What does it mean to be a “self-made” person of great wealth?
It’s a question that cropped up in many minds this week when Forbes magazine proclaimed cosmetics tycoon Kylie Jenner to be the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire at 21.
Self-made? Like starting a company in the garage at night after working a fulltime job and tapping out all of your credit cards to build it? That’s not how Kylie Cosmetics launched.
Jenner is a member of the storied Kardashian-Jenner blended family, stars of the popular television series “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” She and her sisters have proved to be successful impresarios of a lifestyle brand based on fame for being famous.
Predictably, the Forbes announcement prompted critics to decry Jenner’s pouty social media selfies and the general vacuousness of the Kardashian-Jenner phenomenon. Yet many were moved also to acknowledge that Jenner is not just some lucky dope: She has been savvy in leveraging her birthright fame.
It got me thinking about women in business and the many myths of career success and failure. In particular, it made me miss a mentor and onetime collaborator of mine, Gwen Martin, who died of cancer at age 70 in February.
Martin was a manager of research and evaluation at the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the U.S., which focuses on education and entrepreneurship. Her work, like that of so many other brilliant female minds, went largely unheralded during her lifetime.
Martin came to conclusions that undercut some of America’s most cherished myths about class, particularly the notion that people can readily hop up the socio-economic scale. Most people do not. And it’s often not for a lack of trying.
Martin brought needed clarity about women who did beat those odds to join the professional middle class. She examined the underbelly of their grit, the darker side of the attributes that helped them earn college degrees and managerial and decision-making status.
These are not Jenner’s people.
I was one of the women Martin studied. As subjects, Martin (who then went by her married name, Richtermeyer) chose professional women roughly of equal work status. Martin divided them by class background, based on the social capital and status of their parents.
Those like me who did not come from college-educated or professional parents were “Movers.” Those who did were termed “Originals.”
She uncovered that at some point in their careers, the Movers had nagging doubts and problems with bosses or coworkers — frustrations that were often mislabeled as being about race or gender.
Yet repeatedly, she determined that class background was the salient factor in these conflicts. Nonetheless, the Movers were unaware of how their class backgrounds lingered and contributed.
Their early experiences explained it. They were self-starters by necessity. They tended to learn alone, squirrelled away with a book. As youths, they worked fast food or retail jobs and told of going to great lengths to figure out how to apply to and afford college.
Their mothers had been the motivating force for their career aspirations, albeit through their own dashed hopes. The mothers had encouraged the daughters by underlining what they didn’t want for their daughters. Common messages: I don’t want you to struggle, to have to depend on a man for rent, to wind up working for tips as a waitress.
Originals, on the other hand, tended to be influenced by their fathers, even when their mothers were also professionals. By comparison to the Movers’ mothers, the messages Originals’ fathers gave were astoundingly more positive.
The fathers encouraged all of their daughters’ dreams, including to break traditional gender roles. From listening to how their fathers spoke about what they expected from a workplace, these women had learned about how to function in the professional class.
Original girls joined clubs and benefited from the experience. College education was a given.
Meanwhile, in the less affluent families, those little girls were building a sense that if they were going to make it, they would have to do it on their own. It’s an attitude that they carried with them, even long after they had successfully moved into the middle class.
Martin and I used to give presentations on her research, which was the subject of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Kansas.
We often watched the lightbulbs going off in women’s heads, moments of recognition when they’d see their own attitudes and experiences reframed.
So what are we to make of Kylie Jenner’s “self-made” success? Let’s give her credit for the personal talents and qualities she brings to her enterprise. But let’s also admit the ways in which such success stories feed myths about social mobility, and let’s begin a more honest and aware assessment of what really helps people get ahead in life.
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