Biographies, 1980s–2010s

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, 1955– and 1953–

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, 1955– and 1953–

Teen Wonders

Seattle teenagers Bill Gates and Paul Allen created their first company, Traf-O-Data, in 1972. They built a machine that took raw data from roadway traffic counters and created reports for traffic engineers. That company did not last, but they gained valuable experience for their next venture: Microsoft.

Courtesy of Corbis Images

Sam Walton, 1918–1992

Sam Walton, 1918–1992

Revolutionary Retailer

A child of the Depression, Sam Walton knew the value of a buck. He developed Walmart, a discount retail chain, aimed at working-class consumers. He lowered prices by installing self-service, eliminating middlemen, and streamlining supply chains. He also used technology to track inventory and consumer buying patterns.

Courtesy of Walmart

Sam Walton’s baseball cap, 1980s

Sam Walton’s baseball cap, 1980s

Gloria Steinem, 1934–

Gloria Steinem, 1934–

Feminist

Although it was not the role she sought, media attention made Steinem a leader of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s. A co-founder of Ms. magazine, she addressed the economic and social issues of women’s lives, including gaining equal pay and breaking the glass ceiling.

Courtesy of ©Marianne Barcellona. All Rights Reserved.

Felix Zandman, 1928–2011

Felix Zandman, 1928–2011

Successful Survivor

Zandman learned trigonometry and physics from his uncle while hiding under a floor from the Nazis for 17 months. After immigrating to the United States, he was frustrated by his employer’s unwillingness to market his inventions. At age 35, he founded Vishay Intertechnology, a highly successful manufacturer of electronic components.

Courtesy of Zandman Family

A sketch made on a napkin for one of Felix Zandman’s many inventions, undated

Steve Jobs, 1955–2011

Steve Jobs, 1955–2011

Different Thinker

Computer pioneer Jobs—brilliant, visionary, irascible, and driven—experienced both great successes and spectacular failures. His greatest accomplishment was envisioning easy-to-use technology such as the Macintosh computer and iPhone, designed not for geeks and nerds, but for “the rest of us.”

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Diana Walker

Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson, 1936– and 1947–1999

Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson, 1936– and 1947–1999

Genetic Revolutionaries

While in San Francisco in 1976, scientist Boyer partnered with businessman Swanson to launch a new industry, biotechnology, and a new firm, Genentech. Boyer had perfected a technique for manipulating DNA to create important drugs like human insulin, which helped diabetics. Swanson, an ambitious venture capitalist, realized the commercial promise of Boyer’s gene-splicing techniques, and became the new firm’s first CEO.

Courtesy of Genentech

Phil Knight, 1938–

Phil Knight, 1938–

Sole Innovator

Combining his entrepreneurial spirit with his love of running, Knight started an innovative shoe company, Nike. It created a lightweight shoe with a waffle-pattern sole specifically for runners. Brilliant marketing turned the Nike logo and “Just Do It” tagline into symbols of health, personal liberty, and status.

Courtesy of Corbis Images
 

Waffle-pattern Nike sneakers, about 1979

Oprah Winfrey, 1954–

Oprah Winfrey, 1954–

Media Mogul

Innovator in media—radio, television, film, and publishing—Winfrey began a globally recognized career as host of a syndicated talk show in 1986. With a nature both genuine and aggressive, she explored issues of national concern. A woman of considerable wealth, Winfrey became known throughout the world for her philanthropy.

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Wallace Coulter, 1913–1998

Wallace Coulter, 1913–1998

Humble Innovator

An engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, and visionary, Coulter and his brother Joe founded Coulter Electronics. Using their patented “Coulter Principle,” a groundbreaking method of counting and sizing particles suspended in liquid, the company built and marketed devices that automated the most common medical diagnostic test: the Complete Blood Count. Later they expanded into many other applications. Living a modest life, Coulter reinvested the company’s profits back into research, development, and continuous innovation.

Courtesy of Coulter Foundation

Myra and Drew Goodman, 1960– and 1963–

Myra and Drew Goodman, 1960– and 1963–

Organic Entrepreneurs

Relocating to California for college, New Yorkers Myra and Drew fell in love with each other—and organic salad greens. Understanding the potential of the East Coast market, they grew their West Coast passion and simple backyard garden into Earthbound Farm, a major producer of organic food.

Courtesy of Earthbound Farm

Ryuji Ishii, 1952–

Ryuji Ishii, 1952–

Sushi Promoter

Japanese immigrant Ishii brought a new global food element to American tables. Missing the ready availability of sushi in his homeland, Ishii started the company Advanced Fresh Concepts to produce and sell sushi in American supermarkets. Starting in California, he built a taste for it from Alaska to Alabama.

Courtesy of © Renee Farias

Michael Bloomberg, 1942–

Michael Bloomberg, 1942–

Rebounder

Laid off by a Wall Street investment bank in 1981, Bloomberg took his severance package and opened a specialized information company for the financial industry. His niche offerings and the must-have Bloomberg Terminal computer system became foundations of a multi-billion-dollar media empire.

Courtesy of Edward Hausner / The New York Times / Redux

Chiclets keyboard

Chiclets keyboard

Maria Durazo, 1953-

Maria Durazo, 1953-

Labor Organizer

Durazo learned the hardships of labor in the fields with her Mexican immigrant parents. She became a dynamic union organizer, served as leader of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, and joined the Executive Council of AFL-CIO. Standing with her community, she protested low wages, dangerous working conditions, and deaths of immigrant workers.

Photograph by Peter Holderness

Robert Fraley, 1953–

Robert Fraley, 1953–

Gene Manipulator

Born on a farm and educated in genetic engineering, Fraley saw a new future for biotechnology: agriculture. He led the Monsanto teams that developed herbicide-resistant petunias and then soybeans. This work enabled farmers to kill weeds without damaging their crops.

Courtesy of Monsanto Company

Warren Buffett, 1930–

Warren Buffett, 1930–

Young Oracle of Omaha

As a kid, Buffett earned money delivering newspapers and bought stocks. He learned valuable lessons: do research, invest early, spread risk, and do not expect quick returns. He used these guiding principles to become the billionaire CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s richest individuals.

“I made my first investment at age 11. I was wasting my life up until then.”

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh

Gordon and Carole Segal, 1939–

Gordon and Carole Segal, 1939–

Market Makers

At a young age and with little retail experience, the Segals recognized a retail market catering to those who had taste but little money. Buying well-designed but inexpensive home goods directly from European sources, they slowly expanded Crate and Barrel stores into a well-known chain.

Courtesy of the Segal Family

Henry Paulson, 1946–

Henry Paulson, 1946–

Recovery Agent

As the American financial markets spiraled out of control in 2008, Secretary of the Treasury Paulson struggled to restore stability. Not a fan of memos or emails, he worked in person or on his cell phone. He used this one to negotiate government intervention with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Courtesy of Corbis Images

Motorola cell phone, 2007-2008

Dora Hilda Escobar, 1969–

Dora Hilda Escobar, 1969–

Restaurateur

Escobar arrived from El Salvador in the 1980s, seeking opportunity but finding exploitation. Entrepreneurial and hardworking, she labored in the gray economy selling clothes and making pupusas in her home. Eventually, she built a business selling to the émigré community, which expanded to multiple restaurants and check-cashing facilities.

Balbir Singh Sodhi, 1949–2001

Balbir Singh Sodhi, 1949–2001

Merchant of Promise

Escaping the persecution of Sikhs in India, Sodhi hoped to use his engineering degree in the United States, but drove a taxi for over a decade. He saved enough money to open a gas station in Arizona. Mistaken for a Muslim days after September 11, 2001, he was murdered outside his station.

Sara Blakely, 1971–

Sara Blakely, 1971–

Determined Retailer

With no experience in business, retail, or fashion, Blakely invented a lightweight, figure-shaping undergarment. Instead of launching an advertising campaign, she sent her Spanx undergarment to Oprah Winfrey, who raved about it on her television show. Word of mouth did the rest.

Courtesy of Spanx

High-Risk Investors

High-risk investors became increasingly important in the 1970s and 1980s.They challenged staid companies and reengineered corporate America. Some companies were restructured to achieve greater efficiencies; others were dismembered and sold off in pieces.

Michael Milken, 1946–

Michael Milken, 1946–

Michael Milken helped transform corporate America in the 1980s. Running the high-yield (junk) bond department at Drexel Burnham Lambert, Milken analyzed  financial records and found opportunities for start-ups and leveraged buyouts. Bond pools gave him the capital he needed to take action.

Courtesy of office of Mike Milken

Carl Icahn, 1936–

Carl Icahn, 1936–

A famous corporate raider of the 1970s and 1980s, Icahn bought large stakes in companies and gained control of their boards. Often both management and employees opposed his actions. An activist, he often forced companies to take on huge debt and sell off assets. While he got millions, the companies sometimes failed.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Henry Kravis, 1944–

Henry Kravis, 1944–

Kravis revolutionized capital markets by pioneering leveraged buyouts. He and his partners would borrow large sums of money to buy into companies and gain control, then force restructuring or asset sales to repay their loans. Their goal was making companies lean and mean. Sometimes they succeeded; sometimes they failed.

Courtesy of Getty Images