Posted By Randy Jones on July 21, 2009
A stable salary can be addictive: like a drug, it feels good, helps you cope with the ups and downs of life, and it is very hard to give up. But dependence on a salary is a major impediment to becoming the richest person in town. The regular fix of a paycheck from the other guy makes you risk-averse, and the ability to take risks is one of the qualities that defines an RMIT. It certainly defines Jon Huntsman, Salt Lake City’s richest man. His rags-to-riches trajectory is not uncommon among RMITs—in fact, growing up without advantages can be a huge advantage.
Huntsman grew up very poor, the son of a rural schoolteacher whom he described as a “harsh disciplinarian.” During his high-school years, Huntsman lived in a Quonset hut in student housing at Stanford University, where his father had moved the family so he could pursue a PhD in education. Though the living situation was Spartan, to put it mildly, it also brought Huntsman to Palo Alto High School, where he became the student body president and earned a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He always knew, however, that he did not want the kind of life his father had favored. “I always felt trapped in my personal situation,” he told me. His humble beginnings gave him the drive to make his own money and make his own way. Huntsman’s career trajectory has been more like an electrocardiagram than a straight line upward—his company was on the verge of bankruptcy twice and he’s beaten cancer three times—but he worked through the tough times knowing that he could get by on very little if he had to.
Like Huntsman, Richmond’s Robert Jepson was raised in very modest circumstances. “My parents had separated and we lived with my grandmother in Richmond, Virginia,” he told me. “Every day was a struggle. As a child, at least on the surface, I wasn’t aware of our struggle, but on a subliminal basis, I knew that being poor was not the way I wanted to live my life. My formative years were a great motivator to reach up for a higher rung on the ladder of success.”
All of the RMITs who started out life poor combine the strong desire to better their circumstances with an equally strong sense of self-reliance. Many of them learned through hard experience that with a salary comes dependence on someone else’s business decisions. While they hungered for the financial stability, they also knew what true stability means—independence. Which means being the one signing the paychecks, not the one collecting them.