While it might seem like the CEO of your company can’t tell a cubicle from a closet, chances are he or she might know a thing or two about modular work life.
Not all executives were born with a silver spoon – plenty started out where you are – jockeying for a better parking space and praying the person at the next desk doesn’t plan on eating leftover fish again.
Many didn’t even start off with a desk!
Andrew Taylor, CEO and chairman of Enterprise Rent-a-Car, started out washing cars at Enterprise lots when he was 16. Sidney Weinberg, former CEO of Goldman Sachs started out working for $3 a week as a janitor’s assistant at the investing giant. And Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn hawked refrigerators and TVs at the electronics and appliance giant in the mid ’80s.
We rounded up a few more famous CEOs who started out in less-than-glamorous office jobs.
Steve Jobs (Co-found, Chairman and CEO of Apple, 1974-1985 and 1996-2011)
Jobs, a college dropout, got hired at arcade game manufacturer Atari in 1974 as a technician in a small warehouse lined with games. Even back then Silicon Valley was known for its loose dress code and casual work environment, which suited Jobs well. According to one article, the famous Apple co-founder was described as a “scuzzy kid” whose personal hygiene, strange eating habits and abrasive attitude left a bad taste in his co-workers’ mouths. He left Atari (after a spiritual journey in India) and went on to found Apple with buddy Steve Wozniak.
(Chairman and CEO of GE, 1981 to 2001)
Welch started out making $10,500 a year as a chemical engineer in the plastics department of GE. He nearly got fired from his job after blowing the roof off the factory he worked in. Like many recent college graduates who feel stuck at the bottom, he was frustrated with the company’s bureaucracy and the paltry raise he was offered after his first year and threatened to quit, but a colleague convinced him to stay. Twelve years later he was named a vice president and continued to move up the ranks.
David J. O’Reilly
(Chairman and CEO of Chevron, 2000-2009)
After attending University College of Dublin, O’Reilly was recruited by Chevron in 1968 and began his career there as a process engineer. What does a process engineer do? Well, they literally study how different processes work – from pumping oil to refining it – and look for improvements on everything from safety to efficiency. It’s not the most glamorous job. He spent some time out in the field — looking for problems at a refinery, for example — but was often stuck behind a desk studying models.
(Chairman and CEO of Xerox, 2009-present)
Raised by a single mom in a New York City housing project, Burns received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of NYU in 1980, and a master of science in mechanical engineering from Columbia in 1981. She began her career at Xerox as a mechanical engineering intern in 1980. During her 20s, she worked in product development and planning, impressing supervisors with her candidness and ability to multitask. She went on to become the first woman to succeed another woman at a Fortune 500 company when Anne Mulcahy stepped down in 2009.
(Chairman and CEO of IBM, 2002-2011)
The Baltimore native got a degree in history from Johns Hopkins in 1973 and turned down an offer to tryout for the Oakland Raiders before becoming a salesman at IBM when he was just 22. That’s right, he was kind of a Jim Halpert or Stanley Hudson, albeit for a much larger company. He eventually worked his way up the ranks to become CEO in 2002 – something we don’t see Stanley doing – what with his love of doing crossword puzzles instead of work.
(Chairwoman and CEO of Xerox, 2001-2009)
Mulachy started out as a field sales representative for Xerox in 1976, after getting her BA in Journalism and English from Marymount University. She rose through the ranks, achieving more senior management positions (and no doubt ditching a cubicle for a bigger office).