John Paul DeJoria has lived many lives: one as a member of a street gang, one as a homeless man on the streets of Los Angeles and another as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. But he likes his current life the best: as a multi billionaire businessman and hairstylist.

At a Morse Master’s Tea on Wednesday, the CEO and co-founder of hair product company John Paul Mitchell Systems described his time as a janitor, a bicycle repairman and an insurance salesman, among other low-paying jobs, and said each one taught him something different that helped him become successful.

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“Look at disappointment, look at career changes,” he said. “Maybe if those didn’t happen right now, you couldn’t be in the situation you’d be in later.”

The son of Greek and Italian immigrants, DeJoria had a humble upbringing and was working his first job at age nine selling Christmas cards. After graduating high school, he joined the United States Navy for two years. Upon returning, he struggled to support himself on a string of low-paying and door-to-door jobs.

DeJoria said he landed his first “real job,” as a TIME Magazine circulation manager, at age 26, but he quit when they refused to promote him. Unemployed again, he ventured into the professional beauty industry on the recommendation of his wife, who told him there was no limit to what he could accomplish, he said.

“I believed in myself,” he said, “so I went out there to set the world on fire.”

Starting with an entry level position in RedKen, a hair product company, DeJoria made his way up the ranks to manage two divisions, but was fired after four years because he had not hired middle management to oversee his staff. DeJoria said Wednesday that he believes people do their best work and follow their creative instincts when they work for themselves, not managers.

DeJoria went to work for Fermodyl, another hair product line, and then for the hairdresser Paul Mitchell. Mitchell and DeJoria teamed up to start John Paul Mitchell Systems in 1980.

They started off with only around 700 dollars, and DeJoria said he found it a real struggle to set up the company. But he eventually found a distributor with whom he partnered to gain publicity. The company took off, and DeJoria found himself climbing the ranks of the beauty industry and giving extra dollars to those in need, he said.

DeJoria’s company offers free lunch to its employees, and he funds a local orphanage and a senior family home.

“Success unshared is failure,” he said.

The audience had mixed reactions to DeJoria’s claim that people who enter the job market with a back-up plan don’t work as hard and are less likely to make it big.

Though all five students interviewed admired his philanthropy, two disagreed with his critique of people who take fewer professional risks than he did.

“Everybody has incentive to provide for their family, and just because you have a fallback plan does not mean you become lazy,” Carolyn Lipka ’14 said.

Lipka added that she thought DeJoria was too eager to play up his wealth and connections.

“Be prepared for failure,” DeJoria said Wednesday. “But if you believe in the quality of the service or product you are selling, you will prevail.”

DeJoria has made Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans every year since 2007.