How I Overcame Homelessness Twice to Become a Billionaire

Even when the outlook looks bleak, the entrepreneur says, remember to give back.

John Paul Dejoria: A lot of people ask how I got into donating to various causes, and how I got involved in even homelessness along the way, and popped out of it—well it's a very interesting story. My mom has a lot to do with it.

At six years old we didn't have any money; there was my mother, my brother and I. We had a deadbeat dad; left us before we were two, but she took us at Christmas-time to downtown Los Angeles. We had little cars going around in circles, it was pretty cool, and decorations in the window.

She gave my brother and I a dime and told us, "Boys whole half of it each, give it to the man ringing the bell in the bucket." We put it in this bucket, we said, "Mom, why did we give that man a dime? That's like two soda pops." This is 1951, two soda pops, three candy bars.

And mom said, "Boys, that's the Salvation Army. They take care of people that have no place to live and no food. And we don't have a lot of money, but we can afford a dime this year. Boys, always remember in life: give a little something to those in need, they'll always be somebody that's not as well-off as you are. No matter where you are or how far down you are, try and help someone along the way." It stuck with me.

The first time I was homeless I was 22-and-a-half years older and I had a two-and-a-half year old son. I was working as the Master of Ceremonies at the Second Annual Sports Vacation Recreational Vehicle Show and I had a check coming in at the end of the week.

Well, I came home and I drove our one car up to where we lived and as I was getting out of the car and going up towards our apartment door my wife—we were very young, we got married at 20 and 19 years old—my wife was coming down the stairs and she said, "I'm going to storage," and she took the keys. By the time I got through the door I saw my little boy, two and a half years old, kind of just sitting there on top of a pile of clothes with a note that basically said, “I can't handle being a mom anymore. He'll be much better off with you. Good luck.”

Now, what I didn't know also was that she had planned this for a few months. She had not paid the rent for a few months and kept the money and I didn't know that. She wiped out what little we had in the savings account in the bank and took the only car we had. So unbeknownst to me, two days later I was evicted—completely evicted, power shut off, the landlord—she just really timed this one. And I had this little kid with me, two-and-a-half years old, and now I had to be mom and dad and that was really a bummer, I had no car! So I ended up borrowing a 1951 Cadillac with a broken water pump from someone that was very, very dear, had to put water in it every four hours, and that's kind of how we got going.

Second time I was homeless is when I started John Paul Mitchell Systems. I knew I needed $500,000 to start John Paul Mitchell Systems, had to have that. So we had the backer lined up, I had a good job at the time, lived in a nice house, and I left everything I had because $500,000 was coming down the street, I was going to start a company. So I left it all behind. I left what money I had with my wife—we weren't getting along well at all—and the best car. And I took the older car—it was a good one but an older car, it ran good—down the hill to get my money.

I would check into an efficiency hotel because I would be traveling a lot and eventually get an apartment. When I went down the hill the backer pulled out. No money.

Well, it was later that afternoon that a friend of mind found me and said, "John Paul, please call Dick Holthouse direct collect in England. He doesn't have the best news for you." So I got a hold of him, for him it was the wee hours of the morning, and he said, "J.P., the backer pulled out."

The reason he pulled out was, inflation in the United States was 12 and a half percent, unemployment ten percent, actually over ten percent, interest rates if you could get a loan prime rate was 17 percent interest and we still had hostages in Iran and we waited in line for gasoline. That was the environment in 1980 and 1981.

Well there I was, a few hundred dollars in my pocket, too proud to ask my mother if I could have my old room back in the home and she could feed me for a couple of months until I got back on my feet, and I just left my living situation. I was too proud. Stupid, but very, very proud. So I went by and saw my mom and I borrowed a couple hundred dollars from her. I said, "Mom, I'll give it back to you." She said, "Son, you're doing really well in life. Why do you need a few hundred dollars?"

I said, "Mom, I'll give it back to you. I'm starting something new." And that's when I decided I'm going to make it on my own; I'm not going to tell her; lived in my car; showered down at Griffith Park because they had a sports center with showers in it, and learned how to live off very little and go ahead and sell products door to door.

When I was homeless, on my mind was not “Oh my god how did I get here? Who's to blame on this?”

What was in my mind was “Okay,” after I cried a little with a two and a half year old son not knowing what to do, no money no nothing, my first thought was, “Okay, I need to get some money, I don't want to go to my mom's house and tell her how bad things are, I need to get money to eat. And—what sources of money? We don't have any money. So I went around collecting soda pop bottles from empty lots. And at that time a grocery store or any liquor store would give you two cents for a little one and five cents for a big one. I went around and collected a lot of them, cash them in and that's how we got the money. And so we were able to eat.

Now, when I got evicted out of the house three days later, this was when I was 22 and a half years old when I was completely evicted, now we have that car I had borrowed to live in and we went more towards fast foods that were halfway prepared for you, those were the early days of fast food, just to eat. A few days later a friend of mine found me because he knew I was hanging out, talked to some friends of mine named Lee Myer. And Lee said, "Johnny, I've got a house with an extra room." He was a biker, a real heavy duty biker, and he says, "You and your son can live here until you get on your feet. No problem. We could have some of the biker mamas take care of your son while you're working. Let's move on. We're buddies." And that was a big helping hand.

I think whether you have money or don't have money it's very important to give back. Because it's we the people, the individuals that make the planet better, so that this doesn't happen again and makes it better for other people. It's we the people.

If we don't help others out and people start going down, then what do we expect as future customers or future people to help us out if we were in trouble?

So I feel that every human being has the obligation: pay a little bit of rent for being on this planet, to do something good for their city or their state or their country or even the world to make it a better place to live.

Now, if you don't have any money, it's okay: you can volunteer like I do when I didn't have any money at Thanksgiving, Christmas up at Griffith Park in California, helping feed the homeless or do something to help somebody else out to make the world a better place to live.

Now, who benefits by this? Whenever you do something for somebody else and ask absolutely nothing in return you get the greatest high you could ever have in your life, and it makes you more connected with the whole planet.

Now, does this work in business? It sure does. When people in a business work in creative activities together to give back they feel one of a bigger picture opposed to just somebody that's doing a little something.

A lot of people think they have to give huge amounts of money to make the impact. Well, I would disagree with them. Because I remember back with my mom, we had almost nothing, knew the importance of giving two little boys a dime to put in the bucket because she knows dimes became many dimes, many dollars and many $10 bills, but every little bit gives back, every little bit. So no matter how little you give or how little of your time you donate, you've done a little something. That little something makes a difference.


John Paul Dejoria has had a rough ride to the top. Yet being homeless twice and being abandoned by his wife early on didn't shake his drive to make it in this word, and he's managed to turn an admittedly difficult hand into a royal flush. These days he's a billionaire several times over with a successful Paul Mitchell haircare line and even a founding stake in Patron tequila brand. So how did he maintain motivation? He remembered giving a dime to the Salvation Army as a boy, and how his mother told him that those dimes add up and can really help people. This lesson directly helped him overcome a period early in his career where he was collecting bottle caps to get money to eat.GOOD FORTUNE, a documentary based on John Paul's life, is available on all digital platforms on August 1st.

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