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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

From Intern to CEO: How 3 Execs Climbed to the Top

While it’s easy to point to pedigree and the right network as the reasons many of today’s high-powered executives are where they are, not all of them were raised with silver spoons in their hands. In fact, quite a few iconic CEOs got their start with very humble beginnings.

From taking unpaid internships to dropping out of college to take a mail room job, take a look at how these successful CEOs really did work their way from the bottom all the way to the top.

Ursula Burns

Chairman and CEO, Xerox

If you don’t transform, you’re stuck."

Ursula Burns

After growing up in a poor neighborhood in New York City’s Lower East Side, earning her master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and eventually becoming the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, Ursula Burns knows a thing or two about transformation.

Raised by her mother, Burns was taught at an early age that hard work, determination, and flexibility were the keys to success. A great student at her Catholic high school, Burns was surprised at the lack of career options offered to her by her guidance counselor: nursing, teaching, or being a nun. At this point, Burns knew she would have to create her own destiny and chose chemical engineering (which eventually changed to mechanical engineering) as her college major.

Her rise to the top started at the bottom of the Xerox ladder, as an intern. But managers quickly noticed her talent. One such manager was senior executive Wayland Hicks, who offered her a job as an executive assistant. Although an assistant role wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, after now having earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University, Burns remembered what her mother had taught her—where you are is not who you are—and accepted the job.

That role turned out to be beneficial for Burns (and eventually for Xerox!), allowing her to learn the business and leadership skills from one of the company’s most respected executives. In 1999, she was named Vice President for Global Manufacturing and earned her title as Chairman and CEO in 2009.

The Moral: Always stay flexible and allow yourself to transform. Others—and you—may have an idea about what you’re supposed to be doing. But, by allowing yourself to adapt, new opportunities you never would’ve seen before will arise.

David Geffen

Founder of DreamWorks, Famed Talent Agent

Happy is harder than money. Anybody who thinks money will make you happy, hasn't got money."

David Geffen

Now known for co-founding Hollywood giant DreamWorks SKG along with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg and having an impressive career as an entertainment mogul, Geffen’s beginnings started out modestly.

Although he tried to take the traditional path by attending college, he quickly realized it wasn’t for him. And rather than suffering through four years for an education he didn’t want, he decided to pursue what really made him happy—the entertainment business.

Despite the fact he had no skills to woo employers (other than a stint in the CBS mail room), Geffen didn’t let that stop him. After being turned down for a job at a talent agency because he had no skills, he decided to get creative with his resume—and we’re not talking fancy graphics and fonts. After fibbing about his education (not something we recommend), he was hired as a mail room clerk at one of the most sought-after talent agencies in the business, William Morris Agency. Within a few years, Geffen had networked his way into a job as a talent agent, and not long after, one of the industry’s greatest. Over 50 years and over $6 billion later, Geffen has retired a legend, even earning himself a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Moral: When you find what you love, do whatever it takes (as long as it’s above board, of course) to get yourself in a position to achieve that goal.

Karen Kaplan

CEO, Hill Holliday

I raised my hand for every opportunity. And I never let the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing stop me."


The newly-minted CEO of advertising giant Hill Holliday paid her dues early on, starting as a receptionist. Her first week on the job, she was reminded by the other, more senior, receptionists that she was indeed the lowest of the low. Even lower than the guy in the mail room.

But, this corporate version of hazing didn’t slow her down. Kaplan adopted an “I’ll show you” attitude and got to work—despite the fact she still didn’t know how to type. She recognized quickly that, as the receptionist, she was in the unique position to interact with everyone at the firm—which afforded her countless opportunities to chat with executives, clients, and everyone in between in the process.

While Kaplan had originally planned to go to law school, she realized she loved the advertising world and wanted to make a career at Hill Holliday. So, when a position opened up for a secretary, Kaplan jumped at the opportunity. She wasn’t quite qualified, so she spent weekends and nights in the office to keep up. It paid off: After rising through the ranks of the company in account management and management roles, she was named CEO in 2013.

The Moral: There’s opportunity everywhere—even at the bottom of the totem pole. And recognizing those opportunities—and not being afraid to network, work hard, and take on unfamiliar duties—can lead to amazing things.

There’s no doubt hard work pays off in the long run, but sometimes it’s helpful to get reacquainted with how hard some of the most powerful executives worked to get where they are. Whenever you’re feeling like the deck is stacked against you, take these executives’ stories as inspiration, and keep striving for your goals.

Feature photo of executive woman courtesy of Shuttterstock. Photo of Ursula Burns courtesy of Fortune Live Media. Photo of David Geffen courtesy of Mike Solita. Photo of Karen Kaplan courtesy of Business Wire.