In the 2015 musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton is championed for furthering his career “by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” In a 2016 episode of Saturday Night Live, Benjamin Franklin is featured as a fictional guest at the very first Thanksgiving. And in the 2018 Netflix original Set It Up, one character assesses his finances at an upscale restaurant: “I’m no Rockefeller.”
There’s a reason why these historical powerhouses are still regularly mentioned in theater, television and film hundreds of years after their time: They were legends when it comes to wealth, philanthropy and business. Whether you’re a top-level CEO looking for advice from the greats or a first-time entrepreneur seeking motivation and inspiration, here are six iconic figures and some of their best business advice.
“My ambition is prevalent, so that I contemn the grovelling condition of a clerk or the like, to which my fortune condemns me, and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station … I mean to prepare the way for futurity.”
-- Alexander Hamilton in a 1769 letter
Hamilton was born poor on an island in the Caribbean, and he wrote this letter at age 12, dreaming of something bigger for himself and his career. By 17, when a hurricane devastated his home, the orphan -- who was then working as a clerk -- wrote an account of the disaster in the local newspaper. Local merchants recognized his skill and took up a collection to send him to North America for schooling. Hamilton would go on to become a founding father and champion the United States economic system, but it all started with big dreams and almost incomparable determination. Hamilton visualized himself “prepar[ing] the way for futurity,” and that type of steely resolve is invaluable in any venture.
“[I] retain[ed] only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence, never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words ‘certainly,’ ‘undoubtedly’ or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, ‘I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so’; ‘it appears to me,’ or ‘I should think it so and so, for such and such reasons’; or ‘I imagine it to be so’; or ‘it is so, if I am not mistaken.’ This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me.”
-- Benjamin Franklin in his 1789 autobiography
Franklin, one of the country’s founding fathers and author of The Way to Wealth, was also an esteemed inventor, as he's widely regarded as the father of electricity. He attributes much of his success to the fact that he was always a voracious reader, so hungry for knowledge that he would often stay up with new books late into the night. He also loved to debate, and it’s why he adopted the habit of never using absolute terms unless he was describing something he knew absolutely to be true -- instead, he favored phrases such as “it appears,” “I should think,” “I imagine” and “if I am not mistaken.” Franklin said it’s important to speak in such a way; otherwise, if you speak with absoluteness and are wrong, others likely won’t correct you -- meaning you will not learn. This intentionality of language is vital for any prominent figure in business, especially in meetings, statements and interviews. Speaking with caveats is widely seen as a sign of intelligence, as few things in life are truly certain.
“We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory, and in the mine, of whom the employer can know little or nothing and to whom he is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each caste is without sympathy with the other and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it … Often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor.”
-- Andrew Carnegie in his 1889 book
In The Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie laid out why he would be donating the bulk of his earnings -- about $350 million in 1889 dollars -- to universities, libraries and other organizations. But in this passage, the steel magnate, business leader and philanthropist addresses the dark side of capitalism. Although Carnegie goes on to say he believes the benefits of competition outweigh the negatives, he admits that the disconnect it can create between employer and employees -- and between the wealthy and the working class -- is significant. Any successful executive would do well to note this and use their influence to turn the idea on its head, staying relatively accessible to both employees and customers.
John D. Rockefeller
“Criticism which is deliberate, sober and fair is always valuable, and it should be welcomed by all who desire progress. I have had at least my full share of adverse criticism, but I can truly say that it has not embittered me nor left me with any harsh feeling against a living soul. Nor do I wish to be critical of those whose conscientious judgment, frankly expressed, differs from my own. No matter how noisy the pessimists may be, we know that the world is getting better steadily and rapidly, and that is a good thing to remember in our moments of depression or humiliation.”
-- John D. Rockefeller in his 1909 book
Rockefeller was an oil magnate, prominent businessman and philanthropist, and one lasting part of his legacy was his status as one of the wealthiest men in history and America’s first billionaire. In 1918, he was worth $1.2 billion, but that would amount to $21 billion in 2017 dollars. But Rockefeller didn’t build his legendary Standard Oil worrying about naysayers. He took measured criticism into account and used it to propel himself towards his goals, but he strived never to let “adverse criticism” drain him of his time or energy. Any business leader would do well to listen to every piece of advice without letting it sidetrack them from their ultimate goals -- in other words, take others’ advice with a “grain of salt.”
Madam C.J. Walker
“I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the south. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations … I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
-- Madam C.J. Walker in a 1912 speech
Widely regarded to be the country’s first female self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) made her fortune by way of a successful line of hair care products marketed towards black women. The hair care system she developed -- which utilized a combination of lotions and the use of iron combs -- would later be deemed the “Walker system,” and her talent for self-promotion garnered loyalty from both her customers and the thousands of door-to-door saleswomen she trained. But Walker’s origins -- as the first child born free to parents who were both recently freed slaves -- meant she had to work much harder to build her business than her contemporaries, and she started with just $1.50 in cash capital. “The girls and women of our race must not be afraid to take hold of business endeavor and, by patient industry, close economy, determined effort and close application to business, wring success out of a number of business opportunities that lie at their very doors,” she said in the same speech.
“Power and machinery, money and goods, are useful only as they set us free to live. They are but means to an end. For instance, I do not consider the machines which bear my name simply as machines. If that was all there was to it I would do something else. I take them as concrete evidence of the working out of a theory of business which I hope is something more than a theory of business -- a theory that looks toward making this world a better place in which to live.”
-- Henry Ford in his 1922 book
Ford was a business magnate, mass production innovator and founder of Ford Motor Company. His Model T Ford is widely regarded as having brought affordable automobiles to the everyday consumer, as 15 million were sold between 1908 and 1927. While Ford enjoyed notable wealth -- his 1918 fortune of $100 million would equal $1.8 billion today -- he felt it vital to impart that money is only a means to freedom and, outside of that purpose, it means nothing. He felt similarly about business in general -- that any venture should ultimately be about making the world a “better place in which to live.” Adopting that very value could help propel the long-term success of any business leader.