Companies come and go. Their relevance isn’t always obvious, or at least not right away. While some very obviously revolutionize their industry the moment they hit the market, others don’t realize their importance in their lifetime.
People like Elon Musk are very clearly geniuses, adding value to their industry and beyond, while people like Henry Ford are long gone by the time their contribution is recognized for what it is.
I began to wonder who we might consider some of the most influential business operators of all time. Some are still thriving while others have been gone for more than a century, but this list remains true for many reasons.
What is a Business Operator?
For the purposes of this article, a business operator is someone who started, owned, or managed their own business at one point in their lifetime. Their contributions as an operator accelerated their company’s performance or their company’s contributions to the industry revolutionized the entire industry and beyond.
These people are innovative and thoughtful leaders. We use their inventions or their technology on a daily basis, and we wouldn’t know life without them. They’ve changed or are currently changing the world in more ways than we know.
One of the key trademarks of a successful business operator is that they didn’t do it for the money. They did it because they thought it was important. They wanted to solve a problem, and they were aware of the incredible risks.
Hopefully, this list inspires you to do the same, or at least recognize these people for their life-changing endeavors.
Science and Technology
Innovations in science and technology started long before we even realize. These men changed the world as we know it today and the contributions they made outlived the men themselves.
The men who are still with us continue to revolutionize their fields and the way we will use technology well into the future.
Thomas Edison’s contributions to science and modern lifestyle are undeniable. Despite his passing almost 100 years ago, his innovations changed the entire world as we know it today, and he died with a net worth of about $12 million, which is quite a lot more by today’s standards.
His motivation in the field of science, even after failing thousands of times, earns him a top spot on the list of the most influential business operators of all time.
His persistence demonstrated itself early on in life when he overcame an ear infection that left him deaf in at least one of his ears. He also survived scarlet fever, after nearly dying due to the disease.
However, after saving a toddler from being hit by a roaring freight train, he became a local celebrity and was offered a job as a telegraph operator.
Thomas held thousands of patents in his name, but more of these inventions failed than succeeded. His first success was the tinfoil phonograph, born out of his experience as a telegraph operator.
His goal was to make telegraph transmitters more efficient. He discovered that you could play the tape in the machine faster to make it sound like a real voice, so he recorded a message on the tape and played it back.
This discovery led to many more by this patient and passionate individual and motivated him to keep trying until his inventions worked. One of the most notable inventions of his that we still use today is the light bulb. He also invented the telephone, the microphone, and alkaline batteries.
Unfortunately, this man died before his time. He was just 56 years old when he passed, but he was worth $6.1 billion at the time and had already made an infinite number of advances in technology and media devices.
Whether you love him or hate him, you definitely already know who he is. There’s very little chance that someone reading this right now will ask why he’s on the list. What you might not know about him, though, is that he was adopted.
When he graduated from high school in 1972, he went straight to work for Atari. Two years later, he went into business with his friend, Steve Wozniak, assembling computers and selling them for a profit.
They were making a decent profit, so in 1976, they founded the Apple Computer Company together. Within just 4 years, Apple was publicly traded. They were able to entice John Scully to leave Pepsi-Cola in 1983, and just a year later, they released the first Apple Macintosh.
Unfortunately, in 1985, Jobs was forced out of the leadership, although he still owned shares. He formed another company called NeXT computers and bought The Graphics Group, which later became Pixar.
Apple bought NeXT ten years later for $429 million and Steve Jobs became the interim CEO for Apple. In 2000, Steve Jobs became the permanent CEO of Apple once again.
Even though Steve Jobs passed away unexpectedly in 2011, many people remember and respect him for being a true pioneer in the world of computing and media devices.
While Steve Jobs may have started his own computer company, Bill Gates revolutionized the way we use computers on a daily basis. We can credit him with making personal computers popular so that we can use them for work and fun.
He began his career in computers at age 13 with his partner, Paul Allen, and some other friends from school. They began using computers for the first time, studying how they worked and decoding programming languages.
They were banned from using their DEC PDP-10 computers after getting caught exploiting bugs in the code.
In 1973, he graduated high school with a perfect SAT score and enrolled in Harvard. He made fast friends with Steve Ballmer, who took over as CEO of Microsoft when Bill Gates retired.
Gates left Harvard early to start his own business. Bill Gates and Paul Allen created an emulator to run on a microcomputer to impress Ed Roberts at MIT. They received some funding to work on their new business, Micro-Soft.
In 1976, they dropped the hyphen but continued to make advances in computer technology for the next several decades. They partnered with other businesses to get the capital they needed for the manufacturing of both hardware and software.
In 1980, IBM asked Microsoft to develop code for a new computer that ran on a language called BASIC. Out of this partnership came the IBM PC and MS DOS, which became a huge success overnight.
The first MS Windows was released in 1985, and since then, we’ve seen more than 20 iterations of the software. The most recent is Windows 10, released in 2015.
Microsoft developed the personal computer standard and is one of the largest computer information and technology businesses in the world.
Larry Page is the co-founder of Google, one of the most recognized search engines in the world. His parents were both computer science professors, so his background in the field was tremendously helpful in launching his careers.
He has a bachelor’s and a masters degree in computer science from Stanford. This is where he met his partner, Sergey Brin. They started a business together and formed Google Incorporated in 1996.
They received their first round of financing from Sun Microsystems and developed a web crawler that soon grew into the search engine we use today. This crawler would search for websites using the Stanford University home page as its starting point.
Together, they created an algorithm that ranked web pages based on how well they matched the search term. Sound familiar?
Much the same as it did back then, Google still ranks pages based on a complex algorithm that includes many different SEO conditions.
Manufacturing and Industry
Every business making products today follows some sort of manufacturing process. It’s critical to staying on track and maximizing efficiency. Without some sort of process in place, these businesses wouldn’t make a profit.
These influential business operators are known for their contributions to manufacturing in one way or another.
When Henry Ford was young, he took apart the timepiece his father gave him just to see how it worked. Ever since he was a kid, he was interested in building things and making them operate more efficiently.
It’s no surprise that we can attribute the assembly line to him because such things just came naturally.
He was born into a farming family and had a relatively comfortable upbringing. After he was able to take his timepiece apart and rebuild it, he began repairing other people’s timepieces, too.
He was dyslexic but determined. He didn’t let this hurdle get in the way. He repeated processes time and time again until he had mastered them. This persistence paid off, especially when completing apprenticeships with James F. Flower & Bros and the Detroit Dry Dock Company.
Thomas Edison was impressed with Ford’s concept for an automobile, so in 1891, he was allowed to use Edison’s warehouses to make two of them. In 1899, he founded the Detroit Automobile Company and was finally able to build cars on his own terms.
Unfortunately, these vehicles lacked quality and precision good enough for Ford, and his costs were too much for the company to bear, so it closed. Once again, he didn’t let that stop him.
He established the Cadillac Automobile Company, and even though he almost failed the second time around, too, he found some partners to help. The business was renamed the Ford Motor Company, and as we all know, it’s still in business today.
However, that’s not all Henry Ford gave us. He was the first business owner to pioneer the assembly line. Most manufacturers in his time had people in their warehouses building products from start to finish on their own.
Ford had the idea to streamline manufacturing by giving every person a specific job. Rather than one person building the car from start to finish, each process had its own step, with employees dedicated to its expertise.
This made the process much more efficient. Manufacturers caught wind of this idea, and we wouldn’t dream of having it any other way today.
Matthew Boulton was born to a poor toymaker and attended a local school for a short time, before joining his father in the toy-making business. Lucky for Boulton, he married the daughter of a wealthy merchant when he was 21.
After his father died, he left toys behind to pursue an interest in precious metals. He traveled all over the UK, selling his items where he could. He worked out a deal with a well-respected friend to present Prince Edward with a sword.
While Prince Edward wasn’t interested, his older brother, Prince George III was. With encouragement from royalty, he used most of his money to purchase a large property where he could grow his business.
Here, he developed modern production methods and offered his employees insurance. He was well known for his perfectionism and technological advancements in the manufacturing industry.
Before he died, his Soho manufacturing facilities were well regarded and often visited by the wealthy. He was named the Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1809, shortly before his death.
When it comes to e-commerce, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to think of very many successful businesses that don’t have the ability to order online. We have a few people to thank for that.
Amazon.com is perhaps one of the most well-known e-commerce sites in the world. Its CEO and chairman of the board is highly educated and very intelligent. Much like Steve Jobs, some like him and some don’t. But no matter how you feel, he’s very successful.
He was born to a teenage girl who was only married for one year. When Jeff was 5, she married a man named Miguel Bezos, who is the man Jeff calls his father.
Jeff loved science and convinced his parents to turn the garage into a lab, but only after getting in trouble for setting up a series of alarms to keep his siblings out of his room.
He graduated from Princeton University and went to work on Wall Street, attempting to apply his interest in computer science. That very same year, he started the internet business that eventually became Amazon.
Carnegie Mellon University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2008 for his contributions to science and technology.
Today, Jeff Bezos is one of the wealthiest people in the world, but if his wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has in the last five years, he’ll be the world’s first trillionaire by 2026.
There’s no disputing the usefulness of social media, and I think we all know who helped to pioneer the first social media platform ever. No other social media mogul is as famous as the first, and there are dozens of social media platforms today, thanks to one man.
Mark Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook and currently serves as the CEO, chairman, and controlling shareholder. He’s one of the most wealthy men on the planet, and he’s also been the subject of many documentaries as well as a movie.
He started Facebook from his dorm room at Harvard. It began as a way for people to connect with other college students. Your school had to register with Facebook in order for you to be a member, and it was considered quite exclusive among young coeds.
It actually started as The Photo Address Book, but students nicknamed it Facebook, and it stuck. By the time Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to take Facebook to the next level, it had more than 1 million users.
Along with a few others, Zuckerberg took a $12.7 million investment to continue to evolve the platform, and before he knew it, he had massive brands attempting to buy him out.
Whether you like Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg or you don’t, you can’t deny that he changed the way we interact with our friends and the world.
Without pioneers in photography, you wouldn’t be taking pictures like you do today. We rarely use film cameras anymore, but capturing images wouldn’t be possible without innovations from several people.
Even if you weren’t alive when film cameras were the only option, you’ve likely heard of Kodak. If you’ve used a Kodak product, it might have been a digital camera or 35mm film. They even offer photo processing services.
The man behind Kodak was self-educated and very generous. Not only did he invent film, but he donated millions to hospitals and charities. He transformed photography from an expensive hobby that few could afford into a way for everyone to enjoy making memories.
While George Eastman founded the Kodak company in 1884, he was more interested in the investments in the industry than he was in operating the business. He hired a president from the outside so he could innovate.
He invented roll film just a year after founding the company, and this type of film was used all over the world for more than a century before any other methods of capturing images was invented. His film idea is also the idea behind motion picture camera film.
Before his death in 1932, he donated millions of dollars of his own money to the Royal Free Hospital and the University of Rochester, among others.
Entertainment and television
If you enjoy watching TV or movies, the people in this category have made that possible for you. Not by inventing the television. The person holding that spot is disputed by many. Rather, these people are known for their huge contributions to the television and film industry.
Oprah Gail Winfrey
Oprah was a victim of sexual abuse as a child and she lost a child at birth when she was just 14 years old. Her upbringing wasn’t glamorous, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing greatness at all costs.
What people love about Oprah is her love of people and her warm character. She became a talk show host in 1983. Her exposure grew rapidly and she quickly became one of the most famous people in the entertainment industry.
In 1988, she founded Harpo Studios to explore her entrepreneurial desires. She experienced success here, too. Thanks to her success, she was also able to co-found Oxygen Media, which has its own TV channel and has more than 50 million viewers.
Walt Disney’s career began in Kansas City when he was hired by an ad company. This job taught him how to create animations from cardboard cutouts. After mastering this skill and reading a book called Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, his excitement for becoming a successful animator grew.
He left the Kansas City Film Ad Company for Laugh-O-Grams. When this business failed, he and his brother Roy went to Hollywood, where they secured a deal to help with finances. He created another company to bring his animation to life, and by 1932, he had won an Academy Award.
To this day, nearly everyone knows who Walt Disney is, thanks to Mickey Mouse, the Disney princesses, and dozens of other Disney-owned enterprises.
Most people like their clothes to look good, but some names in fashion are bigger than others. There are a couple of people who paved the way for the fashion and cosmetics industry that are important to note.
Coco Chanel is a name we associate with fashion, but we likely know her better for her perfume. She was known worldwide as one of the most successful and creative entrepreneurs of her time.
She began her career as a singer, but she found it hard to secure work. She switched gears and developed a fashion empire that lives on today. In 1910, she opened up her own shop in Paris and sold the hats she made.
This business was quite successful, so in 1913 she opened a boutique where she introduced a luxury casual clothing line. The clothing was marketed as suitable for both sport and leisure.
She developed her first perfume in 1921, but kept it for herself until she realized that other people loved the way she smelled. She brought it to the boutique and called in Chanel No. 5. This legendary perfume was the first perfume to be sold by anyone in the world.
She briefly closed her boutiques during World War II, but returned to fashion shortly thereafter. Although she died in 1971 at the age of 87, the Chanel brand lives on.
Madame C. J. Walker
This American entrepreneur was also a philanthropist and a social and political activist. She was the first female self-made millionaire in America. She led an inspirational life that’s worth knowing about.
The empire she built came from determination and hard work. She was likely the first African-American entrepreneur and the wealthiest woman of her era. By the time she died in 1919, she had amassed $600,000, which may not seem like much, but was much more than her contemporaries.
Walker, along with other women at the time, were experiencing hair loss due to a lack of indoor plumbing that prevented them from staying clean. To solve the problem, she experimented with a few homemade remedies that seemed to work well.
She established a business to sell these products, and they became popular instantly. Soon, she was selling her products at stores all over the United States. In 1908, she started a college to train women in hair care.
In 1910, she moved from New Orleans to set up a factory in Indianapolis that became the main headquarters of her company.
After retiring from the business, she mentored other female entrepreneurs in building businesses to encourage freedom and independence. She became quite famous later in life for doing this, so she joined the NAACP and also became a political and social activist.
Although Madam C. J. Walker’s original business no longer operates under that name, Sundial Brands purchased Madam C. J. Walker Enterprises in 2013 and now makes hair care products under other names.
Most business owners and entrepreneurs today are also philanthropists. They give a lot of what they earn back into the world. They donate to charities, hospitals, and other organizations. They are also very generous with their time. This idea came from a man who many entrepreneurs today still admire.
Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland to a lower-class family. He lived in a tiny house with one room. This room was the living quarters, dining room, and bedroom for the entire family. They were on the brink of starvation when they moved to the United States.
While the area in which they lived in Pennsylvania was also poor, it was better than the Fife from which they left.
He began work at a young age as a bobbin boy. He changed spools for sewing machines for 12 hours every day and he was paid $1.20 for the entire week. He soon upgraded to $2.50 a week as a telegraph messenger, which got him free admission to the local theatre.
He worked hard and was soon making $4.00 a week, almost four times as much as when he started as a bobbin boy. He continued to move up in the company, becoming an investor with the money he was saving.
After investments in car companies and the railway industry, among others, he was able to invest a huge sum of money into Story Farm, which was an oil-rich creek. In less than a year, this investment returned $1 million plus profits from oil and petrol goods.
After the Civil War, Carnegie began giving his wealth back to the communities he loved. He started a library in Scotland where he was from and he donated large amounts to hospital colleges for nurse education.
By the end of the 19th century, he was worth more than $20 million. He was the richest man in the world when he retired at 66 years old, and he wrote a book about the “Gospel of Wealth.”
He strongly believed that wealthy people were morally obligated to give most of their money back to society. The principles discussed in this book transcend generations and are still applicable and well-respected among wealthy business owners today.
He paved the way for business owners after him to conduct more philanthropic work. By the time Andrew Carnegie died in 1919, he had given about 95% of his money away, built 2800 libraries, and donated to several research universities.
Here are some frequently asked questions about entrepreneurs that you might find interesting.
Question: What is the most influential company in the world?
Answer: We already discussed influential business operators, but regardless of who the CEO might be, there are many companies out there that have changed life as we know it for many people. While we already discussed Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Disney, Chanel, and quite a few others.
However, companies like Wal-Mart have changed the way people shop. They’re one of the most influential companies for revolutionizing the department store and where you buy the items you need.
JPMorgan Chase is a huge influencer in the world of finance. They are on BusinessWeek’s list of the world’s most influential companies as well.
Question: What is the most expensive company?
Answer: At the beginning of 2019, Amazon overtook its primary competitor, Microsoft, as the world’s most expensive company. It’s the most valuable company in the world and its CEO is among one of the world’s richest people. Amazon employs more than 600,000 people and owns over $162 billion in assets.
Question: Which country has the most entrepreneurs?
Answer: Entrepreneurs and influential businessmen and women come from all over the world. Right now, the United States has the most entrepreneurs per capita, but there are several other countries that follow closely behind, including China and Switzerland.
There’s no way we could cover absolutely every influential business operator ever. There are so many more that aren’t on this list. You probably have a few favorites of your own. However, this list includes those who transformed their industry or made other lasting contributions.
Many entrepreneurs follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before, so setting a good example is essential for making this world a better place.
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