students who survived for months on ramen noodles, peanut butter sandwiches, bananas and milk. They might have been hungry but boy, did they have a fire in their bellies? Hunger pangs sharpened their thoughts and pushed them to work even harder, win scholarships and find jobs. Many of these students had limited help from their already cash-strapped parents. Recently I met a resourceful foreign student from India who has found a job that pays for his rent, groceries and has something left over to pay toward his college loan. By next year, he plans to fund his own education, he won’t be needing his parents’ help at all. They could only provide enough for his first few semesters. Would he have been so motivated and hard working had his parents been in a position to provide for his education and plush living arrangements in Toronto?
What if businessman Steve Gupta came to Canada with $10,000 or say $50,000. Would he have achieved the same level of success? I rarely hear people boasting about how much money they brought with them to Canada. That is often because they have buried it in a million-dollar home or they’ve frittered it away by living life King Size. Immigrants who’ve come with large sums of money, tend not to take risks. The only risk so many have taken is to stay unemployed until they got that big and elusive break. Perhaps if they came with $100 like Steve Gupta, they might’ve improved their odds of success.