Throughout American history, larger-than-life business leaders have come to exemplify, and often define, the eras in which they lived. Try imagining an America devoid of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s railroad and shipping empire of the 19th century, which not only opened the American West but helped create the very geographic layout of the nation we live in to day. What would America’s story look like if not for the role of Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel or John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil? Would Wall Street be the global center of commerce if not for pioneers like J.P. Morgan?
Howard Hughes holds a similar place in the American narrative, albeit one that has less in common with the business titans of yesteryear than with those who would inherit his legacy of entrepreneurship in the 21st century. While he is rightfully remembered for his impact on the airline industry with his purchase and development of Trans World Airlines (TWA), his activities extended to numerous other industries ranging from engineering to entertainment, corporate holdings to hospitality. When he died in 1976 he was worth nearly $11 billion in today’s dollars.
With Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of the eccentric billionaire, Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator brought awareness of Hughes’ story to new generations of Americans. But perhaps underappreciated by the viewing public were the ways in which Hughes’ story was essentially a modern American tale, with striking similarities to the entrepreneurs and visionaries of today’s world.
Hughes was born in Texas in 1905, the son of inventor and businessman Howard Hughes Sr. The elder Hughes had invented a revolutionary type of oil-drill bit that not only came to dominate the developing Texas oil boom, but served as the foundation for the creation of the Hughes Tool Company in 1909. Tragically, both Hughes Sr. and his wife passed away within two years of each other, leaving the teenage Hughes Jr. as the majority owner of a large corporation and the substantial fortune that accompanied it.
This is where we begin to see the parallels that exist between Hughes and the business tycoons of today. Hughes decided to drop out of college to run his family’s business. While this decision would likely have been controversial or even taboo for many of his peers at the time, it’s fascinating to see how many of today’s global business icons followed a similar path. Bill Gates, François Pinault, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and many others have gone on to fundamentally change the global economy in their own way, despite the lack of a college degree.
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