10 CEOs Who Prove that Odd Summer Jobs are Worth Setting Your Alarm For

How wonderful would it be if, by middle school, we all knew what our careers would be and got summer jobs in our chosen field?

In some cases, that does happen.  

After all, Bill Gates’s first “real job” (his stint as a Congressional page doesn’t count) was working on a software project for Bonneville Power Administration:

But most of us, no matter how famous or successful we become later in life, aren’t that lucky.

Case in point, take Brad Pitt, who worked as a mascot for El Pollo Loco:

Which job was more beneficial?

Though the answer seems obvious, it’s not as black and white as you might think.

The last thing any teenager wants to do in the summer is set an alarm clock and go to work.

But summer jobs, no matter how glamourous (or unglamorous), have been proven to lead to a bright future.

If you’re in the middle of a tough summer job, or if you’re looking back at your past jobs with regret and hesitating to apply for the job of your dreams because you feel you lack experience, think again.

These ten CEOs and business leaders prove that their summer jobs played a role in getting them where they are today. 

And your summer jobs, past, present, or future, can play a role in shaping your future, too. 

1. Marissa Mayer – From Grocery Clerk to Computer Science Leader

Marissa Mayer Headshot

Summer Job Title:

Grocery Store Clerk

Lesson Learned:

“I learned a lot about work ethic from people who had been there for 20 years. They could do 40 items a minute over an eight-hour shift. I was pretty routinely in the 38-to-41 range. I was pretty happy about that. I have a good memory for numbers.

At the grocery store, you have to remember to charge $4.99 a pound for grapes and 99 cents a pound for cantaloupe by typing in a number code. The more numbers you could memorize, the better off you are. If you had to stop to look up a price in a book, it totally killed your average.”

In addition to working at the grocery store, Marissa Mayer babysat and saved up enough money to buy her first new computer.

Mayer has continued to be a hardworking, quick thinker.

Current Job:

Marissa Mayer is now the CEO of Yahoo and was the youngest woman to make Fortune’s annual America’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list.

2. Terry Lundgren – From Oysters to Fashion

Terry Lundgren Headshot

Summer Job Title:

Oyster Shucker

Lessons Learned

Lundgren’s father used to advise:

“Your life is in your hands. It’s entirely up to you and you’ll figure it out.”

Lundgren took that advice to heart.

To put himself through college, he found a job shucking oysters at a Tucson restaurant and was promoted to waiter, then to head waiter, and eventually to manager.

He graduated without any debt and was able to follow his interest in retail and fashion.

Terry Lundgren wasn’t the most dedicated student, but he learned that hard work pays off.

Current Job:

As CEO of Macy’s, Terry Lundgren helped helped Macy’s reach an unprecedented 27.7 billion dollars in sales in 2012 and Macy’s has continued to do well.

3. Lloyd Blankfein – From Selling Peanuts to Selling Stocks

Lloyd Blankfein Headshot

Summer Job Title:

Vendor at Yankee Stadium

Lessons Learned:

Blankfein grew up in a New York City Housing authority project, and needed to work from the time he was thirteen.

As successful as he is now, he hasn’t forgotten about the experiences that have made him who he is today and he understands the value of hard work:

“And I remember walking along, and somebody in the upper part of the upper deck would raise a hand and say, “I’d like a soda.” And I’m thinking, “This tray is unbelievably heavy,” and the lids didn’t work so well, and I’m going to walk all the way up there for 2 3/4 cents. And guess what? I walked all the way up there for 2 3/4 cents. It’s character building for yourself, but you also know what people go through in the world who don’t grow out of that, but that’s what they do for a living.”

He also understands the importance of respect:

“There’s another lesson I remember from that. You would be a vendor and you’d have to cross over from the main part of the stadium to the bleachers, and you’d have to go through the bullpen. The baseball players would be hanging out there. And I could tell you 40 years later, I remember which of the baseball players would hold the door for you and be nice to you.”

Current Job:

Blankfein went on to become the CEO of Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s largest multinational banking firms.

4. Mark O’Brien – From Sanding to Software

Mark O'Brien HeadshotSummer Job Title:

Guitar Sander

Lesson Learned:

Working in a factory environment helped O’Brien learn the value of teamwork and respect.

He also became keenly aware of the importance of a healthy work environment:

“Everyone along the way had a role to play, and each part of the process was just as important as the rest. While I knew that this job would not lead to a long, storied career in guitar-sanding for me, I took great pride in my work, just the same. I credit the management at the company for this. They made sure that all of their employees felt not only protected — safety was a top priority — but appreciated and even celebrated. I learned a lot about how to establish and nurture a work culture, where everybody feels important and valued, whether they work with you for a few months or a few decades.”

Current Job:

O’Brien is now the Executive Vice President of Omnicom, a major software developer.

4. Jeff Rich – From Hay to Managing Director

Jeff Rich Headshot

Summer Job Title:

Hay Baler

Lesson Learned:

At the age of 13, Rich was earning $50 dollars a day moving 2,000 bundles in 110-degree lofts.

His work ethic is continuing to serve him well, and he believes in working for what he wants.

Current Job:

Rich is now the managing director of Plumtree Partners, LLC

5. Michael Dell – From Dishes to Dell Computers

Michael Dell HeadshotSummer Job Title:


Lesson Learned:

At the age of 12, Michael Dell was working as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant.

To this day, he enjoys hard work and understands what work isn’t always fun:

“There are a lot of things that go into creating success. I don’t like to do just the things I like to do. I like to do things that cause the company to succeed. I don’t spend a lot of time doing my favorite activities.”

Current Job:

Michael Dell is now CEO of Dell Computers, a company he helped create at the age of 19.

6. Jeff Bezos – From the Ranch to Amazon

Jeff Bezos Headshot

Summer Job Title:

Ranch Hand

Lesson Learned:

As a ranch hand on his grandfather’s farm, Bezos spent time repairing windmills, cleaning stalls, fixing plumbing and castrating bulls.

The job taught him to be self-reliant:

“One of the things that you learn in a rural area like that is self-reliance,” Mr. Bezos said. “People do everything themselves. That kind of self-reliance is something you can learn, and my grandfather was a huge role model for me: If something is broken, let’s fix it. To get something new done you have to be stubborn and focused, to the point that others might find unreasonable.”

Current Job

Jeff Bezos has left the ranch and is now the well-known CEO of Amazon

7. James McNerney – From Rodeos to Airplanes

James McNerney Headshot

Summer Job Title:

Cattle Rancher  

Lessons Learned:

Though he didn’t have experience with horses or cattle, McNerney was eager to be hired.

He told the rancher he wanted to work for that:

“I’m 6-foot-2, strong, and I like to work.”

Thanks to his enthusiasm and willingness to work, he was hired.

By the end of the summer, he was able to ride in rodeos, proving that enthusiam pays.

Current Job:

James McNerney’s rodeo days were short lived. Until March of 2016, he served as the CEO of Boeing

8. Sheryl Sandberg – From the Mall to Facebook HQ

Sheryl Sandbert

Summer Job Title:

Clothing Store Clerk  

Lesson Learned:

Thanks to her clothing store experience, Sandberg knows what not to do as a manager.

As she puts it, the clothing store she worked for was “terribly managed:”

“I essentially was in the back with no light, with no tags. And my job was to make the tags match the clothes,” said Sandberg. “And there were no inventory systems, so I could never get it right.”

Current Job:

Sandberg is now the well-known CEO of Facebook and famous for leaning-in.

9. Heather Bresch – From Label Maker to CEO

Heather Bresch Headshot

Summer Job Title:

Clerk at Mylan

Lessons Learned:

At a basketball game in 1992, Bresch’s father mentioned his daughter’s job search to the then CEO of Mylan.

Bresch was offered an entry-level position as a clerk, and agreed to take the job for one year.

After spending a year typing labels, she began to move up the ranks, eventually running the company.

Starting at the bottom taught her the value of hard work and helped her learn the industry inside and out.

Current Job:

Bresch was promoted so many times she ended up becoming the CEO of Mylan.

10. Chad Dickerson – From Pizza Delivers to Online Sales

Chad Dickerson Headshot

Summer Job Title:

Delivery Boy at Pizza Hut

Lesson Learned:

Even though he’d just graduated from Duke University, Dickerson needed time to think about his future:

“My first job out of college was as a Pizza Hut delivery driver in Raleigh, NC — and it was one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had. I had actually graduated with honors from Duke, but had zero idea of what I wanted to do when I graduated. I figured that driving pizzas around all over town would give me some time to think about what to do next and listen to some good music at the same time. The plan worked.”  

Current Job:

Thanks to his next job, which was working for an online newspaper, Chad Dickerson learned to code and eventually became the CEO of Etsy.

Bonus – Celebrity “Odd” Jobs

Brad Pitt isn’t the only celebrity who’s had an unusual summer job.

He may be best known for Pulp Fiction and Deer Hunter, but before he was “The” Christopher Walken, he worked as a lion tamer:

Amy Poehler got her start scooping ice-cream, and is now inspiring young girls:

The Takeaway:

Though it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the value of a job until it’s over, every job has something to offer.

According to Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer and researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education:

“Kids think summers are part of the community service Olympics, that it’s about finding a high-profile, impressive activity,” said Weissbourd. “That’s not what colleges care about.”

It turns out, colleges value work ethic and responsibility, and care a great deal about character.

So, if you’re stuck in a job that you think is going nowhere, or are frustrated because you think your past work experience isn’t relevant, remember that all jobs, no matter how small or unrelated to your chosen field, give you:

  • Interview skills
  • A work ethic
  • A chance to step out of your comfort zone

Look for the connections and positives, turn the tables, and help your “weird” jobs start working for you.

Remember – everyone has to start somewhere.

So keep setting that alarm clock and get to work.

What have your summer jobs taught you?