Books to rockets: the modern era’s richest man

Reach for the skies: Bezos founded his aerospace company, Blue Origin, in 2000. © Getty

Is Jeff Bezos a hero or villain? The billionaire entrepreneur has officially become the richest man in modern history, overtaking Bill Gates. But scandals consistently dog his Amazon empire.

In the 54 years Jeff Bezos has been alive, he has earned, on average, around £4,000 per minute. This is about £5.7 million per day.

The rapid rise of Amazon means its founder has become the world’s richest man.

But Jeff Bezos is more than that. According to the Bloomberg billionaires index, he is worth around £115 billion. His fortune, adjusted for inflation, is the largest known for a single person since Forbes magazine started publishing its wealth ranking in 1982.

He has overtaken Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, who, in today’s money, was worth around £113 billion in 1999.

The adopted son of a Cuban immigrant, Bezos was all set in life by 1990 when he became vice president at an investment firm. But in 1994, seeing the untapped potential of the internet, he moved to Seattle and opened an online bookstore.

Amazon’s initial success was meteoric. Without any press promotion, his site was selling books throughout the US and in 45 other countries within only 30 days.

Now valued at £678 billion, it is the world’s second most valuable company.

Bezos is the founder of Blue Origin, a space exploration company that is competing to be the first to land a human on Mars. He also owns The Washington Post.

Writing for The New York Times, Nellie Bowles described Bezos’s public persona as that of “a brilliant but mysterious and cold-blooded corporate titan.”

Unlike the stereotypical Silicon Valley billionaire, he is no workaholic. It has been reported that he only meets with Amazon’s investors for six hours each year, and that he never organises a meeting that would require more than two pizzas to feed everyone — employing what he calls the “two-pizza rule”.

Yet stories emerge of terrible conditions at Amazon warehouses, where employees on 11-hour shifts are given just 15 minutes for lunch and are reduced to urinating in bottles. Author James Bloodworth described his time working at Amazon as like being in a “prison”.

The online retailer has also been responsible for closing down thousands of independent shops.

Is Jeff Bezos really such a hero?


Bezos has changed the world radically for the better, say some. Amazon has revolutionised reading by inventing the Kindle. Shopping has never been easier. Thanks to Bezos, people are no longer limited in their purchases by where they live. He has created huge wealth for the world. We should all applaud him.

Others respond that Bezos’s empire has made the world a more impersonal, cynical place. While Bezos sits on a fortune no person could possibly need, his employees slave away in circumstances that would embarrass Victorian factory-owners. Amazon has decimated towns and high streets. Is the convenience really worth it?

You Decide

  1. Is Jeff Bezos a hero or a villain?
  2. Is being rich immoral?


  1. In groups, find out what you could afford if you had Jeff Bezos’s fortune. For example, how many private jets or loaves of bread?
  2. What would you do with £115 billion? Set out a plan detailing how you would want to change the world with that money.

Some People Say...

“If you can’t tolerate critics, don’t do anything new or interesting.”

Jeff Bezos

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Jeff Bezos topped the Forbes rich list in 2018, and according to a new survey, he is the richest person of the modern era when adjusted for inflation. His company, Amazon, is the largest internet company by revenue in the world, and after Walmart, the second largest employer in the US.
What do we not know?
Whether Bezos will stay at the top of the rich list for a long time. Bill Gates topped it consistently for over a decade, albeit with interruptions from Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim. We also do not know who will win the new space race between Bezos and Elon Musk, or whether a third competitor will enter the fray.

Word Watch

World’s richest man
As well as founding Amazon, Bezos was an early investor in Google, Airbnb and Business Insider.
In 1999
During the height of the dotcom boom.
Adopted son of a Cuban immigrant
Bezos was born Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen to Jacklyn Gise Jorgensen and Ted Jorgensen, a bike shop owner and Chicago native. After divorcing his father, Jacklyn married Miguel Bezos, a Cuban immigrant, in April 1968, and Jeff’s surname was changed.
Second most valuable company
Behind Apple, and just ahead of Alphabet and Microsoft.
The Washington Post
Bezos purchased the paper for $250 million in 2013. Under Bezos’s ownership, the paper has been a vocal opponent of President Donald Trump, who in turn has repeatedly used Twitter to direct threats at Amazon, accusing the company of paying too little tax and putting independent retailers out of business.
Urinating in bottles
This was because employees had their pay docked for every toilet break.
James Bloodworth
Bloodworth worked for Amazon undercover while researching his book, Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

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