30 Greatest Living Geniuses in Business

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By Amy Bell

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The corporate world may be tricky – even overwhelming – but business degrees can help people to navigate this exciting environment. A number of high-flying entrepreneurs and CEOs have business degrees to their name, and their studies may well have given them the leg up to making that first million or even billion. Still, while knowledge can get some individuals far, a touch of brilliance also pays dividends, as many of today’s shining executive stars prove. Some have Mensa-level intelligence, others a winning management style, sharp business sense or just a good idea and the wherewithal to succeed – yet all are super smart in their own way. Read on for 30 of the greatest living geniuses in business.

30. Oprah Winfrey

30. Oprah Winfrey

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Oprah Winfrey’s life is a classic tale of rags to riches – and considerable riches at that, as the talk show host, actress and media mogul now has $2.8 billion to her name. Winfrey was born in Mississippi in 1954 and later moved to Milwaukee. She was from a poor family, and her childhood was often tough – yet this didn’t hold her back. Winfrey started working in the media and began presenting news programs, eventually significantly increasing the ratings of a Chicago talk show. After setting up her own production company and earning widespread recognition with The Oprah Winfrey Show, she became a household name. Described as “arguably the world’s most powerful woman,” Winfrey has also been acclaimed for her intelligence, with Thandie Newton, co-star of 1998 movie Beloved, saying, “She’s acute. She’s got a mind like a razor blade.”

29. Sergey Brin

29. Sergey Brin

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Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s path to creating Google is detailed in the 2005 book The Google Story. Within its pages, it says, “Not since [Johannes] Gutenberg… has any new invention empowered individuals, and transformed access to information, as profoundly as Google.” Brin was born in Moscow in 1973, and with his father a math professor and his mother a NASA researcher, he seems to have had brains in his genes. While Brin and Page were Ph.D. candidates at Stanford, they grew the idea of opening up the internet’s information through the search engine they built. Now, thanks to his technical and entrepreneurial brilliance, Brin has a net worth of over $24 billion. Meanwhile, the multi-billion dollar company he co-founded continues to work at the cutting edge of technology and is currently developing Google Glass, a miniature computer worn on the head.

28. Bill Gates

28. Bill Gates

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Bill Gates may have been smart enough to get a near-perfect SAT score and attend Harvard, but his most enduring achievement is undoubtedly the founding of Microsoft, which he did alongside Paul Allen in 1975. The company started after Gates approached Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) to tell them that he and associates were developing a BASIC interpreter for MITS’s Altair 8800 computer, and the rest is home computing history. Gates – born in Seattle, Washington in 1955 – is no longer the CEO of Microsoft, although he is still the corporation’s chairman. His market strategy has sometimes come under fire for being anti-competitive, but then again, it has helped yield the largest PC software firm on the planet. One of world’s wealthiest people, Gates has a staggering $76.8 billion fortune to his name.

27. Ingvar Kamprad

27. Ingvar Kamprad

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Apartments belonging to 20- and 30-somethings just wouldn’t be the same without Swedish business magnate Ingvar Kamprad, who formed IKEA back in 1943 when he was a mere 17 years old. Kamprad’s proven skills as an entrepreneur have enabled him to create a furniture company that makes decking out one’s first home easy and affordable. Born in Älmhult, Sweden in 1926, Kamprad first ignited his entrepreneurial spirit by cycling around his neighborhood selling matches. Moreover, the business whiz has always kept his eye on the bottom line, and in his 1976 manifesto The Testament of a Furniture Dealer, he pushed the virtue of “reaching good results with small means.” It is this ethos that has arguably helped grow IKEA into the billion-dollar international chain it is today. Kamprad himself is worth an estimated $3.1 billion.

26. Jeff Bezos

26. Jeff Bezos

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Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos seemed to prove his intelligence from an early age when, as a toddler, he attempted to disassemble his crib. His mother might not have been too awed by said deed, but she was probably more impressed once her son used his smarts to revolutionize online shopping. Bezos set up online bookstore Amazon.com from his garage in 1994 after realizing that internet use was ballooning. The company has of course since expanded way beyond just books and now offers a huge variety of products, the sales of which contributed to a revenue of $61 billion in the U.S. alone in 2012. Apparently, Bezos scrupulously analyzes every detail of the company, including its contracts, press releases and packaging. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1964, the businessman – today worth $28.9 billion – is academically accomplished, too: he was his high school valedictorian and in 1986 graduated summa cum laude from Princeton.

25. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.

25. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr

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Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. joined IBM as its CEO in 1993 and is recognized as the man behind the company’s reversal of fortunes. Gerstner – born in 1942 in Mineola, New York – helped pull the technology and consulting firm back from the brink through a series of intelligent decisions, including switching focus to the IT services aspect of the business. Gerstner retired from the role in 2002 and has been modest about his success, giving a portion of the credit to his team and noting that the creative talent at the company was a significant help. However, people don’t get M.B.A.s from Harvard Business School – as Gerstner did in 1965 – nor accomplish such impressive corporate exploits without having a certain amount of know-how under their belt. In 2002 Gerstner’s net worth was reckoned to be $630 million.

24. Sean Parker

24. Sean Parker

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Web business maestro Sean Parker was born in Herndon, Virginia in 1979, and he never went to college. Still, he has been widely acclaimed as a genius, thanks in no small part to his role in changing the face of the music industry. Parker was a prodigious hacker in his teens and went on to co-found the free music file-sharing program Napster, which is regarded as a forerunner to iTunes. Incredibly, Napster is said to be the fastest growing enterprise ever, and it is partly responsible for Parker attaining his current net worth of $2 billion. Parker’s entrepreneurial instinct led him to join Facebook as its first president, and Mark Zuckerberg credits him with helping to turn it into a genuine business player. “Sean was pivotal in helping Facebook transform from a college project into a real company,” he has said.

23. Tory Burch

23. Tory Burch

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According to The Daily Telegraph, fashion designer Tory Burch’s “genius” in business comes down to her decision to “turn ‘eclectic’ into another merchandisable genre,” and it’s an idea that’s worked very well for her indeed. Burch’s fashion label was initially launched in early 2004, but within less than a decade, her diverse range – which has been dubbed “preppy-boho” – has spawned over 100 standalone Tory Burch stores across the globe. In fact, consumers have clamored so much for the line’s pieces that at one stage wait lists were created. What’s more, such demand has bestowed Burch herself – born in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1966 – with a net worth of $1 billion.

22. Elon Musk

22. Elon Musk

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South African mogul Elon Musk has had an entrepreneurial head on his shoulders since childhood: when he was just 12, he wrote the code for a computer game and then sold it on for $500. Musk launched software business Zip2 while in his twenties and was instrumental in the rise of PayPal. What’s more, by the time he’d reached his 32nd birthday, both companies had been bought for hundreds of millions – of which Musk pocketed a significant share. In its early days, PayPal exploded in popularity largely thanks to a viral campaign that was Musk’s brainchild. Born in Pretoria in 1971, the entrepreneur is now the CEO of space transport business SpaceX and electric car company Tesla Motors – both of which he also founded – and holds an $8.8 billion fortune. Plus, he is equally accomplished in the academic arena: he has two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and was accepted onto a Ph.D. program at Stanford before choosing his professional life over doctoral studies.

21. Donald Petersen

21. Donald Petersen

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Former Ford Motor Company chief Donald Petersen proved during his time at the automaker that he had the business brain to match his Mensa-level intelligence. Born in Pipestone, Minnesota in 1926, Petersen went on to obtain a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington and an M.B.A. from Stanford. In 1949 he took up employment at Ford, and over the decades he worked his way up to become president and CEO of the company. Petersen transformed a firm that had racked up an astonishing $1.5 billion in losses in 1980 into a powerhouse that in 1986 and 1987 out-earned its rival GM for the first time in more than 60 years. The amazing turnaround is said to have been partly down to Petersen’s insistence that Ford’s designers create cars of which they could be proud. This shrewd move resulted in the enormously successful Mercury Sable and Ford Taurus automobiles.

20. Howard Schultz

20. Howard Schultz

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Anyone who can’t start the day without paying a trip to Starbucks for an espresso has Howard Schultz to thank. Schultz was born in New York in 1953, and it was in the early 1980s that he became director of marketing at Starbucks. While on a business trip to Milan, he was inspired by the coffee bars in the city and grew keen for Starbucks to adopt a similar model. The owners of Starbucks declined, however, and in 1985 a discouraged Schultz quit the company. In 1986 there were only half a dozen Starbucks stores, and they were all based in Seattle. Yet Schultz’s moment came when the Starbucks owners opted to concentrate their business efforts elsewhere, and they sold him the coffee chain in 1987. Schultz became chairman and CEO and embarked upon a shrewd expansion plan that would ultimately grow Starbucks into the global goliath it is today. And in the process, he earned himself a $1.6 billion fortune.

19. Sara Blakely

19. Sarah Blakely

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Sara Blakely’s road to success wasn’t always smooth, but the businesswoman and founder of hosiery firm Spanx proved that with a good idea, a boatload of passion and a never-quit attitude, anyone can go far. The youngest woman to become a self-made billionaire – she is currently worth $1 billion – was born in Clearwater, Florida in 1971. She later transformed her unusual idea for a product – footless pantyhose that streamline the body – into an incredibly lucrative brand by dealing with every element of promotion, planning and sales strategy. Blakely launched the product in 2000 with a mere $5,000, but by the end of Spanx’s inaugural year, $4 million in sales had been generated. Blakely has said of her own approach to business, “Not being afraid to fail is a key part of the success of Spanx.”

18. Pierre Omidyar

18. Pierre Omidyar

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Pierre Omidyar was born in Paris in 1967 and emigrated to America as a boy. As for the idea that made his name, well it is arguably simple – but no less the product of genius for that fact. Omidyar used computer code he’d developed and the internet to establish an online auction service called Auction Web in 1995. The site soon picked up steam, and in 1997 the company switched its name to eBay. Omidyar then embarked upon an intensive advertising crusade to promote the global auction site. Launching eBay on the stock market was also a smart financial move, as it made Omidyar a billionaire just three years after his original site was founded. The man himself is now worth a cool $8.7 billion.

17. Indra Nooyi

17. Indra Nooyi

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PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi may be smart on paper – she does after all possess a master’s degree from Yale – but she has also proved that she’s got a very good head for business. BusinessWeek has stated that when Nooyi was CFO of PepsiCo, she helped the world’s second-biggest food and drink firm increase its net profit twofold and boost its yearly revenue by an amazing 72 percent. These achievements surely played a part in her later appointment as CEO. Moreover, Nooyi – who was born in Madras, India in 1955 – has steered the company to further revenue growth as its figurehead. She currently holds the second position on Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list and in 2011 alone was rewarded to the tune of over $17 million dollars. According to the PepsiCo chief, “As a leader, I am tough on myself and I raise the standard for everybody.”

16. Steve Case

16. Steve Case

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Future business leader Steve Case was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1958. When it came to his career, at first Case was a marketing man for companies such as Pizza Hut, but he later became instrumental in building the mass-media corporation AOL. In 1985 Case spearheaded a service dubbed Quantum Link for the Commodore 64 computer. This evolved into AOL and brought email, chatrooms, instant messaging and online multiplayer games to the masses. Case – who was made CEO of the company in 1991 and then chairman four years later – saw and appreciated the fact that “community” online was key, and this idea propelled the emerging firm to become a notable success story. Moreover, in the process Case netted himself a fortune, as he is now worth $1.2 billion.

15. Guy Laliberté

15. Guy Laliberté

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The circus isn’t just a fun evening out; it can also net individuals an awful lot of money, as Canadian entrepreneur Guy Laliberté has proved. The Quebec City native was born in 1959 and began his career path as a street performer. In 1984 he co-founded the now world-famous Cirque du Soleil with a group of talented cohorts. The venture was initially only meant to run for a year, but the government was keen for the contemporary circus to tour elsewhere in Canada. Cirque du Soleil has since become the world’s biggest theatrical producer – thought to bring in over $800 million dollars a year – and Laliberté still plays a part in putting together every single show. Laliberté was voted 2006’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and today is worth a cool $2.6 billion.

14. Madonna

14. Madonna

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Music icon Madonna may be better known for her pop hits than her business savvy, but she has been cited as a leading example to aspiring self-made men and women – and with good reason. “This ambitious and complex entertainer has so completely mastered the world of show business,” business author and professor Colin Barrow has said. “She has been called America’s smartest businesswoman.” Careful masterminding of both her own image and finances has seen the star – born in Bay City, Michigan in 1958 – attain an estimated net worth of $500 million. This is down to her music sales, of course, but it’s also the result of commercially successful merchandizing as well as investments in companies, artworks and real estate. Intelligence-wise, Madonna is no slouch either, possessing a reported IQ of 140.

13. Ralph Lauren

13. Ralph Lauren

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Ralph Lauren said in his high school yearbook that he aspired to millionaire status, but the fashion designer – born in the Bronx, New York in 1939 – has done considerably better than that, having built up a business empire that has netted him $6.5 billion. Lauren’s career has literally taken him from rags to riches, as he started out creating neckties from scraps of cloth before in 1967 opening a store to sell them. An expansion into more general menswear and womenswear followed, and the fashion icon’s eponymous company was launched on the New York Stock Exchange in 1997. According to Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, “There are very few designers who have Ralph Lauren’s genius when it comes to envisioning and controlling every aspect and expression of their brand.”

12. Ted Turner

12. Ted Turner

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Media tycoon Ted Turner was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1938. He took the reins of his late father’s outdoor advertising business at the age of 24 and went on to transform the firm into a global empire. In a foresighted move that would help make him his fortune, Turner funneled the billboard company’s profits into radio stations. This was the beginning of what would become a remarkable career creating and acquiring various mass media properties – incorporating television channels, a film studio and more. Yet Turner is perhaps best known for initiating the rise of 24-hour news TV with the pioneering CNN, which he launched in 1988. The cable and satellite channel now broadcasts to large parts of the planet and has no doubt contributed in no small way to Turner’s current net worth of $2.1 billion.

11. Harold Simmons

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Virtually from scratch, Harold Simmons built up a drugstore chain that would comprise 100 stores and then sold it for over $50 million in 1973. Because of this, he could have retired in his early forties with money to burn. However, apparently that wasn’t an option for the businessman – who was born in Golden, Texas in 1931 – as with his newfound capital he began a second career as an investor. With a master’s in economics and a history of work in the financial world, Simmons had the banking knowledge to start snapping up stakes in other enterprises through his holding company, Contran Corporation. That original $50 million may now seem like small change to this maestro of the leveraged buyout, given that the succession of savvy business decisions he has made have boosted his bank balance to the tune of $10 billion.

10. Reed Hastings

10. Reed Hastings

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Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1960, future Netflix CEO Reed Hastings signed up with the Peace Corps in the 1980s. And according to him, “Once you have hitchhiked across Africa with ten bucks in your pocket, starting a business doesn’t seem too intimidating.” That said, a stint in the Peace Corps probably isn’t the typical route to entrepreneurial success, and Hastings admits that he struggled to manage his first company, Pure Software, even though it was very successful. Still, undeterred by his experience – and with the capital he’d made from the sale of the firm – Hastings co-founded DVD rental business Netflix in 1998. Better yet, he has spun it into a concern with $3.6 billion annual revenue while fostering creative management practices that may just have helped contribute to the company’s recently skyrocketing earnings. On top of its mail rental service, Netflix of course later began streaming movies and television shows to enormous – and still growing – success, and by 2012 Hastings himself had attained a net worth of $280 million.

9. Jack Dorsey

9. Jack Dorsey

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Game changer Jack Dorsey was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1976. In his teens he’d already shown his smarts by writing free software that is still utilized by taxi firms now. However, it was while Dorsey was studying at NYU that he was struck by the groundbreaking business idea that would turn into Twitter. Dorsey was inspired by instant messaging services and was interested to see if users’ status messages could be communicated more readily among friends. A prototype of Twitter was quickly created, and a full version was launched soon afterwards. Since its 2006 inception, Twitter has grown to become the social networking giant it is today, with more than 550 million active users. Meanwhile, Dorsey himself has attained a net worth of $1.1 billion. “What makes Jack magic is his precision,” his friend Ashton Kutcher has said. “When he speaks he makes every syllable count.”

8. Marissa Mayer

8. Marissa Mayer

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Born in Wausau, Wisconsin in 1975, Marissa Mayer made waves at Google as the firm’s earliest female engineer, before going on to oversee the look of the search engine’s homepage and playing an integral part in many of Google’s core web services. Then as CEO and president of Yahoo! – a position for which she was selected in 2012 – Mayer has presided over a series of acquisitions, including that of social networking site Tumblr. Mayer’s apparent move to make Yahoo! a strong technology platform seems to be bearing fruit, too, as according to data from July 2013, the company’s sites outperformed Google’s in U.S. traffic for that month, while the firm’s stock price has increased by 100 percent since she came on board. Mayer has also proved her smarts on the academic front, having obtained both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Stanford, with a focus on artificial intelligence. She is now said to be worth $300 million.

7. Jack Welch

7. Jack Welch

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Jack Welch’s business strategy at General Electric may be considered ruthless, but there’s no denying the fact that it got results. During his 20-year employ as chairman and CEO at the U.S. multinational firm, its value soared by an astonishing 4,000 percent. This was at least partly down to a streamlining policy that saw Welch sell off unsuccessful businesses and cut employees by the thousands – the latter of which earned him the nickname “Neutron Jack.” However, Welch – who was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1935 – argued that his tough approach was pioneering, remarking, “[At General Electric], we were ahead of our time. When IBM and other companies laid off armies ten years later, it was well accepted at that time to get leaner… We had to compete against global competitors and we had to win.” Welch is no slouch on the academic front, either: in 1960 he achieved a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois. His estimated net worth is $750 million.

6. Mark Zuckerberg

6. Mark Zuckerberg

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Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a shining example to programming and internet business types everywhere, with his globe-straddling social networking creation having already bagged him a massive $19 billion fortune. Zuckerberg was born in White Plains, New York in 1984, and he proved his smarts while still a young person when he was awarded a number of academic prizes and, significantly, starting writing computer software. Zuckerberg went on to earn a coveted place at Harvard in 2002. However, his real business genius was in realizing the potential to turn a student directory into a virtual network. In his second year at college, Zuckerberg dropped out to concentrate fully on his invention – and his coding knowhow, tremendously canny business sense and ambition no doubt helped make Facebook the ubiquitous presence it is today.

5. Michael Bloomberg

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Michael Bloomberg was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1942, and while he is currently known as the mayor of New York City, he made his considerable fortune building the media, financial software and data company that bears his name. Admittedly, he had some capital under his belt – a cool $10 million payout – after being let go from Salomon Brothers in 1981, but it was what the magnate did with the cash that proved his business nous. Upon recognizing that the financial community would pay for good, fast business information, Bloomberg established Innovative Market Systems (now Bloomberg L.P.) to provide this data through “Market Master” terminals. There are now over 310,000 such terminals across the globe, while Bloomberg himself is worth $31 billion. Furthermore, he has proved his smarts in the academic world as well, achieving a B.Sc. from Johns Hopkins and a M.B.A. from Harvard in the mid 1960s.

4. Paul Allen

4. Paul Allen

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Paul Allen changed computing – and the world – forever when he co-founded technology giant Microsoft with Bill Gates back in 1975. Born in 1953, the Seattle native worked alongside Gates on an interpreter program for the BASIC programming language that was used for the MITS Altair 8800 – often regarded as the world’s first personal computer. Allen was also instrumental in clinching a deal that led to Microsoft’s DOS operating system being used on IBM’s PCs. And his smarts don’t stop at business, either: in his youth Allen achieved the highest possible SAT score, and he is said to have an IQ of 170. To put that in context, anything at or above 130 is considered “very superior” on the Wechsler IQ scale. Allen stepped down from Microsoft in 2000 but continued to operate as a consultant, and today he has major investments in various companies and owns both the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. His estimated wealth is a staggering $15 billion.

3. Warren Buffett

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No one gets to be one of the richest men in the world without at least a little business acumen, and investor Warren Buffett has it in spades. Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1930, Buffet became a millionaire while he was still in his early thirties thanks to a series of savvy investment partnerships. In the mid-1960s he moved to become the majority shareowner of Berkshire Hathaway, and before long he was the holding company’s chairman and CEO – a position he still holds today. In 1990 Buffett upped his status to that of billionaire after selling Berkshire Hathaway class A shares on the stock market, and he is now worth a spectacular $58.5 billion. Buffett is supremely influential and successful, and his academic credentials are also quite impressive: he possesses a master’s degree in economics from Columbia Business School.

2. Larry Page

2. Larry Page

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Along with Sergey Brin, Larry Page is one half of the considerable brains behind the behemoth that is Google. Like Brin, the Google co-founder had parents who were pretty smart themselves, as both were professors in computer science. Page was born in Michigan in 1973, and from a young age he loved computers and enjoyed dismantling household objects “to see how it [all] worked.” He signed up for the same Stanford Ph.D. program as Brin, and it was Page’s dissertation project that sparked Google. Page originally decided to embark on the daunting task of delving into the math of the web and how its pages link to one another. Brin came on board after the project’s conception, and the pair worked together on a way to rank pages based on the “backlink” data collected by Page’s web crawling software. This would evolve into the Google search engine. Google grew rapidly to become a multinational company, helping earn Page a net worth of $24.9 billion in the process.

1. Andrew Grove

1. Andrew Grove

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Semiconductor expert and electronics industry management pioneer Andrew Grove was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1936. His early years were often hard and turbulent, as he grew up during Nazi occupation and then under a series of Communist regimes. Still, this tough start arguably makes both his academic and business achievements all the more impressive. Grove came to the U.S. in 1957, obtained a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Berkeley just six years later, and then moved into the world of science and technology. He joined then startup company Intel in 1968 and later played an important part in its success by helping spearhead the deal that would put Intel microprocessors in every new IBM computer. And during his time as the firm’s CEO, it expanded to become the seventh biggest in the world. Grove himself was thought to be worth $400 million in 2008, and he has won various awards for his entrepreneurial and technical skills.

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