Dispelling common billionaire misconceptions

Only one in every five million citizens across the world is a billionaire – it’s therefore unsurprising that this is a lifestyle that not many people know about, says Rafael Badziag

For most people, the biggest source of information about billionaires and their lives is the mainstream media; however those are dominated by stereotypes that are false in a vast amount of cases.

Billionaire coverage very often focuses on drama and spending, which does not paint an accurate picture of most self-made billionaires. It is important that these stereotypes are debunked so that we can celebrate the contributions and successes of self-made billionaires across the world, especially the many that have had to overcome intense adversity. Here are just a few of the most common misconceptions of billionaires that I have found to not be grounded in reality. 

Most billionaires do not come from rich and developed countries 

It is a mistake to believe that you must come from a rich and developed country to reach billionaire status.

The success story of Narayana Murthy’s demonstrates that you can defy your external circumstances and create wealth; N.R. Narayana Murthy was born in India in 1946, which at the time was one of the poorest countries in the world. His family didn’t have any furniture – instead, everybody sat and slept on the floor. His meagre family income meant he couldn’t even afford to buy a newspaper, so went to the public library to read a copy. 

In 1981, Murthy founded the software company Infosys with several partners. Over the course of their journey to success, they have experienced a wide array of problems that would be enough to deter even the strongest of entrepreneurs. The country had repeated power shortages and it took Narayana three years and 50 visits by train to Delhi which was located 1,500 miles away from their company, to even secure the license necessary to import a computer to India. Whilst the company didn’t have a computer, their American client let them use one – however to communicate with him they had each time to go to the post office to use public phone, as communication lines were so poor at this time.

Despite these problems, Infosys now employs more than 200,000 programmers. It is one of the world’s largest software companies with revenues going into billions of dollars and in 2003 Murthy was named World Entrepreneur of the Year, the best entrepreneur in the world if you will.

Most billionaires do not come from a wealthy and supportive family background

Mohed Altrad was born into a Bedouin community in the Syrian Desert.

After he was born, Altrad’s father disowned him, forced him and his mother out of their home and into the periphery and killed his brother. His life was so unimportant that his date of birth was never noted down – he still does not know when he was born.

When he was four, Altrad’s mother died and he was raised by his grandmother, who did not favour sending him to school. However, each day, he would walk miles barefoot to the nearby village to attend school, even though he did not even possess a pencil or notebook.

Altrad’s first experience of entrepreneurship came after he was gifted a bicycle, which he chose to rent to his friends for a fee – this then helped him to buy school materials. After completing his important education, he took on a bankrupt scaffolding company in France, which he completely transformed.

Over the past 30 years, he has added more than 200 companies to The Altrad Group. By doing that, he became a billionaire and one of the wealthiest people in France. Altrad was chosen as the World Entrepreneur of the Year 2015. His story isn’t unusual among billionaires – in fact, more than 70% of the world’s billionaires are self-made.

Most billionaires didn’t attend top-class universities 

The story of Cao Dewang demonstrates that not all self-made billionaires received the best formal education.

Cao Dewang was born in war-torn China in a very poor village after his father abandoned the family. In China, at the time, it was required by law for children to attend school, but his family couldn’t afford this for several years. He was finally able to attend school at the age of nine, but found it incredibly challenging. He was quickly labelled a ‘bad kid’ at an early age, because of his frustration and defiance. 

Cao was forced to leave school after just five grades following an incident with the school director – since Chinese scripture consists of 90,000 characters, out of which 5,000 are used regularly, he was left basically illiterate. However, he was determined to not give up, so he began to read his brother’s books while fulfilling his only task of taking care of the communal cow, but he did not know enough characters to read them properly.

He decided to take on extra jobs in order to earn pennies to pay for a dictionary. It took him a year to save up for the dictionary and, slowly but surely, he taught himself to read. After this, he wanted to continue his learning by buying an encyclopaedia and after three years of saving he purchased a copy to learn from. After assuming many different job roles, Cao established Fuyao Glass, the world’s largest auto glass manufacturer, and was named World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009 having never graduated from school or university.

Today, he is a billionaire and one of the wealthiest people in China.

Most billionaires aren’t motivated by money

Another common misconception is that love of money is the primary motivator of billionaires, but this is not the case. While money is an important benchmark to measure business success, it is certainly not the main driver.

Lirio Parisotto, Founder of Videolar, a video and audiotape company, spent his childhood on a Brazilian farm that did not have electricity and running water. Even though he did not know exactly what he wanted to do in life, he did know he did not want to remain there and thus used this as his motivation to succeed. Similarly, a number of billionaires are motivated by their thirst for knowledge and continual improvement.

Petter Stordalen,  Norwegian investor, hotel tycoon, property developer and a self-proclaimed environmentalist wants ‘to do things better today than yesterday, but not as good as tomorrow’, and it is this drive to continue to learn that keeps billionaires at the top of their game – not just the desire to earn money. Self-made billionaires are wealthy because they created so much value for the society, not because they wanted the money so much.

Billionaires share their wealth with others 

A common stereotype of billionaires is that they either choose to spend their money on luxury, and sometimes unnecessary items, or do not share their wealth with others, but this could not be further from the truth for many self-made billionaires.

Within Infosys, not only has Narayana Murthy himself became a billionaire, but he also made six of his co-founders into billionaires and at least 4,000 of his employees into millionaires.

Their success has been shared among the company and many individuals have benefitted. Infosys invests $50 million into philanthropic activities each year. Naveen Jain, Former CEO of InfoSpace describes how ‘success is measured by the impact you’re making on society’. In a similar vein, Petter Stordalen said: ‘For me, Nordic Choice has never been about making money. It’s about making a difference. For the people who work for us, our guests, and for the community.’

The Stordalen Foundation is focused on climate change, rainforest protection, renewable energy and the development of ecological technology. Filipino billionaire Tony Tan Caktiong’s School Feeding Program has fed more than 180,000 students in more than 1,800 schools on a daily basis and Cao Dewang spent more than $1bn USD on philanthropic causes already, which has made him one of the most important Asian philanthropists.

Rafael Badziag is a German-based global entrepreneur, TED speaker, best-selling author and angel investor.

He is an expert in the psychology of entrepreneurship, specialising in self- made billionaires and was featured on NBC, ABC, BBC, CBS and FOX networks as well as in USA Today, Wall Street Journal and other media in several countries. Badziag is the author of The Billion Dollar Secret, distilling the mindset of 21 self-made billionaires into 20 mental principles for entrepreneurs. 

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