Jeff Bezos is about to step down as Amazon CEO. Here’s how he built Amazon into a $1.7 trillion company and became the world’s richest person.

Jeff Bezos inside Amazon's Spheres at its Seattle headquarters
Jeff Bezos inside Amazon’s Spheres in 2018.

  • Jeff Bezos will step down as Amazon CEO on July 5, 27 years to the day after he founded the company.
  • Bezos got his start as a New York hedge-funder and grew Amazon into a $1.7 trillion business.
  • Along the way, he faced antitrust scrutiny, weathered scandal, and became the world’s richest man.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After 27 years in charge, Jeff Bezos is stepping down as Amazon CEO.

Over the last 16 months, Amazon experienced a surge in demand as the coronavirus pandemic forced people to shop online more than ever. And as Amazon’s stock has hit new highs, Bezos’ net worth has jumped as well: These days, he’s worth $199 billion, according to Bloomberg.

He’s also jetted across the globe with his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, he’s attended the exclusive Met Gala, and in a few weeks, he’s about to launch into space aboard a Blue Origin rocket.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, however. Bezos began his career in the hedge fund world in the 1990s, then left a cushy job to launch his own startup that didn’t turn a profit for years. In 2018, he weathered a high-profile divorce scandal, and Amazon has faced scrutiny over how it treats its workers and the impact it has on the environment.

Here’s how Bezos got his start and built a trillion-dollar empire.

Allana Akhtar contributed to an earlier version of this story.

Jeff Bezos’ mom, Jackie, was a teenager when she had him in January 1964. She had recently married Cuban immigrant Miguel Bezos, who adopted Jeff. Jeff didn’t learn that Miguel wasn’t his real father until he was 10, but says he was more fazed about learning he needed to get glasses than he was about the news.

jeff bezos miguel bezos
Jeff Bezos with his father, Miguel Bezos.

Source: Wired

When Bezos was 4, his mother told his biological father, who previously had worked as a circus performer, to stay out of their lives. When Brad Stone interviewed Bezos’ biological father for Stone’s book “The Everything Store,” Bezos’ dad had no idea who his son had become.

Ringmaster Monte Carlo circus
Not Jeff Bezos’ father.

Source: The Everything Store

Bezos showed signs of brilliance from an early age. When he was a toddler, he took apart his crib with a screwdriver because he wanted to sleep in a real bed.

Baby crib

Source: The Everything Store

From ages 4 to 16, Bezos spent summers on his grandparents’ ranch in Texas, doing things like repairing windmills and castrating bulls.

jeff bezos young 1999

Source: The Everything Store

His grandfather, Preston Gise, was a huge inspiration for Bezos and helped kindle his passion for intellectual pursuits. At a commencement address in 2010, Bezos said Gise taught him “it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

jeff bezos
Jeff Bezos.

Source: Business Insider

Bezos fell in love with reruns of the original “Star Trek” and became a fan of later versions too. Early on, he considered naming Amazon MakeItSo.com, a reference to a line from Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

star trek

Source: The Everything Store

In school, Bezos told teachers “the future of mankind is not on this planet.” As a kid, he wanted to be a space entrepreneur – now, he owns a space-exploration company called Blue Origin.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin

Source: Wired

After spending a miserable summer working at McDonald’s as a teen, Bezos, together with his girlfriend, started the Dream Institute, a 10-day summer camp for kids. They charged $600 a kid and managed to sign up six students. The “Lord of the Rings” series made the required reading list.

Jeff Bezos Thumb

Source: Wired

Bezos eventually went to college at Princeton University and majored in computer science. Upon graduation, he turned down job offers from Intel and Bell Labs to join a startup called Fitel.

Princeton University
Princeton University.

Source: The Everything Store

After he quit Fitel, Bezos considered partnering with Halsey Minor – who would later found CNET – to launch a startup that would deliver news by fax.

fax

Source: Wired

Instead, he got a job at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw. He became a senior vice president after only four years.

india stock market
The rising graph of the Bombay Stock Index is reflected in the glasses of Senior broker and Assistant Vice President of Motilal Oswal Securities Limited, Jitendra Prasad, as he looks into a computer in his firm in Bombay November 15, 2001. India’s key share index finished up more than two percent on Thursday to its highest level since September 11, as investors bet on a recovery in global equity sentiment. The 30-share Bombay Sensitive Index closed up a provisional 2.65 percent at 3,195.52 points. YEAREND PICTURES 2001

Source: The Everything Store

Meanwhile, Bezos was taking ballroom dancing classes as part of a scheme to increase his “women flow.” Just as Wall Streeters have a process for increasing their “deal flow,” Bezos thought analytically about meeting women.

Ballroom dancing

Source: The Everything Store

He married MacKenzie Tuttle, a D.E. Shaw research associate, in 1993. She’s now a novelist. The couple had four kids together.

Jeff Bezos + Mackenzie

Source: The Everything Store

In 1994, Bezos read that the web had grown 2,300% in one year. This number astounded him, and he decided he needed to find some way to take advantage of its rapid growth. He made a list of 20 possible products to sell online and decided books were the best option.

girl in bookstore

Source: The Everything Store

Bezos decided to leave D.E. Shaw even though he had a great job. His boss at the firm, David E. Shaw, tried to persuade Bezos to stay. But Bezos was already determined to start his own company – he felt he’d rather try and fail at a startup than never try at all.

amazon bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is silhouetted during a presentation of his company’s new Fire smartphone at a news conference in Seattle, Washington June 18, 2014.

“When you are in the thick of things, you can get confused by small stuff,” he said later. “I knew when I was 80 that I would never, for example, think about why I walked away from my 1994 Wall Street bonus right in the middle of the year at the worst possible time. That kind of thing just isn’t something you worry about when you’re 80 years old.”

“At the same time, I knew that I might sincerely regret not having participated in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a revolutionizing event,” he added. “When I thought about it that way … it was incredibly easy to make the decision.”

Source: Wired

And so Amazon was born. MacKenzie and Jeff flew to Texas to borrow a car from his father, and then they drove to Seattle. Bezos was making revenue projections in the passenger seat the whole way, though the couple did stop to watch the sunrise at the Grand Canyon.

jeff and mackenzie bezos

Source: The Everything Store

Bezos started Amazon.com in a garage with a potbelly stove. He held most of his meetings at the neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

Barnes and Noble store

Source: Wired

In the early days, a bell would ring in the office every time someone made a purchase, and everyone would gather around to see whether anyone knew the customer. It took only a few weeks before it was ringing so often they had to make it stop.

jeff bezos young 2001

Learn more about some of Amazon’s early employees here

In the first month of its launch, Amazon sold books to people in all 50 states and in 45 different countries. And it continued to grow: Amazon went public on May 15, 1997.

amazon ipo jeff bezos

Source: Business Insider

When the dot-com crash came, analysts called the company “Amazon.bomb.” But it weathered the storm and ended up being one of the few startups that wasn’t wiped out by the dot-com bust.

jeff bezos

Source: Barron’s

Amazon has now gone beyond selling books to offering almost everything you can imagine, including appliances, clothing, and even cloud computing services.

amazon warehouse
An Amazon warehouse.

In the early days, Bezos was a demanding boss and could explode at employees. Rumor has it he hired a leadership coach to help him tone it down.

Jeff Bezos
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos

Here are some of the strategies Bezos used in building his Amazon empire. 

Bezos is known for banning PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. Instead, he requires his staff to turn in papers of a specific length on their proposals to encourage critical thinking over simplistic bullet points.

Pens and paper with the Amazon logo are seen at the logistics center in Brieselang, Germany November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
Pens and paper with an Amazon logo are seen at the logistics center in Brieselang

Source: The Everything Store

Bezos is also known for creating a frugal company culture that doesn’t offer perks like free food or massages.

Amazon office 61
An Amazon office.

In 1998, Bezos became an early investor in Google. He invested $250,000, which was worth about 3.3 million shares when the company went public in 2004. Those would be worth billions today (Bezos hasn’t said whether he kept any of his stock after the initial public offering).

Larry Page Sergey Brin

Source: All Things D

What does Bezos do with all his money? In 2012, he donated $2.5 million to defend gay marriage in Washington.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos.

Source: The Washington Post

Bezos has also donated $42 million and part of his land in Texas to the construction of The Clock Of The Long Now, an underground timepiece designed to work for 10,000 years.

Clock of the Long Now

Source: Business Insider

In August 2013, Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million.

Jeff Bezos

Source: The Washington Post

His space company Blue Origin made history in 2015 when it became one of the first commercial companies to successfully launch a reusable rocket.

Blue Origin

Source: Business Insider

Bezos’ interest in flying has gotten him into trouble in the past. In 2003, Bezos almost died in a helicopter crash in Texas while scouting a site for a test-launch facility for Blue Origin.

august 2011 helicopter crash wreckage missouri
This isn’t Bezos’ helicopter.

Source: CNN

But in early 2016, he flew his personal jet to Germany to pick up and bring home Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who had been detained by Iran.

Jeff Bezos

Source: Business Insider

Bezos is said to own a 5.35-acre estate on Seattle’s Lake Washington that includes 200 yards of shoreline.

Amazon plane Lake Washington
An Amazon-branded Boeing 767 freighter, nicknamed Amazon One, flies over Lake Washington.

Source: Curbed Seattle

He bought a seven-bedroom, $24.5 million mansion in Beverly Hills in 2007. There’s a greenhouse, tennis court, pool, and guest house on the property, and it neighbors Tom Cruise’s estate.

Jeff Bezos Beverly Hills Home
Bezos’ house in Beverly Hills.

Source: Forbes

In January 2017, Bezos purchased the Textile Museum, a pair of mansions in Washington, D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood. The property sold for $23 million and is the largest in Washington. He’s currently spending $12 million to renovate the place.

Jeff Bezos DC house

Source: The Washington Post, Business Insider

Here’s another look at the mansions.

Bezos

Bezos also owns four apartments at 212 Fifth Avenue in New York City. His most recent purchase in the building was last April, when he paid a reported $16 million for a three-bedroom unit, bringing his total real estate holdings in the building to nearly $100 million.

Madison Square Park
Madison Square Park in New York City.

Source: Forbes, Business Insider

In February 2020, Bezos became the new owner of the Warner estate, a sprawling compound in Beverly Hills, California, that he reportedly purchased for $165 million. A few months later, Bezos added to the compound with an adjacent house worth $10 million.

Jeff Bezos Warner estate Beverly Hills

Source: Business Insider

Now, more than 20 years after going public, Amazon has a market cap of over $1.56 trillion.

Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Source: Markets Insider

In August 2017, Amazon officially acquired Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. The Amazon influence became immediately clear: Customers who are Amazon Prime subscribers can get 10% of sale prices, and you’ll see some Amazon branded items offered, including tech products like the popular Amazon Echo line.

whole foods amazon echo

Source: Business Insider

In July 2017, Bezos became the world’s richest person for the first time, surpassing Microsoft founder Bill Gates. At the time, his net worth was more than $90 billion.

Jeff Bezos Bill Gates Tennis

Source: Markets Insider, Forbes

Despite his high net worth, Bezos doesn’t actually take home a high salary, comparatively speaking: His annual salary comes out to $81,840, according to Bloomberg.

Jeff Bezos Sun Valley
Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, and John Elkann, chairman of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, walk together during the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 12, 2018 in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Source: Bloomberg

In January 2019, Bezos and his wife of 25 years, novelist MacKenzie Bezos, announced they were divorcing. “As our family and close friends know, after a long period of loving exploration and trial separation, we have decided to divorce and continue our shared lives as friends,” the couple wrote in the statement. “If we had known we would separate after 25 years, we would do it all again.”

Jeff Bezos MacKenzie Bezos

 

Shortly after the Bezoses announced their divorce last January, news broke that Bezos was dating TV host and helicopter pilot Lauren Sanchez.

Lauren Sanchez Jeff Bezos

At the time, the National Enquirer said it had conducted a four-month investigation into Bezos and Sanchez’s relationship and had obtained texts and explicit photos the couple had sent to each other.

Almost immediately, questions arose about the Enquirer’s motives for investigating Bezos and Sanchez and the tabloid’s connection to President Trump — Bezos immediately launched an investigation into who had leaked his personal messages.

Then, in February, Bezos dropped a bombshell of his own: an explosive blog post titled “No thank you, Mr. Pecker,” in which he accused Pecker and AMI of trying to blackmail him. As a result, Bezos published the emails he’d received from AMI.

“Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten,” Bezos wrote.

The Bezoses announced on Twitter they had finalized the term of their divorce in April 2019. MacKenzie retained more than $35 billion in Amazon stock, making her one of the world’s richest women.

FILE PHOTO: 89th Academy Awards - Oscars Vanity Fair Party - Beverly Hills, California, U.S. - 26/02/17 - Amazon's Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/File Photo
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos.

Source: Business Insider

Since then, Bezos and Sanchez have had a whirlwind two years, attending Wimbledon together, yachting with other moguls and celebrities, and vacationing in Saint-Tropez and St. Barths.

jeff bezos lauren sanchez

Source: Business Insider

During the coronavirus outbreak, Amazon saw a surge in demand as more people were forced to shop online. Amazon created more jobs and raised pay for workers, but Bezos and the company faced scrutiny over worker safety during the outbreak.

Amazon worker protest
Former Amazon employee, Christian Smalls, stands with fellow demonstrators during a protest outside of an Amazon warehouses in the Staten Island borough of New York on May 1, 2020.

Source: Business Insider

The company is also facing antitrust concerns, particularly the company’s practices when it comes to third-party sellers on its platform. Bezos and other major tech CEOs will testified in front of Congress at the end of July 2020.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos threw his weight behind the US military.

Source: Business Insider

After the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Bezos was outspoken about his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, publicly shaming customers who sent racist emails about his and Amazon’s support. In an Instagram post, he posted a screenshot of a customer email and described the man as “the kind of customer I’m happy to lose.”

black lives matter sign
A person holds a “Black Lives Matter” sign at a protest in Seattle, Washington on June 1, 2020.

Source: Business Insider

In recent months, Bezos and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have seen their respective net worths spike. The two moguls have flip-flopped for the spot of world’s richest person, though it appears Bezos is staying on top with a fortune worth nearly $200 billion.

Jeff Bezos Elon Musk space

Source: Business Insider, Bloomberg

On Tuesday, February 2, Bezos announced he would step down as Amazon’s CEO after 27 years.

jeff bezos star trek
Jeff Bezos attends the premiere of “Star Trek Beyond” in 2016.

In a letter to Amazon employees published on the company’s blog, Bezos announced that he would transition to executive chairman, where he’ll focus on “new products and early initiatives.”

“Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it’s consuming,” Bezos wrote. “When you have a responsibility like that, it’s hard to put attention on anything else.”

Bezos said that while he will still be involved in important initiatives at Amazon, he plans to spend more time on philanthropy — including the Bezos Earth Fund and his Day 1 Fund — as well as his two other major endeavors: the Washington Post, which he purchased 2013, and his rocket company, Blue Origin.  

Bezos’ next adventure won’t take place on planet Earth. On July 20, he’ll take an 11-minute voyage to the edge of space aboard a Blue Origin spacecraft. He’ll be accompanied by his brother, Mark; a mysterious bidder who bought the seat for $28 million; and Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviator who trained to go to space in the ’60s but was ultimately denied the opportunity because she was a woman.

Jeff Bezos Blue Origin

Source: Business Insider

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