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Not Everyone Can Be 'Self-Made' — And That's OK

There's more that goes into the title — and who is allowed to own it — than many people realize

By Kristen Adaway

What defines real adulthood? For many people, the act of growing up often conjures ideas of being able to walk into a home or apartment with your name on the lease, putting gas into a car that only belongs to you, or paying your bills in full and on time. And thanks to social media and pop culture, it can seem like there is only ever one kind of independence… and it involves a lot of money.

How you get that money, however, is up for debate. What a lot of independent people don’t often disclose is the fact that they had help — their parents helped them pay for college, or they came from greater institutional wealth. Others fashion themselves as being “self-made,” which Dictionary.com defines as “having succeeded in life unaided.” (In contrast, independent is defined as “not depending or contingent upon something else for existence, operation.”)

So where does that put someone like Kylie Jenner, whom Forbes recently dubbed the youngest “self-made billionaire ever” due to the financial success of her company, Kylie Cosmetics? This isn’t the first time Forbes has called Jenner self-made, either; after the company published its list of “America’s Richest Self-Made Women” in 2018, they released a follow-up article clarifying its definition of “self-made”:

“To be clear, Forbes defines ‘self-made’ as someone who built a company or established a fortune on her own, rather than inheriting some or all of it. As long as the list member didn’t inherit a business or money, she is labeled self-made. But the term is very broad, and does not adequately reflect how far some people have come and, relatively speaking, how much easier other had it.”

The publication further explained how its “self-made score” is calculated. Jenner was given a score of 7, which was described as “self-made who got a head start from wealthy parents and moneyed background.”

Yet many people understandably balked at the title anyway: Jenner comes from a wealthy family, and grew up on reality TV, which offered her a considerable social footprint and built-in following. For her part, Jenner has insisted that her parents cut her off financially when she was 15: “I did have a platform, but none of my money is inherited,” she told Paper magazine. “I really spent every last dime that I had starting [Kylie Cosmetics], not even knowing if it would be successful.”

On the flipside of breaking down exactly how self-made someone is, are the people who don’t identify as being “self-made” at all. Cortnie Hutchinson, the founder of Love, Cortnie, an online shop where she designs and sells handmade bags and clutches, takes credit for the skills and ideas that go into making her accessories, but she points out that “many other people” come into play when it comes to running her business — including her grandmother, who helped her make her first clutch.

“The support I receive from my family, friends and even strangers is huge,” she says. “My suppliers are another big part of my business. I run my business by myself, but my business is more than just me.”

In order to understand why obtaining the “self-made” label is seen as something to strive for, we first have to consider how we view the relationship between age and financial independence. We’ve been told for years that adulthood is defined by a certain number of milestones to hit at any given age: Graduate college at 22, get married a few years later, own a house, have children, land a corner office — the list goes on.

Yet the age at which we’re achieving these milestones is increasing due to any number of economic factors, like the data that shows how women are choosing to have children later in life than earlier. Hearing stories of the extraordinary outliers who achieve massive success at young ages — the Jenners and the Zuckerbergs of the world, for example — it’s almost like a first instinct to feel like you aren’t doing enough in comparison, no matter how old you are.

For the vast majority of people, measuring their own success against someone like Jenner’s is inherently a losing battle. Dr. Judith Orloff, a board-certified psychiatrist and author of Emotional Freedom and The Empath’s Survival Guide, says young people especially need to be educated that they have a unique career path and life path that can’t be compared to anybody else’s.

“They can have people who inspire them to be their best selves, but the problem comes when they feel less than others,” she explains. “I work with patients who put stressful deadlines on themselves in terms of achievement and it causes all kinds of depression, anxiety, and exhaustion.”

Money also plays a massive factor in how you define your level of adulthood, whether or not you own a business or ever intend to. If we look at financial success on a more general scale, the 2016 Bank of America/USA Today Better Money Habits report found that 39 percent of the young adults they polled defined adulthood as being financially independent. The report also found that most young Americans don’t even consider themselves to be an adult when they turn 18; most said they heavily rely on their parents or they don’t make enough money to consider themselves grown.

The pressure of wanting to not only be viewed as independent but also feel that way can push the need to become completely self-sufficient as early as possible into overdrive. And as if age isn’t enough of a factor, when you add in obstacles associated with race and gender, it’s not surprising that being recognized for reaching high levels of success without outside financial support is appealing.

According to Mariana Plata, a Florida-based child and adolescent clinical psychologist, race and cultural stereotypes play a big part in imposter syndrome, “which, in healthy amounts can be a humbling experience. But, if it completely overwhelms them and limits their creative expression, it can have negative effects on their wellbeing and productivity.” She quotes the idea that you have to work twice as hard to get half as far — an idea which has been supported by data on worker evaluation and discrimination toward Black employees from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

For some Black and Latinx people especially, a lack of generational wealth often provides a barrier to economic independence, and provides them with a stronger case for “making it” without receiving financial support from family members or friends. A little over a quarter of white households reported receiving an inheritance of wealth, compared to less than 10 percent of Black and Latinx households, according to the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances. The survey also found that “households are better able to maintain their wealth when they can count on help from family and friends to weather unexpected financial emergencies.”

Some of the reasons behind the racial gap of generational wealth include slavery, discrimination, and segregation; it’s harder to accumulate wealth and pass it down as quickly when your starting line is further back than others. Because of these disadvantages, many organizations have taken the initiative of helping people go to college and start their own businesses. Code2040 is a nonprofit with a mission to “activate, connect, and mobilize the largest racial equity community in tech to dismantle the structural barriers that prevent the full participation and leadership of Black and Latinx people in the innovation economy.” In a similar vein, the Techstarters Foundation aims to increase diversity in entrepreneurship by providing grants, scholarships, and resources to underrepresented groups.

Not all resources are monetary, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable. Family members may not always have the money to give, but they can lend a ear to bounce ideas off of. Sometimes the best marketing team is the group of friends who don’t mind posting about products multiple times a day and spreading the word on 17 apps just to get one customer. In the early ages of a business, a “warehouse” more often than not looks like a cousin’s basement or an aunt’s kitchen where there’s just enough space to create products the business owner is passionate about.

As the founder of The Lip Bar, a line of colorful vegan-friendly and cruelty-free lipsticks and glosses, Melissa Butler emphasizes that the success of her business is directly linked to the support of her team.

“While it’s true that I didn’t start with a platform or a ton of money, I made due with what I had along with the dozens, if not hundreds, of people who believed in me and gave me the confidence to keep going to get where I am,” Butler explains.

It is because of community and support from other people that some of the fastest-growing companies even have a chance at success. At some point, everyone has had some sort of help with an aspect of their victories — and there is no shame in shouting out the people who helped you along the way, in proudly admitting that you were not “self-made.”

“We see these filtered lives and assume that's how they live every day,” Plata says. “We have minimized the concept of success when it should be something much broader.”