6 Entrepreneurs Who Overcame Obstacles to Achieve Success

October 23, 2020
The C2FO Team

These six diverse entrepreneurs didn’t have a lot of financial advantages starting out. But strong family influences, passion and persistence have driven each one of their success stories.  

Starting your own business is always a risk.

That’s particularly true for entrepreneurs who don’t have an established network of wealthy friends and family, or strong support from the financial system. 

Nevertheless, passion, perseverance and a unique solution to a universal need are powerful ingredients for a successful business, regardless of the founder’s humble beginnings. 

Daymond John, CEO of men’s apparel brand FUBU, was turned down for a loan by 27 banks. Still, he found a way to bring his vision to life. FUBU has now sold billions of dollars of clothing and John is a regular on ABC’s Shark Tank.

Alberto “Beto” Perez, started Zumba Fitness just a few years after emigrating to the United States from Colombia. Today, his company has thousands of instructors and millions of customers around the world. 

It’s a fact that women- and minority-owned businesses have a tougher time securing funding than those companies that are owned by white men. However, many of these diverse businesses still succeed, thanks to the enterprising tenacity of their founders. 

Here are six of those entrepreneurial success stories:

Tope Awotona Calendly

  • Awotona is the founder of Calendly, a scheduling application that has served 30 million people worldwide and is experiencing 100% annual growth.
  • Awotona grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. His family moved to Marietta, Ga. when he was in high school and he majored in management information systems at the University of Georgia.
  • After gaining experience as an account executive for Kansas City-based Perceptive Software, Awotona launched a series of start-ups, ranging from a dating website to ecommerce businesses selling projectors and backyard grills. 
  • His entrepreneurial journey took flight when Awotona recognized a problem that needed to be solved — how to schedule appointments without a series of emails or texts back and forth. In 2013, he formed Calendly, a simple scheduling tool that makes it easier for multiple people to check availability and plan a meeting, appointment or event. 
  • Over the next three years, Awotona’s goal is to serve hundreds of millions of people with Calendly.
  • Growing up in Nigeria, Awotona says he didn’t see race as an issue or a challenge — until coming to the United States: “There are not nearly enough examples of people who look like us in positions of power or who have a lot of success in the tech field,” he recently told Atlanta Tech Village. “Unfortunately, that limits people and can hinder the idea that they can do whatever they want.”

Sal Khan Khan Academy

  • Khan is an American educator and founder of Khan Academy, a free online platform with more than 6,500 video lessons on a wide range of academic subjects.
  • Today, Khan Academy’s Youtube channel has 5.9 million subscribers and over 1.7 billion views.
  • In 2012, Time magazine named Khan among its “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
  • Born in Louisiana to Bengali parents, Khan graduated with bachelor’s and masters of science degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
  • Khan began tutoring his cousin in mathematics in 2004 by using Yahoo’s Doodle notepad. When other friends and family asked for tutoring, Khan started posting instructional videos on Youtube. 
  • The popularity of his Youtube channel led Khan to quit his finance job in 2009. His videos began receiving worldwide interest, with more than 458 million views in the first few years.
  • A breakthrough moment for Khan Academy came in 2010, when Microsoft founder Bill Gates mentioned at a conference that his children learned using Khan Academy videos. Gates flew Khan up to Microsoft’s headquarters to meet with him a few weeks later. “This was after 10 months of living off of savings and doubting myself and wondering if I’d made a huge mistake,” Khan later told Investor’s Business Daily.
  • Today, Khan Academy is seen as an effective supplement for traditional classroom teaching, employing more than 150 people and generating more than 1.7 billion views. 
  • Khan Academy is built on the belief that education is a human right. Its services are free. Instead of generating advertising revenue through Youtube, the company is backed by individual contributions. 

Shreya Mishra. Flyrobe

  • Inspired by AirBnB’s business model, Mishra in 2015 co-founded Flyrobe, an on-demand wardrobe rental service based in Mumbai, India.
  • Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Mishra was a financial analyst, which gave her insights into the market and the resources required to run a business.
  • Built on the idea that consumers are willing to rent — rather than buy — premium apparel for special occasions, Mishra and her two business partners pooled their savings to launch Flyrobe. Within a month, the company raised its first round of capital.
  • Flyrobe today is a $2 million company that has raised $10.7 million in venture capital. Mishra expects the company, which generates most of its business online, to triple its annual revenue. 
  • Her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Hire people smarter than you are,” the 31-year-old recently told Femina. “This will help change your perspective and even open up avenues you’d never have considered otherwise. This is advice I always follow.” 

Daymond John FUBU

  • John is founder and CEO of apparel company FUBU. But he’s best known by millions of Americans as one of the judges and investors on ABC’s reality show, Shark Tank.
  • John grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where his early entrepreneurial efforts included a commuter van service and handing out flyers for $2 an hour.
  • He started FUBU, a clothing brand for young men, in the early 1990s at his mother’s house in Queens. His mother taught him how to sew.
  • Sensing potential for a new style of menswear, John began sewing the FUBU logo on hockey jerseys, sweatshirts and T-shirts. He made ends meet by working full-time at Red Lobster. 
  • After being turned down 27 times for a bank loan, John’s mother spent the last of their money on an ad in The New York Times. The ad led FUBU to sign a deal with Samsung Textiles.
  • Today, FUBU has earned over $6 billion in global sales. 
  • In addition to leading FUBU and listening to elevator pitches on Shark Tank, John is a motivational speaker who extols the societal benefits of entrepreneurship: “Don’t focus on you. Focus on what you can give others,” he has said.  

Janice Bryant Howroyd. ActOne Group

  • She is founder and chief executive of ActOne Group, an international talent and technology employment agency that is the largest privately held, minority woman-owned business in the United States.
  • Part of a family of 13 in Tarboro, NC, Howroyd was among the first Black students to desegregate her local high school. She went on to earn an English degree from North Carolina A&T University. 
  • In the 1970s, she moved to Los Angeles to work as a part-time secretary for Billboard Magazine, where her brother-in-law worked. The job introduced Howroyd to business executives, celebrities, as well as management and workforce training.
  • With less than $1,000 of her savings, Howroyd started ActOne Group in Beverly Hills in 1978.
  • ActOne today is a multibillion dollar company with over 2,600 employees, providing employment and workforce management services to a number of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. 
  • Howroyd has said that having a woman- and minority-owned business can be a mixed blessing: “It most often is great for a newer, smaller company, but more difficult to navigate as one grows,” she said in a recent article. “Labeling can sometimes pigeonhole you… or set you free. And sometimes the hand that feeds you, will bite you.”

Alberto "Beto" Perez. Zumba Fitness

  • Perez is a Colombian-born dancer, choreographer and entrepreneur. 
  • When he was 14, his mother was injured by a stray bullet. From that young age, Perez began supporting his family by working three jobs. He credits that early experience with solidifying his work ethic.  
  • He moved to Miami in 1999 to chase “the American dream” as a dancer, aerobics instructor and choreographer.
  • In 2006, Perez founded Zumba Fitness, selling Latin dance-inspired videos, products and licenses to Zumba instructors.
  • Today, he employs 200 people. More than 14 million people in 185 countries have taken Zumba fitness classes.
  • Perez says all entrepreneurs must have passion and perseverance. “It’s like fishing — you have to throw the bait,” he told Reader’s Digest in 2009. “You throw it once, and the fish might not bite, so you have to throw it again and again, until it bites. I was also lucky to find my business partners early. If people have ideas, they need to find the right people to help.”

The bottom line

For most of the entrepreneurs profiled here, it took years for them to secure the financial backing that their companies needed to grow. 

They had many other advantages, however. Those included:

  • Identifying a market need and coming up with a workable solution.
  • Having the passion to lead their companies through even the most challenging times.
  • Possessing a strong work ethic and an indomitable willingness to hustle. 
  • Backing from family members, friends and, ultimately, key business contacts who believed in their vision. 

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