How America's wealthiest get rich

Want to be a billionaire? The largest numbers of the very rich come from the investment world and technology, though that may be changing.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 14, 2012 12:52PM

By Erin Carlyle for Forbes

 

Want to be a billionaire? If you follow our World's Billionaires list, you know there’s no single way to get the job done. You can get rich on energy drinks or yoga pants just as well as hedge funds.

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But for those who like to read the tea leaves, we’d point out something that is probably fairly obvious to most: the tech industry is probably the best place to roll the dice.

 

Technology is now the second-most common way American billionaires made their fortunes. Fifty-one of the 425 Americans on the World’s Billionaires List (12% of U.S. billionaires) are rich thanks to this industry. (Number one is the hodge-podge category of investments, which includes hedge fund tycoons but also a wide assortment of others like Warren Buffett who have interests in a multitude of industries).

That’s a change from 10 years ago, when tech and software ranked third among industries that produce billionaires. In 2002, 26 of the 243 Americans on the Billionaires List made their fortunes in technology. Today they are almost double. Here’s the list as it stands in 2012:

 

Top 10 industries producing U.S. billionaires

 

1. Investments: 100 billionaires
2. Technology: 51 billionaires
3. Media: 37
4. Energy: 35
5. Food and Beverage*: 31
5. Service*: 31
7. Fashion and Retail: 28
8. Real Estate: 27
9. Manufacturing: 18
10. Sports: 15

 

Worldwide, the industry rankings look a lot different: investments retains the number one spot (as it does in the U.S.) with 143 billionaires, followed by fashion and retail (123 billionaires) and real estate (102 billionaires). Tech ranks number 5. (See the full list at bottom).

 

But even that number is greatly skewed by Americans. Of the 90 tech billionaires in the world, 57% are Americans. Looked at another way: While 12% of U.S. billionaires made their fortunes in tech, just 5% of non-American billionaires did.

 

This is a trend that could be picking up speed, particularly as MBA students move away from Wall Street.

 

“There’s definitely a movement among my MBA students -- and among MBA students in general -- a little away from finance, which has been somewhat compromised by the crisis and by Dodd-Frank,” says Steven Kaplan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “We’re seeing big winners in technology. Finance isn’t going away, but I think finance probably peaked in 2007.”

 

Peter Wendell, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a venture capitalist, says that it’s not a matter of if tech, but which tech.

 

“One area that continues to get interest is so-called Big Data,” Wendell says. “Some of the brighter and more forward-thinking ones are focused on tools for analyzing data, tools for storing data.”

 

Wendell also sees smart students choosing are cloud computing, social media, mobile, and video.

 

Not a techie? Not to fear: industry may be less important than inspiration. “My reading of the stories of people like Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak and even Steve Jobs is that they were driven by passion,” says Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of The Progress Principle, who has studied the diaries of successful business people.

 

“I am confident in saying that they are more productive and creative when they are working on something that they find meaning in, that there’s a sense of purpose, that they’re contributing to something they value, when they’re in an environment that allows them to make progress.”

 

Who could argue with that? Nonetheless, here are the ones that have worked across the globe:

 

Global Top 10 industries producing Forbes billionaires

 

1. Investments: 143
2. Fashion & Retail: 123
3. Real Estate: 102
4. Diversified: 97
5. Technology: 90
6. Manufacturing: 85
7. Energy: 78
8. Finance: 77
9. Food & Beverage: 69
10. Media: 64

 

Related at Forbes.com:

Facebook: The billionaire network

Photos: Billionaire uo-and-comers

 

Forbes' full list of the world's billionaires