Save to Pocket
Success

Who gets to be defined as a self-made success?

Who gets to be called a self-made success? This is a debate that Forbes Magazine kicked off when it put makeup mogul, Kylie Jenner, on its cover for the list of America’s most successful self-made women entrepreneurs.

“At 21, she’s set to be the youngest-ever self-made billionaire,” the magazine cover states. “Welcome to the era of extreme fame leverage.” As the youngest member of the Kardashian-Jenner reality TV family and the daughter of Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and manager Kris Jenner, Jenner has been in the public eye she was 9 year old. Then, Jenner was the youngest sister in Keeping Up With the Kardashians with her famous half-sister Kim Kardashian West. Now, her cosmetics venture, endorsements and money from reality TV appearances have given her a $900 million fortune, a number that eclipses Kardashian West’s estimated $350-million net worth.

Kylie Jenner’s self-made millionaire status sparks debate on what it means to be ‘self-made’

Forbes defined a self-made success as “anyone who didn’t inherit any part of their money.” But people on social media contested this definition, noting that wealth is not the only privilege one can inherit. Do you count the access to information and opportunity that your fancy family gave you? What about the mentor who gave you a shot or the parent who read over that contract?

In its profile on Jenner’s success, Forbes notes that Jenner outsources manufacturing, shipping, sales, and fulfillment of her makeup to focus on leveraging her massive social media following. Jenner outsources her finance and publicity relations needs to her mother Kris Jenner, who takes a 10% cut.

“Because of those minuscule overhead and marketing costs, the profits are outsize and go right into Jenner’s pocket,” Forbes writer Natalie Robehmed states. “Basically, all Jenner does to make all that money is leverage her social media following. Almost hourly, she takes to Instagram and Snapchat.”

The debate on Jenner’s self-made status depends on to what extent you consider the fame and business acumen that allows Jenner to capitalize on her loyal followers as her own. Do you count having savvy Kris Jenner as your mom and manager, who was smart and leveraged the commodity of her family’s fame? If you believe that any helping hand disqualifies you, you may side with Dictionary.com, which tweeted that “self-made means having succeeded in life unaided.”

In response to the backlash, Forbes has said that it acknowledges that there were more self-made choices than Jenner, but it defends Jenner’s inclusion. “Yes, Kylie comes from a wealthy family and she got a visibility boost from her family but she owns her company and is valued based on earnings she has personally received and on the value of the company she founded,” a company spokesperson said.

How you define self-made depends on what you count as success

When you think of a self-made success today, you may think of Oprah Winfrey, the first black self-made billionaire in America who rose from extreme poverty and abuse to become a media mogul. Or if you lived in the 19th century, you may think of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the New York farm boy who grew up to dominate the steamboats and railroads industries. The common thread of these self-made success stories is that they overcame the disadvantages of their background to beat the odds and achieve their wealth.

Ramona Ortega, CEO and founder of financial-tech company Mi Dinero, Mi Futuro said that this contextual framing is a helpful yardstick to see who counts as self-made. “Success is not a matter of how far you go in the world, it’s how far you’ve come,” she told Ladders. “Someone who is self-made is someone who is able to achieve more than the norm of their surroundings, who has been able to pave their own path without support, who has been able to surpass and be resilient to a number of challenges.”

What advantages you have do not take away from your accomplishments. “Of course, everyone takes something and makes it their own. You have to have a certain level of ambition to take an opportunity and to turn it into a success. There are plenty of people who are born into privilege that don’t do anything,” she said. “The starting point is what’s important here. You inherit a lot of things including opportunity that are not about just money, but it’s about access. They [The Kardashians] had a father who was famous, and because of that, they had access to wealth. That, in of itself, put them ahead of the game. If we want to look at folks, and say, okay did you make it? How far down that road where you when you started? What opportunity was already set up for you?”

Inherited advantages go beyond the wealth you may pass down to your children, Ortega said. It can also be the access to financial planning you can give them like the ability to help them understand that financial aid document. Who gets to be defined as “self-made” can be a polarizing topic because it forces you to reckon with your own personal relationship to power and awareness of what it can give you.

“There are really strong notions of ‘I’ve done it’ without a look back at what gave you the ability to do it,” Ortega said. “We need to be honest about what we come to the table with so when we measure success, it doesn’t seem like, ‘Oh yeah, I did this all by myself.’ “

More from Ladders