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Entrepreneurs / Failure

Stories of Rejection From 8 of the World's Most Successful Entrepreneurs and Leaders

These innovators share how they learned from their setbacks.
Stories of Rejection From 8 of the World's Most Successful Entrepreneurs and Leaders
Image credit: Diego Donamaria | Getty Images
- Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.
7 min read

No matter what you do, if you decide to pursue entrepreneurship, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of “no’s.” But it isn’t the setback that defines who you are, but how you handle it. You want to make sure that if you hit a brick wall, you don’t let it deter you from staying the course.

Read on for what the most innovative and successful leaders took away from their brushes with rejection.

Related: She Was Told 'No' 100 Times. Now This 30-Year-Old Female Founder Runs a $1 Billion Business.

Steve Jobs
There's no denying that Jobs is a tech icon. But his famously combative leadership style often rubbed people the wrong way, so much so that in 1985, he was fired from the company he founded when Apple’s board of directors removed him. In the interim, Jobs launched another business, software company NeXT, and bought a little animation studio called Pixar. In 1997, he returned to Apple and set it on the course to become one of the most valuable publicly traded companies. In his oft-quoted 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, Jobs said that this time away from Apple was actually beneficial. “I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

J.K. Rowling
In 2016, the Harry Potter author took to Twitter to share some of the toughest rejection letters she received over the years, both for the first Harry Potter book -- which was famously turned down 12 times before Bloomsbury agreed to publish it -- and for her Cormoran Strike detective series, which she wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Since she was applying anonymously, she didn’t have the benefit of the Potter caché when she submitted that manuscript. But she kept going anyway. “I wasn't going to give up until every single publisher turned me down, but I often feared that would happen,” Rowling wrote. “I had nothing to lose and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try.”

Elon Musk
If you look closely, Musk’s career is actually littered with rejections and missteps. He apparently didn’t get any traction when he applied for a gig at Netscape in the 1990s. He was fired from his job as PayPal’s CEO after spending some time in the position after the company bought his finance startup X.com. His early attempts at building an aerospace business saw him dealing with less than enthused Russian entities that refused to sell him any rockets. But after each rejection, he went on to build something new. After his stint at Netscape came his first business, Zip2. After PayPal, he went on to co-found Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and The Boring Company. Musk still deals with setbacks such as Tesla production bottlenecks and enough rocket explosions to edit together a montage. But he is still reaching for the stars.

Oprah Winfrey
While Winfrey is a huge success now, it was actually an early setback that helped forge the media icon she later became. After seven months as a co-anchor for the evening news at a local Baltimore station, sharing the news desk with a veteran anchor who frequently disrespected her, Winfrey was fired from the job. She was then tapped to host the network’s morning show, People Are Talking, which yielded some less than stellar reviews in the early go. Undeterred, Winfrey was going to make the most of the opportunity. Reflecting on the experience to The Baltimore Sun, Winfrey said, "Not all my memories of Baltimore are fond ones. … But I do have fond memories of Baltimore, because it grew me into a real woman. I came in naive, unskilled, not really knowing anything about the business -- or about life. And Baltimore grew me up.”

Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett, one of the richest men on the planet, has been operating in the business world for a long time. The octogenarian CEO of Berkshire Hathaway starting making investments when he was just 11-years-old. You might think most of his career was smooth sailing, but the Oracle of Omaha has dealt with rejection too. At 19, he tried to get into his dream school Harvard, but it didn't happen. In an interview with Alice Schroeder in her biography of the tycoon, he shared how his application went awry. "I looked about 16 and emotionally was about 9. I spent 10 minutes with the Harvard alumnus who was doing the interview, and he assessed my capabilities and turned me down." While Harvard wasn’t the right fit, it led him to Columbia where he honed his skills in investing. It has clearly paid off.

Barbara Corcoran
Real estate mogul and investor Barbara Corcoran’s career also began somewhat inauspiciously. The then 22-year-old waitress got a loan from her boyfriend to launch a real estate firm. They built the company together, but then seven years in, she was blindsided when he told her that he was leaving -- and marrying her secretary. Years later, when Corcoran was in contention to be one of the judges on Shark Tank, she had the job, lost it to another female entrepreneur, and then won it back by writing a letter to the production team telling them what they would lose out on if they didn’t hire her for the team. “I said that all the best things happened to me on the heels of rejection and I considered his rejection a lucky charm,” Corcoran told Entrepreneur. “I cited half dozen similar situations throughout my career where obstacles turned into my greatest opportunities.”

Jeff Bezos
Even though Amazon is so successful that American cities are actively bidding to host the ecommerce giant's second headquarters, at the beginning of the company’s life, Bezos was met with a lot of questions about whether it could even get off the ground. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he explained the juggling act he had to do to raise early funds for the business. “I had to take 60 meetings to raise $1 million, and I raised it from 22 people at approximately $50,000 a person,” Bezos recalled. “It was nip and tuck whether I was going to be able to raise that money. So, the whole thing could have ended before the whole thing started. That was 1995, and the first question every investor asked me was: ‘What’s the internet?'” Eventually, it seemed that people caught on to what he was building.

Sallie Krawcheck
Krawcheck was one of the most recognizable women on Wall Street. But in 2008, during the height of the financial crisis, she was publicly fired from her position as Citigroup’s chief financial officer after she said that the firm had an obligation to pay back some of the money that their clients had lost because of its advice. Krawcheck also believes that being a woman in a high-ranking leadership role led to her dismissal. But she channeled that rejection into becoming a first-time entrepreneur and launched an investing platform for women called Ellevest. “The biggest risk is not taking any career risk," Krawcheck told Entrepreneur. "We all need to be pushing ourselves in different directions, otherwise we risk having the world just pass us by.”

How do you bounce back from rejection? Let us know in the comments.

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