Social media backlash to a Forbes magazine cover has people questioning how 'self-made' Jenner really is. But what does the phrase even mean, and why is this narrative so appealing?

Twenty-year-old Kylie Jenner, the youngest sibling in the Jenner-Kardashian dynasty, received quite the accolade this week.

In its August 2018 issue, business magazine Forbes named Jenner as someone poised to be the “youngest ever self-made billionaire” in history.  

Forbes says Jenner currently commands a $900m (£680m) net worth – almost three times more than her half-sister Kim. Jenner launched her own line of cosmetics three years ago, has 111 million Instagram followers, and is set to become a billionaire faster than Mark Zuckerberg did.

But not everyone agrees with the whole “self-made” thing.

Users on social media have taken issue with the fact that a someone from a rich, famous family is given the same moniker often reserved for people who started with nothing in a basement or a garage.

Forbes tweeted out the story with the hashtag #SelfMadeWomen, and global news outlets quickly picked up on the social media backlash. Twitter users pointed out Jenner’s family name and privilege, and that it’s easier to become a billionaire when your parents are millionaires. Dictionary.com wryly tweeted its definition of “self-made,” which means “having succeed in life unaided” and included a link to the Forbes story.

Is the blowback founded? And is the definition of “self-made” up for debate?

The definition of success

“To me, this is a meaningless term,” says George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. He says from elite education to good genes, it’s hard to arrive at agreed-upon perks that could specifically define “self-made.”

He points out that Americans in particular are interested in rugged individualism and building success out of nothing – the American dream. Many supporters of US President Donald Trump say they like him because they believe he became a billionaire through his own enterprise and business savvy.

“Even though income mobility is low in the US, both by historical and international standards, Americans still have the illusion that anyone can make it in this country,” Loewenstein says.

Mike Lapham, co-author of The Self-made Myth, says the idea of the self-made individual also ignores the many unseen institutions that contribute to a successful venture – such as roads, airports, and education systems for employees.

Compelling narrative

Arvind Malhotra is a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina. He says we find the pick-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps narrative so compelling because it follows a familiar, timeless story of a hero overcoming odds or challenging circumstances to make their dream come true.

“The notion that a ‘have not’ can become a ‘have’... is representative of human entrepreneurial spirit,” he says.

Still, Jenner is far from a “have-not”: she inadvertently found fame at a young age on reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians over a decade ago. Malhotra says that while Jenner’s circumstances gave her a head-start, she has made something more of what she already had in life: her fame “gave her an inherent advantage that she smartly parlayed into more success”.

Still, some argue advantages come with counter-intuitive challenges. Meghan McCain, daughter of US Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, spoke this week on US talk show The View about how her father’s name indeed got her internships she wouldn’t have had otherwise. But she contends that most kids born into famous families must work even harder than most to prove that they aren’t just spoiled brats benefitting from structural nepotism.

Female entrepreneurs told the BBC that Jenner used what she had, followed her passion, and shouldn’t be faulted by it – and that we can learn something from her social media knowhow, and perhaps she can set an example for other young women in business.

“Strictly, it’s true – anyone can make it,” Loewenstein says. “But your odds of doing so are immensely higher if you come from an advantaged background.”

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