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From Intern to CEO: How 5 ordinary People scaled the corporate ladder

The base of the corporate pyramid is usually crowded with competition heating up as you rise through mid-level management and gets really lonely at the top. Only the best rise to the very top. We usually admire and look up to the success stories in the business world. How do you rise from an intern to a CEO? There are no secrets; Hard work, focus, ambition, loyalty and people skills have a way of rewarding the faithful. Here are five ordinary CEO’s who rose from interns to CEO by walking the talk.

1. James Mworia, CEO, Centum Investment Company


Mworia is the Chief Executive of the largest quoted investment firm in East Africa with assets in the excess of Sh6 billion and managing Sh140 billion in third party funds. The 36 year old CEO started his career as an intern at Centum after he graduated with a law degree from the University of Nairobi. Mworia also had a Certified Financial Analyst (CFA) and was working on Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certificate.

“When I was an intern, the first job I had was in the filing room. I could have looked at that filing job and say it was below my capability; that I am a graduate and I should not be doing filing. But when I went into that room I said, ‘what is the opportunity here.’ And the opportunity for me was to learn about the business. I really took time to study the files,” Mworia told Capital Business in an earlier interview.

Mworia believes in doing more than what is expected of him. “That is what I have consistently done and it has been my philosophy.”

In 2005 he was appointed as the Investment Manager and later the CEO in 2008.

2. Mary Barra, CEO, GM

Mary Barra

Mary Barra was appointed the first female CEO of US car maker General Motors. Mary has been with GM for 30 years where she started working as an intern when she was a teenager. Mary has been passionate about cars and engineering. She earned her degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) and an MBA from Stanford University.

Mary interned at GM where her father worked as a mechanic in one of the plants when she was still an engineering student. Mary’s appointment was a first in many ways; not only is it very rare for a woman to lead an automotive manufacturing company but it was the first time GM had appointed an engineer to be CEO.

According to Vault: Dan Akerson, GM’s retiring CEO, said Barra is “highly experienced both in management and product skills,” has “an ability with people,” has “brought order to chaos” at GM, and “drove change in how GM conceived new vehicles and brought them to market efficiently and at lower cost.”

Barra has also been described as an “early riser,” “consensus builder,” and quite the car enthusiast.

3. Chris Gardner, CEO, Gardner Rich

Chris Gardner

If you have watched ‘The pursuit of Happyness’ starring Will Smith you will relate to the story of Chris Gardner. The movie was inspired by Gardner’s real life story which traces the life of a man leaving on the streets and train stations with his young son. Gardner got his first job as a trainee at stockbroking firm Dean Witter Reynolds and was the only one to get an employment contract despite supporting his son and using public rest rooms as shelter. Gardner later moved to Bear Stearns as a broker and eventually started his brokerage firm.

4. Ralph Lauren, Chairman/CEO, Ralph Lauren and Polo


It pays to have a sense of fashion and to believe in your dreams. Fashion icon Ralph Lauren should know. As a teenager living in the Bronx, New York in the 1960s, the young Ralph would spend his pocket money on the latest suits and clothes. His love for the good life saw him get a job as a clerk in a men’s clothes store, according to biography. An idea to make a different tie for men struck him while still working as a store attendant but his bosses were not convinced, so he started selling the ties on the side. Ralph started Polo soon after with $50,000 loan. His clothing empire is now worth $7 billion.

5. Ursula Burns, Chairman and CEO, Xerox

Ursula Burns

Growing up in a poor neighborhood, raised by single mother, Burns had plenty of reasons to follow the path of many girls in her hood. But she decided early in her life that she would define her own path. Through hard work, determination and flexibility, she made it through Uni with a degree in mechanical engineering and got an intern position at Xerox, Forbes reports. The big break came when one of the senior executives offered her an assistant position. Although Burns knew she was over qualified for the position, she took it and as a result learned a lot about the business from one of the best managers. She rose through the ranks being appointed as Chair and CEO of Xerox in 2009

Key Lessons

  • It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you know where you are headed
  • There is no substitute for hard work
  • Overnight success is a dream
  • Opportunities are everywhere. You just need to take them when they come
  • Follow your dreams. Nothing is impossible.

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