Kylie Jenner recently became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, all at the tender age of twenty-one. Forbes wrote an article about it, calling her the youngest self-made billionaire. Ever.
People were mad about it.
The primary criticism seemed to be that readers felt that she had it handed to her, rather than worked for it. This is true: she’d received a huge amount of free resources, in the form of a famous family; good looks from expensive makeup and fillers. Undoubtedly, that helped her reach this pinnacle of wealth, status and influence.
But what the naysayers fail to realize is that nearly every “self-made” billionaire is like that.
People don’t become billionaires from scrimping and saving. Folks can’t get uber-rich just by working hard for their whole lives at a nine-to-five. Billionaires start out with a good deal of investment from others and they use it wisely.
Kylie got her resources handed to her, and then she built an empire of makeup by using Instagram, shamelessly grifting ideas from others (and settling out of court anyone who tried to sue), and activating a network of teenage girls to access their capital.
In other words, she used her given wealth, her privilege as a wealthy woman, and then hard work, to create additional wealth. Like every other self-made billionaire out there.
There’s a furor around Kylie Jenner’s wealth that’s hard to ignore. People savagely say she’s done nothing to earn her billion dollars. People mock anyone who says she’s self-made, saying she’s never applied herself in her life.
Folks are weirdly angry that she’s being called a self-made billionaire.
Remarkable in its absence from the conversation, there is no anger directed at other billionaires, and the fact that their billionaire status was handed to them just as much, if not more, as Kylie Jenner’s.
The key difference is that most other billionaires in the public eye made their wealth from things we as a society perceive as “valuable.” Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey — these billionaires had a good idea about technology, along with the starting capital to make it work. Others made it big from investment, or have it leftover from ancestors who owned land, or slaves.
More than the ability to pass information on to the next generation, more than the skills to bring up our children, we value those areas. Those people, we respect as billionaires.
Kylie Jenner? She made it big with makeup. Unlike computers, software, and other forms of technology, makeup is almost entirely in the domain of women. She’s a woman, from a family of wealthy women, who have marketed their bodies and lives to become famous.
That means that no matter how savvy or clever her marketing tactics are, no matter how hard she grinds to accumulate wealth, this will always be less impressive if not outright laughable to us than, for example, J. D. Rockefeller, who became a billionaire as an oil baron, though this may have been less sustainable, less ethical, and less valuable to us than makeup.
Jeff Bezos is often lauded as a true bootstrap pioneer. The picture of him working out of his tiny office in 1999, struggling to turn Amazon into the global powerhouse we know it as today, is nearly as famous as him.
Lesser known than his external advantages and rags-to-riches story, is the fact that he was never at the “rags” stage.
“Jeff Bezos, now the richest man in modern history, began with a $US100,000 “investment” in 1995 from his parents after leaving “a cushy gig on Wall Street”, where he served as vice-president of D. E. Shaw & Co.” — The Sydney Herald
Jeff Bezos started as a very wealthy man and became wealthier. At the point that famous photo was taken, he was already #19 on the list of worldwide billionaires. This kind of story doesn’t sit as well with us, because we want to believe that anyone can do it. Anyone, if they apply themselves and work as hard as they can, can turn a billion-dollar idea into a billion dollars. So people seem able to happily believe that Jeff Bezos worked hard and earned every penny of what he received.
Scrolling down the comments on that particular Twitter thread, we see lots of people saying “Don’t quit!” or remarking on how frugal and wise he is. The occasional comment asking whether he wasn’t already a billionaire at that point in time is measured, reasonable in tone. Missing is the criticism that he has workers on food stamps.
For some reason, when it comes to Kylie and her makeup empire, people can’t stay quiet. Every billionaire started with a lot. Every billionaire that claims to be self-made is stretching the truth, if not outright lying. Self-made billionaires had their starting wealth handed to them, and then they got lucky, and then they worked hard to amass further wealth.
Kylie Jenner was the world’s youngest billionaire. She has undoubtedly worked hard, but as so many have pointed out, there is not a linear correlation between hard work and wealth. She was lucky, and she started with a lot.
But somehow, when people rave that she’s not really self-made, their logic neatly skips over the many, many other “self-made” billionaires they admire and love. People fail to respect Kylie but then fawn over Jeff.
You can be angry that Kylie’s being called a self-made billionaire. But get mad that every billionaire is not self-made. You can’t criticize one and not the other.
Yes, it’s appalling that people who have everything in life get even more just by being famous, just by hiring people to manage their money. But don’t get mad just at Kylie, who’s just the latest in a long line of silver-spooned billionaires, simply because you don’t respect the industry she’s mobilized. Those who have their riches handed to them, no matter what the industry, had their wealth handed to them through a combination of starting conditions, easy access to resources, and a good deal of luck.
Be furious that people who are caretakers, or nurses, or teachers, or cleaners, or social workers, no matter how hard they work or how much value they provide to society, will never be billionaires. That to me is the real outrage here.
People whose work is vital and necessary to our communities will never have the amassed wealth they deserve. People who start from nothing very rarely become self-made billionaires. There’s a flaw here, and Kylie Jenner is part of it — but she’s not the whole issue.