Benjamin Franklin. Oprah Winfrey. Jack Ma. Aside from being some of the world’s most recognizable names, these people share something else in common: they’ve all been described as “self-made.”
Last July, cosmetics mogul and reality TV star Kylie Jenner became one of the latest to receive the distinction. Jenner dominated the cover of Forbes magazine’s “America’s Women Billionaires” issue and was ranked No. 27 on last year’s list of “America’s Richest Self-Made Women.” On Tuesday, Forbes once again highlighted the 21-year-old’s success, including her in its annual billionaires list and describing her as “The Youngest Self-Made Billionaire Ever.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg previously held the title when he reached the 10-figure milestone at age 23.
Jenner is known for being the founder and sole owner of Kylie Cosmetics, which she launched in 2015. In just roughly two years, the company sold more than $630 million worth of products, Forbes reported in July 2018. Last year, the company’s annual revenue increased 9 percent to an estimated $360 million, according to Tuesday’s announcement.
But Jenner is different from many other famously self-made people — a fact that was not lost on social media users, who have criticized the distinction since Forbes first gave it to her last summer. At the time, the magazine reported that Jenner started her business by investing “some $250,000 of her earnings from modeling gigs to pay an outside company to produce the first 15,000 lip kits."
On Tuesday, people once again rushed to question whether the label is fair.
Jenner wasn’t the child of a soap and candle maker who had little formal education but still managed to become one of the nation’s Founding Fathers as well as a successful inventor and scientist. She wasn’t raised in a rural Mississippi farming community before making her way up the broadcast world to have her own talk show and TV channel. She is a member of the famed, and wealthy, Kardashian-Jenner clan, and millions watched her grow up on the E! Network’s hit reality series “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
In response to the backlash in July, Forbes defined self-made as “someone who built a company or established a fortune on her own, rather than inheriting some or all of it.”
“But the term is very broad, and does not adequately reflect how far some people have come and, relatively speaking, how much easier others have had it,” the magazine noted.
Forbes referenced a scoring system it developed in 2014 that is intended to clarify “how self-made” a person is. The system provides rankings on a scale from 1 — someone who inherited a fortune and isn’t working to increase it — to 10, a person such as Winfrey, “who not only grew up poor but also experienced substantial hardships.” Jenner, according to Forbes, is considered a 7: “Self-made who got a head start from wealthy parents and moneyed background.”
While there’s no question Jenner does not have a traditional “rags-to-riches” story, many have jumped to defend the reality star.
Last year, talk show host Wendy Williams took time during a show to chastise Jenner’s critics.
“We’ve all had some sort of aid,” Williams said in July. “If we just had a hug from our parents that’s some sort of something. ... You might say well she’s not self-made, but you know what? In the bigger scheme of things, yes she is, don’t hate on this girl.”
Yet amid the waves of criticism and support, another perspective has emerged: that there’s no such thing as self-made.
The ongoing controversy over Jenner’s label has only fueled debates about what it means to be self-made and whether it’s even possible.
The term was believed to have first been popularized in 1832 by Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, but Merriam-Webster notes its first known use to be in 1555. The idea of being self-made was only spread further by 19th-century American writer Horatio Alger. Alger was widely known for his novels about young boys, often impoverished street urchins living in big cities who overcome adversity to achieve wealth and success.
Long held as a positive description, lists of historically self-made people often include President Abraham Lincoln, African American leader Booker T. Washington and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, among others. To be self-made was a goal people strove for and aligned with the American Dream, which touts the belief that success is largely the result of self-reliance and hard work.
However in more recent years, the term’s feasibility has been repeatedly questioned by academics and the media. A Google search for the words “self-made” and “myth” together returns about 142 million results. Articles with headlines that read “A self-made success? Let’s kill that myth” and “Why the ‘Self-Made’ Success Story Is a Myth” are commonplace.
In a 2013 article in the blog Everyday Sociology, Peter Kaufman, then a sociology professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, argued that being “self-” anything — made, taught, radicalized, etc. — isn’t possible from a sociological viewpoint. People, Kaufman wrote, are “social animals living in a social world who are socially created through our social interaction.”
"It goes without saying that we are not self-contained individuals living independently and becoming ourselves through self-reflection, self-direction, or any other solitary experience,” he wrote.
At the core of the self-made debate is the issue of nuance, Marty Nemko, a career coach based in Oakland, Calif., and author of “Careers for Dummies,” told The Washington Post in an interview last year, following the July controversy.
Being entirely self-made is one extreme on a spectrum, Nemko said at the time. On the other end, is the belief that “it takes a village.”
“There’s no purism in the world,” he said. “There’s no purely self-made man or woman. There is no completely ‘it takes a village’ man or woman.”
There are, however, people who can be considered “largely self-made and they deserve credit for that,” Nemko told The Post on Tuesday.
Even Jenner appeared to be aware that she isn’t fully self-made, telling Forbes Tuesday that her success was due in part to her existing influence.
“It’s the power of social media,” she said. “I had such a strong reach before I was able to start anything.”