Deripaska's first job was at the Ust-Labinsk plant where his mother worked. At age 11, he became an electrician's apprentice doing maintenance on electrical motors. Deripaska acquired a passion for reading; his favorite authors were Mayne Reid and Jack London. Today, Basic Element's headquarters contain walls of books, reflecting Deripaska's lifelong love of reading. His talent for math allowed him to enroll at the physics faculty of Moscow State University in 1985. One year into his studies, he was conscripted into the armed forces and served in the Soviet army's Strategic Missile Forces in the Trans-Baikal area, Siberia, from 1986–1989.
He used nearly all his arbitrage and trading profits to acquire his initial package of shares in the Sayanogorsk Aluminium Smelter in Southern Siberia. Between 1993 and 1994, Deripaska bought vouchers and shares in Sayanogorsk, and accumulated a 20% stake in the factory, becoming the biggest individual shareholder after the Russian State — to the annoyance of the plant's Communist-era bosses.
In 1994, Deripaska became Director general of the plant at the age of 26. In 1997, the smelter became the core asset of Sibirsky (Siberian) Aluminium Group. Deripaska was general manager and the main shareholder of the Sayanogorsk Smelter (1994–97) and held the post of President of Sibirsky Aluminium Investment Industrial Group (1997–2001), which later became the core asset of RUSAL.
Deripaska is the sole owner and Chairman of Supervisory Board of Basic Element, a Diversified investment group established in 1997. Basic Element's assets are concentrated in five sectors: Energy, Manufacturing, financial services, agriculture, construction and aviation. The major assets include United Company RUSAL the world's largest aluminium and alumina producer; GAZ Group, an Automotive company; Ingosstrakh, the country's oldest insurance company; Bank SOYUZ (Банк «СОЮЗ»); Aviakor aircraft manufacturer; EuroSibEnergo (ЕвроСибЭнерго), an investment and Energy supply company; Glavmosstroy (Главмосстрой), a construction company; Kuban Agroholding, an agricultural company; and Basel Aero, an aviation Business comprising the four largest airports in the Krasnodar territory (in joint venture with Changi Airports International).
In 1998, Deripaska established Volnoe Delo, Russia's largest private charitable foundation. The fund supports over 400 initiatives across Russia aimed at developing education and science, preserving spiritual and cultural heritage, and improving standards in public health. It helps children, old people, talented youths, teachers, eminent Scientists and other participants of the programs. Since 1998, Oleg Deripaska has invested more than RUB10.6 billion in more than 500 charity programs in 50 regions of Russia.
He sits on the board of trustees of the School of Business Administration, the School of Public Administration, and the School of Economics at Moscow State University as well as the School of Business Administration at St. Petersburg State University. Deripaska is a co-founder of the National Science Support Foundation and the National Medicine Fund. In 1999, he was awarded the Order of Friendship, a state award of the Russian Federation. He was named businessman of the year in 1999, 2006, and 2007 by Vedomosti, a Russian Business daily.
In 2000, Deripaska started acquiring machine building assets. His first acquisition was Nizhny Novgorod-based Gorkovsky Automobile Plant (GAZ), which was previously a government-run company. In 2005, GAZ Group was established by combining the businessman’s machine building assets.
In February 2001, Deripaska married Polina Yumasheva, the daughter of Boris Yeltsin's top adviser Valentin Yumashev and stepdaughter of Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana. While Yeltsin was President, Deripaska's close ties put him in Yeltsin's inner circle, dubbed "The Family". The Deripaskas have two children: a son, Pyotr (born 2001), and daughter, Maria (born 2003). Deripaska practices yoga, swimming, horseback riding, and hiking. His favorite pets are dogs. At his home near Moscow, he has seven horses and six dogs.
In 2003, businesses led by Deripaska increased their stake in those companies under Common management to 75% by acquiring half of the interest managed by Millhouse Capital.
Volnoe Delo has supported research activities in the 2,550-year-old city of Phanagoria since 2004. More than $10 million has been allocated to Phanagoria fieldwork over the past decade. Today, Phanagoria is one of the best-equipped archeological expeditions in Russia and has its own scientific and cultural center, cutting edge equipment and Technology for above-ground and underwater excavation as well as a large team of specialists involved in the excavation process.
Russian Machines corporation was established in 2005 and unites Oleg Deripaska’s machine building assets. It comprises industrial and engineering assets in the following industries: Automotive OEM (GAZ Group), Automotive components (RM-Systems), rail industry (RM Rail), aircraft OEM (Aviacor), road construction (RM-Terex) and agricultural machinery (AGCO-RM).
In 2007, Deripaska's Veleron investment vehicle acquired stock in Canadian based Magna International through a $1.2 billion loan from BNP Paribas, with Magna shares serving as collateral. Morgan Stanley was involved in the deal through a swap agreement with BNP Paribas where the US bank assumed the risks of the loan in return for a fixed payment from Paribas.
In 2008, Forbes estimated his wealth at US$28 billion, making him the then ninth richest man in the world. In 2009, Deripaska's ranking fell to a ranking of No. 164, with Forbes stating: "[H]e may not withstand collapsing markets and heavy debts". In 2010, however, his estimated $10.7 billion fortune allowed him to rise to No. 57 of the World's Billionaires list. According to Forbes magazine, he removed the heads of his two largest companies and personally negotiated with the Russian government, banks, and other creditors to restructure his loan obligations. Deripaska himself in 2007 was reported to have consistently said that the estimate of his wealth was exaggerated, that it did not completely account for the amount of debt he incurred, and that he should be ranked far below the top ten on the list of the Russian billionaires.
Deripaska is noted for his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their relationship was visibly strained amidst Deripaska's financial struggles in 2009, but in a widely broadcast incident on Russian television, Putin visited a stalled cement factory owned by Deripaska and berated its management. He forced Deripaska to sign a contract promising to pay nearly $1 million in unpaid wages. Their relationship recovered, however, and Deripaska has been described as "Putin's favorite industrialist". Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2006 described Deripaska as "among the 2-3 Oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis" and "a more-or-less permanent fixture on Putin's trips abroad". In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Tye Burt, who knows Deripaska and is the CEO of Kinross Gold said that, "I believe Russia recognizes Oleg's major role in building a renewed economic base in a broad range of domestic businesses and rejuvenating ailing companies and infrastructure."
On 25 January 2010, the Financial Times published a story "Rusal: A lingering heat" exploring Deripaska's Business relations with Sergei Popov and Anton Malevsky, alleged heads of Russian organized crime groups. Deripaska has accused Michael Chernoy of using Malevsky and the Izmailovskaya syndicate to extort US$250 million from him as part of a protection racket. However, Deripaska has himself been accused of having similar links to Malevsky, who, with his brother Andrei, owned a 10% stake in Deripaska's company. Deripaska denies the claims.
In September 2012, Cherney terminated his UK lawsuit against Deripaska.
In 2013, Deripaska was awarded the "Aluminium Industry Ambassador Award" in the Metal Bulletin Awards for Excellence for his "great influence within the global aluminium industry and the wider market".
In February 2014, Deripaska financed the construction of makeshift kennels to house stray dogs that had been abandoned by construction workers after completing work on the Sochi Olympic Village. Officials said the number of strays exceeded 2,000 and the animals presented a risk of rabies, so they contracted out their extermination. Many of these dogs were saved and more were re-homed in a global adoption program that Deripaska created.
Forbes estimated his fortune at $3.3 billion in 2015 and $5.2 billion in 2017.
Deripaska actively advocates cutting the global carbon footprint and calls for the creation of an enforcement mechanism with consequences for countries that do not reduce carbon-intensive emissions, such as those produced by coal-fired powerplants. He also remains a strong advocate of a legally binding climate change deal, but has publicly voiced concern about the potential competitive impact of a Paris climate agreement and also about the absence of binding measures to curb each country's emissions in the near Future. "Everyone is in favour; we just need to have more or less fair regulation. There shouldn't be any pockets where people can cheat the system. People shouldn't agree on something that creates another Kyoto protocol that creates nice polished statements", he told the Financial Times in January 2016.
On May 15, 2017, Deripaska filed a defamation and libel lawsuit against the Associated Press in a U.S. District Court in D.C., arguing that the outlet's report falsely claimed that Deripaska had signed a contract with Manafort to advance the goals of the Russian government. However, the lawsuit was dismissed in October 2017 on the grounds that Deripaska had not disputed "any material facts" in the story by the Associate press
In March 2018, it was reported that Deripaska had successfully purchased Cypriot citizenship in 2017 under Cyprus' "golden visa" that generates billions of revenue for the island nation. According to documents seen by The Guardian, Deripaska's first attempt to become a citizen of a country in the EU was unsuccessful because of an preliminary inquiry into his activities in Belgium. The inquiry was dismissed in 2016.
Deripaska personally holds 10% of Ingosstrakh's ordinary shares. The company is a leading insurer of complex risks such as insurance for ship owners, ship hull insurance, insurance against aviation and space-related risks, and insurance of transportation companies. Ingosstrakh has 83 branches in Russia and the company’s offices operate in 220 Russian towns and cities.