The Rare Fortune 500 CEOs Who Started as Founders

Founding a successful company and running a successful company require significantly different skills. Someone who knows how to fill a market opportunity doesn’t necessarily know how to scale or manage a business. The different sets of skills often mean that professional CEOs often take over from founders after businesses launch. Look no further than Eric Schmidt leading Google after Larry Page and Sergei Brin launched the firm.

Still, a handful of Fortune 500 founders remains as CEOs of the companies they run. They represent the select few but here’s a list of the top ones.

How Many Fortune 500 CEOs are Founders?

Only 21 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are founders, representing just 4.2%.

Among the most success of these are Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, Michael Dell, CEO of Dell, and Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX.

Mark Zuckerberg

If you’ve seen The Social Network, you already know how Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook while attending Harvard.

In 2004, Zuckerberg and a group of friends built a version of Facebook that was only open to Harvard students.

Facebook soon spread to other Ivy League schools. At this point, the company needed capital investments to maintain growth and improve its branding. Money from Peter Thiel and Sean Park, who co-founded Napster, pushed the fledgling company to new heights.

Facebook opened its membership to the public in 2006. Today, the social media platform boasts over 3 billion users, more than a third of the planet’s population.

Zuckerberg was a co-founder and CEO from the very beginning. As the top executive, he has overseen the most important stages of Facebook’s evolution. He took the company public in 2012 with a $38 IPO. Shares currently trade for over $450.

As CEO, Zuckerberg has also grown Facebook by acquiring other businesses and starting new brands, which he consolidated under the Meta Platforms umbrella. Mark Zuckerberg is also the CEO of Meta Platforms. Meta’s properties include:

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • WhatsApp
  • Threads

Over the last few years, Zuckerberg has become fascinated with building a three-dimensional, virtual world called the metaverse. As part of this goal, Meta has built VR headsets and glasses, often working with companies like Ray-Ban to create aesthetically pleasing wearables.

Mark Zuckerberg has been leading Facebook and Meta into new frontiers since founding Facebook 20 years ago. In the process, he has generated a net worth of about $163 billion.

He has also become a spokesperson for the tech industry, appearing before Congress several times to answer questions about the role social media plays in modern life.

Michael S. Dell

As a freshman at the University of Texas, Michael Dell started building and selling personal computers from his dorm room in 1984.

He found that he could build better machines for less money than other companies. He accomplished this by taking pre-orders and only building computers that had been paid for. He founded his first company, PC’s Unlimited, so he could bid on Texas government contracts.

Once Dell Computer Corporation started getting more orders, Dell left school and moved into a condominium. Operating from the condo meant he could maintain lower overhead costs and attract more business.

Michael Dell has served the company as founder and CEO since the very beginning. Today, Dell generates over $100 billion in annual revenues and employs about 133,000 people around the world.

Some of Michael Dell‘s achievements as CEO include:

  • Acquiring the Alienware gaming PC brand in 2006 and Perot Systems in 2009, so Dell could move into IT services
  • Acquiring EMC in 2015, enabling Dell to move into the cloud services market
  • Turning Dell into the third-most-popular PC brand today
  • Keeping most of Dell’s manufacturing facilities within the US (although it does have facilities in India and South America and offices in several European cities)
  • Staying ahead of industry trends by investing in laptop computers, notebooks, and servers
  • Using retail stores and kiosks to better serve consumers

Other than one dip, Dell’s stock price has seen steady growth since 2020. At the beginning of 2020, shares sold for about $25. Today, they trade for between 3-4x that amount.

Michael Dell has an estimated net worth of $72.2 billion.

Elon Musk

Many people assume that Elon Musk founded Tesla. In fact, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla in 2003. Musk got involved in 2004 when he became the company’s biggest shareholder. He didn’t become the CEO until 2008.

Musk is, however, the founder and CEO of SpaceX. Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, helped by the $175.8 million he made when eBay purchased PayPal.

Originally, he had tried to purchase a Dnepr rocket from contacts in Russia. When the deal fell through, Musk decided to form his own company. Musk says he wants to pursue space travel so he can improve access and reliability while lowering costs by a factor of 10.

Despite holding executive positions at several companies, Musk has always been a hands-on member of the SpaceX team. He personally interviewed and approved all of the company’s first 160 employees.

SpaceX has four launch sites located at:

  • Cape Canaveral Space Force Station
  • Kennedy Space Station
  • Vandenberg Space Force Base in California
  • Brownsville, Texas

The company maintains its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. It also operates locations in Redmond, Washington; Irvine, California; and McGregor, Texas.

SpaceX isn’t a publicly traded company, so the public can’t purchase shares. It does, however, have a valuation of $180 billion.

Elon Musk is recognized as the wealthiest or second-wealthiest person in the world. Forbes reports that his current net worth comes to about $201.2 billion, second only to Bernard Arnault ($218.7 billion).

Marc R. Benioff

Marc Benioff started creating and selling software while he was a high school student. After attending USC, he got a customer service job at Oracle, where he remained for 13 years. Benioff stood out as one of Oracle’s top employees. He rose through the ranks quickly and became the company’s youngest vice president.

Benioff had something very specific in mind when he left Oracle to found Salesforce in 1999. Working from an apartment in San Francisco, he often told people that his mission was “the end of software.” By this, he meant that he wanted to pursue cloud technology.

Although relatively young at this point (keep in mind that AOL was bombarding people with CD-ROMs at the time), computer professionals were recognizing that they could move some applications to remote servers. Users, therefore, didn’t need to buy copies of software. They could access them online.

Salesforce often struggled during its early years as it tried to survive the dot-com crash. Still, it managed to increase its year-over-year revenues. Between 2001 and 2003, its revenue increased from $5.4 million to $100 million. Benioff used this opportunity to go public. Shares sold for around $4. Today’s price is over $190.

Benioff has overseen several acquisitions during the years. Under his guidance, Salesforce has acquired:

  • Tableau, a prominent data visualization tool
  • Slack Technologies
  • MuleSoft, a cloud services company
  • Heroku, a platform-as-a-service (PaaS)
  • Demandware, a cloud-based ecommerce solution provider

Today, Salesforce employs 79,390 people and has revenues of over $31.5 billion. The Salesforce platform is noted as one of the customer relationship management (CRM) platforms. It has grown to include diverse, interrelated solutions, including:

  • Sales Cloud
  • Service Cloud
  • Marketing Cloud
  • Commerce Cloud

Salesforce also owns an online app store, called AppExchange, where third-party developers can sell custom solutions to Salesforce users.

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