spanx millionsIt’s easy to sit around envying people with amazing career success stories and enormous fortunes (as a result of their success). But what we should really do is learn from them.

We came up with a list of our favorite self-made millionaires (and a few billionaires) who worked their asses off (often starting with nothing in their banking accounts) and eventually built empires and ran companies.

Sara Blakely

Women owe Sara Blakely a lot.

She has allowed us to fit into the size 2 dress and have our cake too! Blakely is, of course, the founder of Spanx.

She likes to say she failed her way to success because she was struggling a bit in a boring job after not getting into law school again. And then she saw a problem she was determined to fix.  She hated that the seamed foot stuck out of an open-toe sandal or kitten heel, but she noticed that the control-top eliminated panty lines and made her little body look even firmer. She’d bought a new pair of cream slacks for $78 at Arden B and was keen to wear them to a party. “I cut the feet off my pantyhose and wore them underneath,” she says. “But they rolled up my legs all night. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to make this.’ I’d never worked in fashion or retail. I just needed an undergarment that didn’t exist.”

She put all of her savings ($5,000) into launching the product while working full time. To save $3,000 in legal fees she wrote her own patent from a Barnes & Noble textbook, setting aside $150 to incorporate her company, but couldn’t decide on a name. After a succession of terrible ideas she settled on Spanks, substituting an “x” at the last minute after reading that made-up names sold better. And now she is a billionaire who gets flashed by women all over America (showing her their Spanx devotion).

Wall Street investment banks separately valued Spanx at an average $1 billion, a sum Forbes corroborated with the help of industry analysts, and Forbes says Blakely herself is worth $1 billion. Blakely owns 100 percent of the private company, has zero debt, has never taken outside investments, and hasn’t spent a nickel on advertising. She also recently became  the first female billionaire to join the Gates Foundation’s Giving Pledge, the philanthropic movement started by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that encourages the world’s richest people to give half their money to charity.

Sheryl Sandberg

When Facebook went public back in 2012, it was announced that tech wunderkind and the face of a new feminist movement, Sheryl Sandberg, was officially a billionaire. Business Insider’s Nicolas Carlson wrote:

“Sandberg is much more than your typical COO. She runs the ad business. She’s the “adult supervision,” and she’s one of the company’s more public faces. It’s also likely that Facebook had to pay up to get Sandberg when it got her. At the time, Facebook was only a couple years old and its young founder had already blown through two other top lieutenants; Sean Parker and Owen Van Natta.And it’s not like Sandberg didn’t already have a good job: she was running Google’s self-service ad sales organization. She’s also told interviewers that she was being recruited to be CEO at other companies.”

Sandberg clearly has had an amazing career journey, but she won’t stop there.

She wants to help all women reach their full potential and worth which is why she wrote Lean In and started the Lean In organization.

On her career, Sheryl has said: “I always tell people if you try to connect the dots of your career, if you mess it up you’re going to wind up on a very limited path. If I decided what I was going to do in college—when there was no Internet, no Google, no Facebook … I don’t want to make that mistake. The reason I don’t have a plan is because if I have a plan I’m limited to today’s options.”

Oprah

Did Oprah know that she would take over the world when she was the co-host of a local Baltimore morning show in the early 1980s? Maybe part of her knew.

“Even then you understood that success was a process,” Oprah said to a photo of her 20-year-old self, just starting out as a reporter,  “and that moving with the flow of life and not against it would be your greatest achievement.”

She worked for eight years as the co-host of that Baltimore morning show. At 29 she was given the opportunity to cohost the talk show, AM Chicago. Her talent shined through and eventually she took over. Within a few months she beat the legendary Phil Donahue Show in viewership and the show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. Then came her Oscar-nominated role in The Color Purple, the opening of Harpo Productions, The Oprah Winfrey Show becoming the highest-rated talk show in TV history, 40 Emmys, her overwhelmingly popular book club (which turns every book into a best-seller), Beloved, O Magazine, Broadway, the $40 million-plus Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls and OWN. A-mah-zing.

Marissa Mayer

VentureBeat estimates Mayer’s net worth at $300 million. And we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the CEO of Yahoo! doesn’t believe in burnout and says there are 130 productive hours in a work week if you shower strategically.

“Work is fun and fun is work. For me, it wasn’t a tradeoff,” she once said. Though she is facing some major challenges at Yahoo! there is no doubt that Mayer will forever be successful. 

Bethenny Frankel

Though there was some dispute over how much she sold her Skinnygirl alcohol line for in 2011 (according to Celebrity Net Worth it was around $39 million), you cannot say Frankel hasn’t worked to build her lifestyle empire which has made her a very rich woman.

The talk show host/reality TV personality has, in addition to her career as a best-selling writer, branched out into skin, clothing and health products. And it is her honesty that has helped her do that.  

Any product that I add to the Skinnygirl line has to be innovative, solve a problem for women, and help them to live healthier, better lives. My line is straightforward, honest, and doesn’t make false promises. I’ve turned down a multitude of product ideas from headbands to diet pills.”

Frankel said if she doesn’t think she could use a product herself, then she won’t make it a part of her brand. Her talk show was canceled so the question is, what’s next for Bethenny? Something tells me she won’t be sitting still any time soon.

Ursula Burns

Her total compensation last year was over $7.5 million, according to the SEC. The CEO of Xerox came from humble beginnings (to say the least), and what seemed like impossible barriers.

She wrote on Lean In, “I was raised by a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor.” But she worked tremendously hard and rose through the ranks at Xerox, dealing with discrimination not because of the color of her skin but because she was so young with such an important job. 

“Dreams do come true, but not without the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic and the courage to lean in,” she wrote. 

Angela Ahrendts

Ahrendts is the SVP of Retail and Online Stores for Apple and the former CEO of Burberry.

In 2012, Ahrendts was named the highest-paid person on the FTSE 100, The Independent’s Laura Chesters reported in July. Her total salary was around $27 million. 

Though she worked for one of the most high-end and iconic labels in the world (and now works for another one), she is not a fashion snob. Ahrendts “truly doesn’t care about image, about ego, about seeming cool or exclusive, which is virtually unheard of in the fashion world,” Paul Charron, a senior adviser at Warburg Pincus who was chairman and CEO of Liz Claiborne when Ahrendts was hired as a top merchandising executive there in 1998, told The Wall Street Journal. “That’s why she’s been able to do all this. People want to work for her because she’s completely unadorned and she has a life. She’s all talent and no pretension.”