Farrah Gray began contributing to his family's financial support at the age of 6, and he made his first million by the time he was 14. His success made a lot of people change their thinking about where life in the projects of Chicago's South Side could lead.
His head is shaved, and he now dresses impeccably in expensive, tailored suits when he goes to work in one of his offices in Las Vegas or New York; but he looks only slightly older than his age, which is 21. Part of what motivated him to begin earning money at such a young age was watching his mother work so hard.
"When I went to sleep she was up; when I woke up she was up," he said. "So I never really was sure that she did go to sleep. And I really felt that out of that feeling of struggle, my mom had a heart attack, and I said there must be something I can do to help her."
Setting out with an executive-size ambition to make life easier if he could, Gray made use of the most basic resources available to him -- such as the rocks he found in the street.
"I started painting these oversize rocks. And I would knock on people's doors. Knock hard. And shake people's hand and say, 'Hello my name is Farrah Gray.' I said, 'Would you like to buy this rock? It can be used as paper weights, bookends and door stoppers.' And people would look at me and say, 'Isn't that the rock that was in front of my door?' And I'd say, 'Yes, but it's different now.'"
The 'Five-Person' Policy
He says he was learning lessons in seeing alternative uses of common things. For instance, when Gray's mother refused to buy him a briefcase, he decided to use his lunchbox to greet the world as a self-appointed CEO.
"I took a red lunchbox, and I would go around and that was my little briefcase and I used my brother's clip-on tie and I would present myself to the world."
"Instead of a little boy, he was a little man," said his grandmother, Audrey Price. "He was going to make a speech. And he told whoever was in the room at the time to just 'sit back and listen to me.' And it was like he was a professor or something."
"I was 8 years old when I started my business club, called UNEEC," Gray said. "It stood for the Urban Neighborhood Economic Enterprise Club."
Gray got local businesspeople to donate transportation and meeting space so kids from the housing projects could learn about business.
"I was very nervous, and I had to deal with rejection at a very early age because I was asking people for money. Many people said no. They would shut the door on us. But I was able to raise $15,000 with what I call a five-person policy -- that if you say no, introduce me to five people who might say yes."
With donations, Gray and the group founded businesses that sold cookies and gift cards. In a way, that was the first phase of his entrepreneurial lessons. Phase two involved a change of scenery.
Gray's mother had a heart condition that continued to worsen. His older brother, Andre, took a job that allowed the family to move West for the lifestyle and climate. That's how Gray wound up in Las Vegas, where his entrepreneurial skills and talent for meeting people led to an invitation to appear on a local talk show, "Backstage Live," and then to a job as a co-host.
He was all of 12 years old, but he could talk. People started calling to book him for speaking engagements worth thousands of dollars apiece.
"My phone started ringing off the hook. People wanted to know, how did you start an investment club? How did you become a talk show host? Come speak to our old people's group, our young people's group. Here's a check. Here's another check and here's another check."
Gray concentrated on making money through projects that took advantage of what he knew best. He had enjoyed helping his grandmother cook. After watching her make syrup, he tried his own concoctions and flavors. Then he started a food company after first reading a book about marketing.
"I started just reading through the book and taking each chapter step by step on how to start a food company. I took what I had on the stove, poured it into a bottle. Sent it to a co-packer, and I tried to find mentors in the industry to teach me."
With the food company and other assets, Gray made his first million dollars by the age of 14.
Secret to Your Success? Ask Yourself Three Questions
Despite the fact that he actively promotes his success in creating wealth for himself and advising others, he is reluctant to quantify his own net worth.
"I have some change," he said. He declined to estimate the range of his worth.
"There is not a suit in my closet that I paid less than $1,000 for, but I properly invested my money. The businesses have been very, very successful."
His current interests include real estate brokerages and a foundation to teach business skills to young people. He is also publisher of InnerCity Magazine, and has written a book called "Reallionaire." His picture is on a prepaid credit card.
He received an honorary doctorate in April from Allen University in South Carolina.
He is, in short, a walking resumé who can also do 250 push-ups a day and says that comfort is the enemy of achievement. But he is also a human being who is in a race against time. Gray's sister, Greek, has leukemia. His latest undertaking is one he hopes will save her life. She needs a bone-marrow transplant. No one in the family is a match; and Gray -- who in typical fashion has done his homework -- is out campaigning to get African-Americans to sign up for the bone-marrow registry.
"People of color only make up 3 percent of the registry," Gray said. "But they make up a pretty large number of the 35,000 who are diagnosed with some form of blood cancer every year. I don't ever want anyone's family to go through what we're going through -- the pain, the suffering, the fact that I can't write a big check to cure my sister."
"Now he's taking on another huge responsibility," said Greek Gray. "I love him for it."
"I believe the two most important times in a person's life is when we were born and when we find out why we were born," said Gray. "And when we're able to find out why we were born then we have found our area of excellence. Ask yourself three questions. First, what comes easy to me but harder to others? The second question is, what would you do for work for years and years and never have to get paid for it? And the third question is, how can you be of service and how can you give back? Because I always say, 'If you're here on earth and you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much room.'"