What do turkey feathers, highway drainage pipes, a newspaper for antique collectors and zipper stops have in common? They seem like lowly items that could pass through the world unnoticed, but each of these products made their founders so much money that they could literally give millions of dollars away.

  • Edward Warren had the insight to substitute turkey feathers into corsets, providing strength yet flexibility, and his success in the garment world provided him with the resources to gift 1,952 acres for Warren Dunes State Park, including three miles of pristine beach along the shores of Lake Michigan that now benefit over a million visitors each year.
  • Joe Chlapaty has already donated over $80 million to his alma mater, a sliver of wealth earned from Advanced Drainage Systems, his company that makes the unglamorous yet in-demand plastic corrugated pipe that lines highways and drainage ditches across the country.
  • The Antique Trader, a newspaper (in the pre-internet era) for antique collectors, became so popular that it allowed founder Edward Babka to donate $60 million to his hometown university in addition to the other projects he had already funded on campus and throughout the city.
  • Irwin Zahn created a machine that allowed blue jean manufacturers to crimp brass around the bottoms of zippers, and his handy zipper stop helped fund assets in excess of $23 million for the Moxie Foundation before it began to sunset.

When we think of inventors, often the famous come to mind. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs. All are worthy of their praise and attention but few of us will achieve that legendary status. Instead, strive to be like Warren, Chlapaty, Babka or Zahn – and be someone who sees a need for the ordinary and functional – and fills it in a way that improves not just the process, but hopefully creates a legacy to leave behind as well.

 

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