Image: Steve Jobs
Robert Galbraith  /  Reuters
Steve Jobs was adopted by a working-class couple. He dropped out of Reed College when he couldn't afford tuition. Jobs started Apple computer in his parent’s garage in 1976.
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updated 5/20/2010 7:26:05 AM ET 2010-05-20T11:26:05

Cirque du Soleil first took on rock legends The Beatles and Elvis. Now the circus-inspired spectacle is turning to the late King of Pop. In April Cirque, founded by billionaire Guy Laliberte, announced plans to produce a Michael Jackson-themed show to start touring in 2011.

Before captivating Las Vegas crowds with famed music-inspired acrobatic shows, Laliberte was playing the harmonica and eating fire on the streets of Europe and Canada.

The accordion-playing stilt-walker bet big on his gang of acrobats when he brought them from Quebec to the Los Angeles Arts Festival in 1987 in hopes of wooing the crowd. If the mission failed, his team wouldn’t have had enough gas money to make it home.

But the gamble paid off for Laliberte, and in 1991 casino mogul Steve Wynn brought Cirque du Soleil to Las Vegas, paving the way for Laliberte to eventually become a billionaire.

“There’s a huge component of betting big and having luck that pays off,” said Jim Ellis, who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford University, of self-starters who make it into the ranks of the ultra-rich. “But most entrepreneurs I know are better than just gamblers.”

Laliberte, who also happens to be a professional poker player, is one of 680 self-made billionaires in the world, most of whom likely took risks on their way to riches. But a much smaller group overcame extreme adversity and hardship to make their fortunes. We are highlighting 10 of the most inspirational rags-to-riches stories, including that of John Paul DeJoria, cofounder of John Paul Mitchell Systems and Patron tequila, who was once homeless and lived in his car. Another tearjerker: Luxottica's Leonardo del Vecchio, who was sent to an orphanage at age 7 because his mother couldn’t afford to raise him.

When asked how certain people can overcome such odds and become so successful, Ellis said, “You’re going to see some people who ... really don’t have anything to lose. Your tolerance for risk when you’re in that environment is much higher.”

Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing, who quit school at age 15 to take care of his family after his father died, explained it this way: “The most terrible experience during my childhood was witnessing my father’s suffering and ultimately dying of TB. I too was infected.”

Added Li: “The burden of poverty and this bitter taste of helplessness and isolation sort of branded on my heart forever the questions that still drive me. Is it possible to reshape one's destiny? Is it possible to minimize challenges through lessening complexities? And is it possible to enhance chances for success through meticulous planning?”

Perhaps that is a way to overcome early adversities.

Five of these 10 inspirational billionaires dropped out of college, and three others never attended. Six were orphaned or given up and raised by foster homes, adoptive parents or relatives. Oracle's Larry Ellison, Apple's Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey were all born to teenage mothers. Winfrey moved to live with relatives in Wisconsin where she says she was sexually abused as an adolescent, though her rags-to-riches story is under scrutiny following the April release of an unauthorized biography by Kitty Kelley. Winfrey’s office would not comment, but the billionaire dismissed the book at a recent awards ceremony, calling it a “so-called biography” and adding that “this too shall pass.”

Ellison was adopted and raised by his aunt and uncle and later dropped out of college, reportedly after his adoptive mother died. Jobs, who was adopted by a working class couple in California, quit Reed College when he was unable to afford the tuition.

Not finishing school may have positioned these entrepreneurs for later success. Dr. William Baumol, Academic Director for New York University’s Stern School’s Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, believes that’s no accident. “The standard educational approaches tend to destroy creativity and imagination,” he said.

One of the greatest creative minds in entertainment, Laliberte, too, dropped out of college to take on street performing. But don’t quit school just yet. These extreme success stories represent a small percentage of aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Most of the billionaires are from among that group,” Baumol said. “They’ve taken big risks, but happen to be the ones that through intelligence, foresight and luck have been that small subset of the group that breaks through.”

Adds JetBlue Chairman Joel Peterson, who also teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford, successful entrepreneurs "make lots of sacrifices to make it to the end zone.”

© 2012 Forbes.com

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