Where some might see failure, others might see opportunity for success – and when you’re in your twenties, it can be hard to distinguish which is which.
Salesforce founder Marc Benioff made his first $1 million at 25. At the same age, Spanx founder Sara Blakely was a door-to-door office supply salesman.
Both entrepreneurs are now billionaires running game-changing companies that are featured on our first ever edition of the Business Insider 100: The Creators – a nod to some of the most successful and visionary business leaders who are changing the world for the better.
To show that no two success stories are alike, we put together 25 stories of what people from our Creators ranking were doing in their twenties.
Salman Khan was in business school
- Larry Busacca/Getty Images
By the time Khan graduated theMassachusetts Institute of Technologyin 1998, he had three degrees under his belt – two bachelors in mathematics and computer science and a masters in engineering. When he was 25, he was pursuing an MBA at Harvard Business School.
Khan spent the following years as ahedge fund analyst,and it wasn’t until he startedtutoring his cousin in 2004that the idea for Khan Academy: online videos aimed to help provide low-income students with free tutoring and test preparation.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook was cash positive for the first time and hit 300 million users.
Zuckerberg had been hard at work on Facebook for five years by the time he hit age 25. In that year – 2009 – the company turned cash positive for the first time and hit 300 million users. He was excited at the time, but said it was just the start, writing on Facebook that “the way we think about this is that we’re just getting started on our goal of connecting everyone.” The next year, he was named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine.
John Lasseter was a newly hired animator at Disney
- Getty Images/Alberto E. Rodriguez
Right before Pixar was created, Lasseter was a graduate fresh out of the California Institute of Arts. In 1979, when he was 22, he immediately landed a job as an animator for Walt Disney Feature Animation. After a couple of years, he was fired from the company because he, “felt so strongly about computer animation and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
John Mackey joined a vegetarian co-op to find a girlfriend
- Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
The Whole Foods cofounder was taking classes at Trinity College and the University of Texas-Austin when he decided to join a vegetarian co-op, where he thought he might find a girlfriend. The plan worked. Mackey met his wife, Renee Lawson, and the duo dropped out of college to open the first vegetarian supermarket in Texas.
They borrowed about $10,000 and raised another $35,000 to open SaferWay market in 1978 – Mackey was 25 at the time. Two years later, they merged with another healthy grocery store to form Whole Foods.
Danny Meyer was studying to become a lawyer
- Getty Images/Larry Busacca
St. Louis-born Meyer moved to New York after getting his degree in political science from Trinity College. The night before his LSAT exam, 25-year-old Meyer was getting cold feet. He told his uncle he no longer wanted to be a lawyer, but was unsure of what career path to pursue. Meyer’s uncle suggested he take his passion for food and open a restaurant. The Union Square Hospitality Group founder then took a job as a host at a restaurant in NYC before he opened Union Square Cafe in 1985 at 27.
Jonah Peretti taught at an elementary school
- Business Insider
After graduating from the University of California-Santa Cruz in 1996, Peretti moved to New Orleans, where he taught technology at a prep school. At 22, Peretti was teaching students how make websites and create games – an experience, he says, that led him to get into MIT’s Innovation Lab at age 25. It was around that time that he sent an email to Nike, which became his first viral sensation and gave him the spark to go on to cofound The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed.
Sara Blakely failed her LSAT and took a job at Disney World
- Getty Images/Mike Coppola
Before becoming the youngest self-made female billionaire, Blakely wanted to be a lawyer. But after taking her LSAT twice, and receiving less than desirable scores, Blakely abandoned her dream. She wound up working at Disney World – manning the now defunct World of Motion ride – but quit after three months. She then took a job at an office supply company and by age 25 became their national sales trainer. Two years later she began planning to launch her hosiery company Spanx.
Marc Benioff was named Oracle’s ‘Employee of the Year’
- REUTERS/Mike Blake
Saleforce’s founder got his start in computer software when he interned at Apple after his second year in college. Two years later he joined Oracle and,when he was 23, he was named “Rookie of the Year.” Three years after that, he was promoted to vice president – the youngest ever for the company. Benioff made his first $1 million at25. Benioff stayed at Oracle for 13 years before he left to start Salesforce in 1999.
Satya Nadella moved from India to get his masters
- Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
When Nadella was 22, he moved from Hyderabad, India, to the US where he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee earning a masters degree in computer science. He then moved to Chicago in 1992 to briefly work for Sun Microsystems before joining Microsoft at age 24.
Anne Wojcicki was a healthcare analyst on Wall Street
- Kimberly White / Getty Images
The daughter of ahigh school teacher and a physicist, Wojcicki attended Yale University where she graduated with a bachelors in biology. She then spent 10 years as a healthcare analyst on Wall Street. In 2000, when she was around 27 years old, Wojcicki took the MCAT but never actually pursued medical school, instead starting genetics testing company 23andMe six years later.
Blake Mycoskie competed on ‘The Amazing Race’
Pioneer of the “one-for-one” model – wherein companies donate a product for each one a customer purchases – Mycoskie started his first business, EZ Laundry, when he dropped out of college. Mycoskie eventually sold the business and started another before taking a break in 2002. During the break, Mycoskie, who was around 26 years old, joined the second season of “The Amazing Race” with his sister. Though they didn’t win the competition, it was during his time on the show that he promised to return to Argentina. A few years later, he visited the country for about a month – it was then that he came up with the idea for Toms.
Reed Hastings joined the Peace Corps in Swaziland
- Getty Images/Ethan Miller
After graduating from Bowdoin college in 1983, a 23-year-old Hastings spent two and a half years in Swaziland teaching math. When he returned, he enrolled at Stanford University to obtain a master’s degree in computer science.Hastings then went on to become a software developer before creating Netflix in 1997.
Sarah Kauss was a CPA
- Sarah Jacobs
Right after graduating the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1997 with a degree in accounting, Kauss spent a number of years as a CPA for Ernst & Young. During that time, Kauss was bit with the entrepreneural bug. While working for clients like Pets.com and GeoCities, she decided she would enroll in Harvard Business School to start her own company. After graduating in 2003, she spent several years in commercial real estate and consulting before eventually starting S’well in 2010.
Howard Schultz was a salesman for Xerox
- Tina Fineberg/AP
The Northern Michigan University graduate worked as a Xerox salesman right out of college. Schultz’s excellent work performance led Swedish coffeemaker company Hammarplast to recruit him at age 26. While working at Hammarplast, he encountered the first Starbucks outlets in Seattle – he joined the company when he was 29 and would buy it outright four years later.
Ashton Kutcher was a rising star in Hollywood
- Brian Ach/Getty
Before he became a beloved movie star and burgeoning tech investor, Kutcher studied biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa in the mid-1990s. But after being approached by a talent scout for modeling in 1997, Kutcher packed his bags and moved to New York at the age of 19. From there, Kutcher moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. He spent much of his twenties – from 1998 to 2006 – playing Kelso on “That ’70s Show” and starring in movies like “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and “Just Married.”
Jessica Alba was nominated for a Golden Globe
Alba was 19 when she was cast in the television show “Dark Angel.” The show lasted for two seasons and landed Alba a Golden Globe nomination. At the same time, the Honest Company cofounder said she was battling anorexia. By the time she was 25, her career took off and she starred in “Fantastic Four” and “Sin City.”
Ellen DeGeneres was a budding stand-up comedian
- Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney
Born in Louisiana, DeGeneres got her start at a New Orleans comedy club in 1981 when she was about 23 years old. A year later, in 1982, a recording of one of her performances got her recognized by Showtime as the “Funniest Person in America.” By the time she was 28, DeGeneres was featured on her first HBO special, “Young Comedians Reunion.”
Michael Bloomberg got his start on Wall Street
- Andrew Burton/Getty Images
The former mayor of New York City, Bloomberg studied electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University then immediately went to get his MBA from Harvard Business School. He graduated Harvard in 1966 and, at 24 years old, was hired at Salomon Brothers, where he was eventually named partner in 1972 before going on to start his blockbuster financial services business Bloomberg L.P.
Travis Kalanick’s first company got hit with a lawsuit
- Getty Images/Larry Busacca
UCLA dropout and Uber founder Kalanick started his first company in 1999 when he was still in school. Kalanick, who was about 22 at the time, had cofounded a file sharing service called Scour. When the company was sued for $250 billion by a slew of media companies, Kalanick filed for Chapter 11 and started a new company, Red Swoosh. Red Swoosh was eventually acquired in 2007 for $23 million, and Kalanick went on to start Uber.
David Chang flip flopped between New York and Japan
- AP/Seth Wenig
When Chang attended Trinity College, he majored in religion. After college, he had a number of jobs that included teaching English in Japan and working in finance, but none of them stuck. He eventually made the decision to enroll at the French Culinary Institute (now called the International Culinary Center). He then worked at a number of NYC restaurants before moving back to Japan to work at a soba noodle shop. In 2004, when Chang was 27, he came back to New York City to open his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, in the East Village.
Tory Burch worked a variety of fashion jobs
- Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty
Before graduating the University of Pennsylvania, designer Burch landed a job with a designer named Zoran and immediately moved to New York. She then went on to work at Harper’s Bazaar, Ralph Lauren, and Vera Wang. As she was climbing the fashion ladder in the early 1990s, she met a real estate mogul’s son and they were married and divorced in under a year – she was 26 at the time.
Richard Branson opened his first record shop
- Rick Wilking/Reuters
Branson’s Virgin empire started when he opened a record store at age 20. Two years later, he opened a studio then launched a record label. In 1977, when Branson was 27, he Virgin Records was one of the largest independent record labels at the time, having signed bands like the Sex Pistols. By the time Branson was in his early thirties, the Virgin Group consisted of more than 50 companies.
Kevin Plank started Under Armour from his grandmother’s basement
In 1996, Plank, a former University of Maryland football player, came up with the idea for Under Armour at the age of 23. Within a matter of two years, Plank was able to take the athletic apparel business from his grandmother’s basement to the company’s first headquarters and warehouse in Baltimore.
Jeff Bezos worked in finance
- Michael Seto/Business Insider
After graduating from Princeton University, the Amazon founder worked for telecommunications company Fitelfor two years before moving to Bankers Trust. At age 26, he was recruited by the hedge fund D.E. Shaw and, in four years, he becamethe company’s youngest vice president.
Sheryl Sandberg graduated the top of her class at Harvard
- REUTERS/Mike Segar
At age 25, Sandberg had graduated at the top of the economics department from Harvard, worked at the World Bank under her former professor, mentor, and future Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and had gone back to Harvard to get her MBA, which she received in 1995.
She went on to work at McKinsey, and at age 29 was Summers’ Chief of Staff when he became Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary.