A teen member of a street gang in East Los Angeles, John Paul DeJoria was told by his high school math teacher that he would amount to "absolutely nothing."

Today, the former foster home child who sold Christmas cards and newspapers at the age of 9 with his brother to help support his divorced mother, is a pony-tailed billionaire and majority owner of Paul Mitchell hair- and skin-care products.

On Thursday, the down-to-earth DeJoria, flanked by Paul Mitchell school owners from across the country, local salon stylists and hundreds of regional hair students bused in before dawn from other schools and dressed in the company's signature black and white, helped launch the 97th Paul Mitchell the School at Centre Pointe in North Charleston.

The 15,000-square-foot building with 74 styling stations is designed to train as many as 250-300 students at a time. It costs $13,000 for an 11-month course that requires 1,500 hours of schooling.

Celeste Fortier, one of the first eight students to enroll, called it a dream come true.

A freelance publicist and marketer with a degree in fashion merchandising, Fortier was thinking of returning to school when she heard Paul Mitchell was opening here.

"I enrolled as soon as I could," the Charleston resident said. "My goal is to have my own salon ultimately, but I want to do as many things as possible to learn the industry. It's a very lucrative field. If it's marketed correctly, the sky's the limit."

Started about 10 years ago when DeJoria noticed that 50 percent of former hair salon students left the industry after a year, Paul Mitchell schools encourage a culture of feeling good about oneself and getting involved in philanthropies.

"Service is the rent you pay for the room on this planet," said Paul Mitchell Schools dean and part owner Winn Claybaugh, a cheerleader and motivational speaker for all things Paul Mitchell.

The schools have raised nearly $4 million for charities around the globe in the past six years.

Fortier, with an interest in volunteerism and fundraising, sees that as a perfect fit.

"It's a wonderful way to network," she said.

Melody Moogan was absolutely giddy at a chance to meet DeJoria. She got up at 4 a.m. to take a bus with about 60 other students from the Paul Mitchell School in Fayetteville, N.C., just for an opportunity to meet and have her photo taken with DeJoria and Claybaugh.

"That was amazing," she said after a long wait with hundreds of others for a hug and quick snapshot with the two.

Veteran hairdresser Jeannie Reeves of Summerville stood in line too.

"This is awesome," said Reeves, who sells Paul Mitchell products in her Jeannie's Hair Salon and has been in the hair business for 28 years.

DeJoria, who at 65 has earned success, is involved in charities and doesn't have to make personal appearances, makes it a point to attend the opening of every Paul Mitchell school.

"Successful people do all the things that unsuccessful people don't want to do," he said. "Get up early, work late, work on the weekends and be prepared for a lot of rejection early on. You have to overcome that."

DeJoria graduated in 1962, spent two years in the Navy and then worked as a janitor, tow-truck driver and insurance salesman before taking a job with Redken hair products as a salesman in 1971.

A year later he met hairdresser Paul Mitchell in Miami and they became great friends.

In 1980, with $700, an answering machine and a post office box, the two founded John Paul Mitchell Systems, a revolutionary business that sold hair-care products only to salons. The famous black-and-white Paul Mitchell brand logo is only in black and white because color ink was too expensive to afford in the early years.

DeJoria knocked on salon doors with no-cost product demonstrations, guaranteeing to take back any bottles that didn't sell.

"We should have been bankrupt 50 times in the first year," he said. "I would always say, 'The check is in the mail, I promise.' "

Many times, it wasn't.

Finally, after two very rough years of hardly making ends meet, they made a profit of about $2,000 each.

"We knew we were successful then," he said. "In 10 years, we only had one bottle ever returned and it was 90 percent empty."

In 1989, Mitchell succumbed to pancreatic cancer, but DeJoria vowed to keep the company going. Despite lucrative offers, he recently set up a 365-year trust that prohibits the company from selling to anyone except professional salons.

"If you ever see Paul Mitchell in a drug store or supermarket, it is counterfeit," he said.

Today, more than 90 Paul Mitchell hair and skin care products can be found in 120,000 salons in 85 countries with retail sales approaching $900 million.

DeJoria also co-founded Patron Spirits Co. about 20 years ago, a business that produces more than $1 billion in revenues annually, and he has interests in several other companies, including a pet-grooming business.

According to Forbes, his net worth is $2.5 billion.

"It feels good knowing I can go to bed and sleep well because I can pay the bills," DeJoria said.

Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or wwise@postandcourier.com.