The early years: Growing up during the Depression
As a humble man of deep faith, Rich DeVos would simply credit his remarkable life to God’s plan. But he also appreciated how his amazing journey was launched from a loving family and close community during the Great Depression in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was born on March 4, 1926. “I was blessed to grow up in a positive atmosphere,” he said.
His neighborhood of thrifty, hard-working Dutch immigrants in a Midwestern town dominated by smokestacks and church steeples may not have appeared to be the most promising birthplace for one of the world’s most shining success stories.
But 1930s-era Grand Rapids was actually the perfect incubator for the virtues and values that would guide his life: devotion to family and friends, unfailing faith, love of country, never-say-die persistence, respect for the dignity of each person and an unwavering optimism.
In this interview recorded in the mid-2000s, Rich recounted his experience living with his maternal grandparents during the Great Depression. While the scarcity of money limited what he could have and do, he learned some valuable lessons about the importance of hard work and faith from the examples set by his family.
His entrepreneurial flame was first ignited by his grandfather, who sold produce door-to-door from the back of his truck. Rich’s first sale was a bag of onions left over from the route. “It took persistence,” he recalled, “but I loved it.” His own first business was a paper route, which he walked until he had sold enough papers to buy a used bicycle.
The most valuable advice Rich was given came not from an entrepreneur like his grandfather, but from his father, Simon, an electrician who lost his job during the Great Depression. The DeVos family was then forced to leave their home and live upstairs in Rich’s grandparents’ house.
Despite hard times, Rich said his father remained positive, encouraging his son to start his own business one day: “Own your own business, Rich. It’s the only way to be free.” He also often reassured his son, saying “You can do it!” The phrase became a slogan that Rich used to encourage others for the rest of his life.
Talents for leadership
Positive words of encouragement—which Rich would master in later years to motivate and inspire budding entrepreneurs from Canada to China—were a turning point early in his own life. He never forgot how Bible teacher Dr. Leonard Greenway at Grand Rapids Christian High School changed his life by jotting just a few words in Rich’s yearbook: “…with talents for leadership in God’s kingdom.” As an average student, Rich had never before thought of himself in that light.
The man who later in life defined his role as “cheerleader” was, in fact, a cheerleader in high school. Decades later, classmates still recalled him firing up the crowd by doing backflips the length of the basketball court. Such enthusiasm also made him the natural candidate to be elected senior class president.
High school played an even more profound role in shaping all that Rich DeVos would one day become. An older schoolmate, Jay Van Andel, had a rare possession for a Depression-era kid—a Model A Ford. Jay offered Rich a ride to school for 25-cents a week. Their shared trips to school led to shared goals about the future and set a course for horizons neither could have imagined in his wildest dreams.