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My first job: The unlikely beginnings of 8 top CEOs and business leaders

A young Richard Branson bred budgerigars. Oprah Winfrey was employed by a grocery store. Elon Musk worked a dangerous boiler room job. From the humble to the unlikely, all these titans of industry started somewhere.

Elon Musk, Tesla, jobs

Were these early entries into the workforce valuable learning experiences? Or did they help convince the young entrepreneurs to pursue a different career or to aim to be their own boss? We take a look at the first jobs of some leading CEOs.

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Selling chewing gum

Aged just six years old, Buffett sold packs of chewing gum around his neighbourhood. Even at this stage, he showed a preternatural business sense. When a woman tried to buy a single stick of gum instead of the packs of five he was offering, he refused, knowing it would cut into his profit margins.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin

Breeding budgerigars

Inspired by his enterprising mother, Branson and a school chum teamed up to breed birds for profit when he was just 11. The business actually grew quicker than the pair could keep up with and his mother eventually tired of the multiplying birds, releasing them out a window when he was at boarding school. It was an early lesson in the importance of managing growth. Branson has also suggested it may have begun his lifelong passion for animals.

Oprah Winfrey

Grocery store clerk

The young Winfrey’s first job was convenient, being located right next to her father’s barber shop. It wasn’t a good fit, however. “I wasn’t allowed to talk to the customers, and can you imagine that for me?,” she recalled. “That was very, very, very hard.” Soon she moved into reading the news at a local radio station, a role more suited to her gregarious nature.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, Inc

Boiler room janitor

Musk’s first gig after arriving in the US was a long way from the excitement of launching rockets into space or planning the colonisation of Mars. The local unemployment office found him a back-breaking job which involved shovelling hot sand in a confined space. “You (had) to put on this hazmat suit and then shimmy through this little tunnel that you can barely fit in,” he recalled. Simply surviving in the role required steel: 30 people started out with Musk, but by the end of the first week he was one of only three that hadn’t quit.

Musk’s first gig after arriving in the US was a long way from the excitement of launching rockets into space or planning the colonisation of Mars.

Janine Allis, founder of Boost Juice and Retail Zoo

Advertising agency junior

Offered a safe job at the Commonwealth Bank, Allis turned it down and instead followed her sister into what she saw as the more glamorous world of advertising. As her autobiography The Secrets of My Success would have it, the industry in the 80s was “all about short skirts, bad hair and boozy long lunches,” though Allis soon tired of the unchallenging work in her junior role.

Reed Hastings, Co-founder and CEO of Netflix

Selling vacuum cleaners

After being accepted into college, Hastings deferred for a year to continue what had started out as a summer job as a door-to-door salesman. “I loved it, strange as that might sound,” Hastings recalled. “You get to meet a lot of different people.”

Terry Lundgren, Executive Chairman of Macy’s, Inc

Shucking oysters

Needing funds to pay for his college tuition, the future CEO of Macy’s, Inc took up this painstaking kitchen job. By the time he graduated from a business degree, he had been offered a role as assistant manager of the restaurant.

Ann Sherry, Executive Chairman of Carnival Australia

Sorting mail

Before she was an award-winning executive turning around the fortunes of Westpac New Zealand and later Carnival Australia, Sherry worked in a mail sorting room. She also studied radiography, economics and politics and worked as a social worker in a prison before making a hugely successful move into the world of business.

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