Last month, after Forbes named Kylie Jenner the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, we unintentionally set off a heated debate on social media about the meaning of the word “self-made.” The idea that a 21-year-old who grew up on a reality TV show (Keeping Up With the Kardashians), whose sister is Kim Kardashian, and whose rich and famous parents are Kris and Caitlyn Jenner could be considered self-made, sparked a very public backlash.
The debate was renewed once again on March 31 after the New York Times published a story in which Kylie admitted to having some help building her business. “I can't say I've done it by myself,'' the beauty mogul told the Times. “If they're just talking finances, technically, yes, I don't have any inherited money. But I have had a lot of help and a huge platform.''
Well, yes, that’s exactly what we mean at Forbes when we say that Kylie—and 1,449 other billionaires—are “self-made.” And that’s perhaps the nub of the disagreement. At Forbes we’ve been using the term to describe the origin of someone’s fortune, rather than whether a billionaire got help to build a hugely successful company or not. Forbes has been tracking the fortunes of America’s richest for more than 35 years and we’ve used three classifications for how people made their fortunes: self-made, inherited and inherited and growing; the latter category was reserved for people like Donald Trump, who built on his father’s real estate empire.
What many object to when Forbes calls Kylie self-made is that (1) she had lots of help (from people like her mom, Kris Jenner) building the company that turned her into a billionaire, and (2) she started out rich and famous. Both of those assertions are true. But Mark Zuckerberg, whom Forbes also classifies as self-made, didn’t build Facebook by himself and he started out well-off, though not as rich and not nearly as famous as Kylie. (Zuckerberg’s father is a dentist, his mother a psychologist).
Plus there are seven other Facebook billionaires who, one could argue, rode alongside Zuckerberg in building the massive social network, including cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, Zuckeberg's former roommate; cofounder Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's former classmate; Sean Parker, the social network’s first president; Jim Breyer and Peter Thiel, its early investors; and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer since 2008, four years after the company was founded. Forbes classifies all of these billionaires as self-made—none of them inherited their fortunes. None of them built Facebook alone.
Five years ago, Forbes dug deeper into one defining characteristic of billionaires: How far did they climb to make their way to the top? That year, for the first time, we gave each member of The Forbes 400 list of richest Americans a self-made score on a scale from 1 to 10: A 1 means the fortune was completely inherited; a 10 is for a Horatio Alger-esque journey from the depths of poverty. At the most basic level, the scores denote who inherited some or all of their fortune (scores 1 through 5) and those who truly made it on their own (6 through 10).
We have continued to apply this self-made score to all American billionaires (and also now to self-made women). In Kylie’s case, we gave her a 7 out of 10, acknowledging that she had plenty of advantages from the start. Donald Trump scores a 4 because he inherited a fortune from his father and then expanded it significantly, while the widow of Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs, gets a 2 because she inherited a fortune and has a role in managing it, having made investments in media (The Atlantic and Ozy Media) and professional sports (she owns a 20% stake the group behind the NBA’s Washington Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals).
While few billionaires have had the type of social media platform that Kylie Jenner had when she launched her business—with 120 million Instagram followers—(which we actually think further underscores her entrepreneurial savvy, not the help she got), every single self-made billionaire on Forbes’ list has had help building their fortune, be it from other employees at the company they founded, venture capitalists, mentors, friends or parents. Steve Ballmer, for instance, had the good fortune to be one of Bill Gates’ classmates at Harvard, which led to a job at Microsoft. He eventually replaced Gates as chief executive, a job he held for 15 years. He is now the 19th-richest person in the world.
Leon Black, whose father was the CEO of United Brands, got a $75,000 life insurance payout after his father died when he was in business school. He later cofounded private equity giant Apollo Global Management, which made him a billionaire. Hedge fund tycoon Chase Coleman is a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New York. Another hedge fund titan, Ken Griffin, started trading in his Harvard dorm room using $265,000, part of which came from his family. And the nation’s richest real estate developer, Donald Bren, is the son of a real estate investor and Hollywood film producer. Phil Knight, in his autobiography Shoe Dog, spells out how the early days of Nike were a team effort by a core group of incredibly dedicated early employees. Even Oprah Winfrey, who grew up dirt poor and earns a number 10 rank on our self-made score, got help from smart producers and other employees to turn her daytime talk show from an also-ran into a huge hit, as the podcast Making Oprah details.
So why have people reacted so vehemently to Kylie? Is it that the Kardashians are people everyone loves to hate? Is it that Americans are fed up with the reality TV, social media culture that not only helped make a 21-year-old who posted on Instagram a billionaire but also helped get a president elected? Several people with whom we spoke wondered if it was because she was a woman. Would we have had the same discussions if it was her half-brother Robert who became a billionaire instead of Kylie?
No one will really ever know. But one thing is certain: Kylie Jenner figured out a simple, easy way to turn her family's fame, her huge Instagram following and her passion for makeup into big, big bucks.
Reporting by Luisa Kroll and Kerry. A. Dolan