From Rags to Riches: The 5 Best Success Stories

The stories of people that have moved from abject poverty to riches can be fascinating as well as motivating for upcoming entrepreneurs. But, the decision to take the leap from being a wage earner to a business owner requires much more than just the desire to be rich. This is because entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted, but for people who are willing to risk it all for the fulfillment of their dreams.

In reality, the entrepreneurship journey can be extremely lonely. Hence, it is meant for people who are willing to travel alone. In fact, statistics have never been favorable to people willing to become entrepreneurs. Evidence shows that only about 55% of start-ups remain operational after five years, while almost 80% of them closed shop by their 10th year. Yet, entrepreneurship can be extremely rewarding if you can navigate your way to success.

In the Philippines, there are a number of self-made individuals who are now captains of industries. No doubt, their stories will definitely motivate you to take your entrepreneurial daydreaming to the next level. In this post, we’ve compiled a list of 5 outstanding entrepreneurs in the Philippines, who have moved from grass to grace. Now, read these stories to get yourself motivated:

1. Henry Sy, Shoe Mart

Henry Sy didn’t just wake up to become one of the richest men in the world and a world-class commercial center developer; he actually had a humble beginning. Before building the gigantic Shoe Mart, which is now a chain of more than 44 large-scale shopping centers in the Philippines and throughout Asia, Henry and his family were actually living in penury. Henry’s family migrated from China to the Philippines in 1936. They lost their store during World War II. In a bid to survive, Henry started to sell used military combat boots and other postwar goods to American soldiers. He went through tough times until he was able to open his first shoe store, the SM in Avenida, Manila. Today, SM is more than just a shopping mall. It has become an institution where many favorite memories happened. The company offers families great experiences ranging from shopping to watching blockbuster movies to date night to ice skating as well as food tripping.

2. Tony Tan Caktiong, Jollibee

Tony Tan Caktiong is the main man behind the Jollibee franchise. He also came from an immigrant family from China. He inherited the spirit of tenacity from his father who worked as a cook in a Buddhist temple. His father later started a Chinese restaurant in Manila from which he was able to send Tony to college. In 1975, after college, Tony bought a Magnolia ice cream parlor. When the business couldn’t generate enough traffic to be sustainable, he added sandwiches, fried chicken, and French fries on the menu. This made the business to start picking-up and in 3 years, Tony had opened six additional restaurants. Today, Jollibee has had over 2,500 stores in the Philippines and several other openings in countries such as the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Brunei.

3. John Gokongwei Jr., JG Holdings

In the case of John Gokongwei Jr., the story depicts a “rich-to-rags-to riches” scenario. He was born in China to one of the wealthiest families in Cebu. The family’s business and fortune died immediately after their father’s death. In an effort to support his family, John started peddling items along the streets of Cebu by bike, then by boat to Lucena City, and then by truck to Manila, and finally, he eventually began to import items from the US. He later ventured into corn milling and other lucrative businesses in the Philippines. Today, John owns several successful and highly diversified businesses under JG Holdings, some of which include Robina Land Corporation and Cebu Pacific.

4. Mariano Que, Mercury Drugstores

Mariano Que was working in a local drugstore prior to World War 2. With many business outfits already destroyed, Mariano saw the need to supply sulfa drugs, which were used to treat bacterial infections during the war. Through his dedication, tenacity, and customer friendly strategy, he was able to open his first drug store in 1945, which he named Mercury Drug. By the time he later added another Mercury Drug store at the newly constructed Ayala shopping center in Makati, Mariano was able to improve his services with some technological innovations, including biological refrigerators and computer-guided controls. Today, with over 700 stores, Mercury Drug has become a household name, not only in the Philippines but in many countries across the world. 

5. Alfredo M. Yao, Zest-O

Alfredo Yao lost his father at the age of 12. His mother was peddling items by the roadside for their sustenance. Alfredo later dropped out of college and started to work odd jobs, one of which was at a printing press company. With lots of valuable experiences at the printing press, he was able to establish his own printing business later-on. His business was doing fine. The business, however, took a rapid development following his discovery of the Doy Packaging system from Europe. Alfredo decided to venture into the business when juice manufacturers in the Philippines refused to buy into his packaging idea. This is the turning point of his entrepreneurial career. Today, Alfredo’s company, Zest-O now controls 80% of the juice market in the Philippines, and the business has expanded to markets in Australia, China, New Zealand, Korea, Singapore, US, as well as several countries in Europe. He has also diversified into airline businesses following his acquisition of Asian Spirit Airlines, now Zest Air.


Although entrepreneurship can be daunting, it rewards, if successful, are almost immeasurable. Of course, you can’t compare the reward of entrepreneurship to wage earning. In wage earning, you’re only entitled to your weekly or monthly compensation; all the gains belong to the business owner. The rewards of your business can be generational.

If you look closely at the 5 stories above, you will discover a similar trend of immense hard work, dedication, and tenacity before success and fame. That’s the path of entrepreneurs, the road to creating generational wealth from nothing.

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Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

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