Forbes has made Kylie Jenner its new cover girl for self-made billionaire women. The trouble is, she’s probably not a billionaire. And she certainly isn’t self-made.
On the cover of its “America’s Women Billionaires” issue, Forbes touts Jenner as the 21-year-old who is “set to become the youngest-ever self-made billionaire,” eclipsing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who became a billionaire at 23.
Forbes paints a folksy picture of the entrepreneurial and hard-working Jenner building a beauty and cosmetics empire from “her mom’s kitchen table.” She is the scrappy go-getter, an “intuitive marketer” and sophisticated delegator who has chosen savvy vendors, technology partners and manufacturers to capture the social-media age of make-up from the likes of Revlon and other giants.
Kylie Cosmetics is private of course, so we don’t really know its true sales and profits. Forbes says the company’s revenues were $330 million in 2017. They say that based on conservative valuations, Kylie Cosmetics is worth nearly $800 million. Kylie says she own 100 percent of the company, so with all of her previous earnings as a model, they estimate she’s worth at least $900 million.
That’s possible. But I’ll believe Kylie Cosmetics is worth $800 million when Kylie Cosmetics is sold for $800 million. Until then, it’s just a guess.
More importantly, Kylie Jenner is the definition of a trend – which means that the social-media supernova that created her brand can quickly move on to the next big celebrity or Instafamous model.
Forbes notes that the company’s sales “are already starting to taper off” and her lip-kit sales are down 35 percent. So the “billionaire title” is premature at best.
But it’s the “self-made” label that may be the biggest stretch in the latest Kylie Jenner craze. Dictionary.com caused a stir by rebutting the Forbes claim, with a tweet stating that “self-made means having succeeded in life unaided.” Was Jenner truly “unaided” by being a member of the family that defined fame in the social-media age?
Her cosmetics line isn’t the creation of a young woman who started with nothing and risked it all on an idea that everyone doubted, like most self-made entrepreneurs.
Jenner is more like the latest product of Jenner/Kardashian Inc. — the social media and branding juggernaut run by the mastermind Kris Jenner, Kylie’s mom. The Forbes story notes deep in its story that Kris Jenner “handles all the business stuff,” while Kylie mostly “pouts for selfies with captions about which Kylie Cosmetics shades she’s wearing.”
Not exactly Sara Blakely (a true self-made billionaire) who gave up her failed door-to-door fax-sales job and her entire $5,000 in savings to start selling a new kind of pantyhose called Spanx. Or Even Anastasia Soare, another make-up mogul who emigrated from Romania and worked in a salon before launching her own line of eyebrow products that became Anastasia Beverly Hills.
Even Paris Hilton, famous for being an heiress, weighed in on the Jenner controversy. Hilton was asked if she is self-made like Jenner and Hilton responded “obviously.” What’s next? Georgina Bloomberg and Jennifer Gates saying their vast fortunes come from their show-jumping prowess? (Again, not to take anything away from their hard work and equestrian success.).
Sources of wealth are not binary — there are degrees of being self-made.
United for a Fair Economy, the inequality group, has described degrees of “self-made” with a baseball analogy. Some entrepreneurs truly hit a home run from home plate. Others are born on first base, second or third — so their home runs benefited from some help. They found that Forbes “glamorizes the tales of entrepreneurship” without considering how much wealth or power the billionaires started with in life.
It found that among the 400 richest American billionaires, 21 percent were “born in the batter’s box,” starting in a middle-class or poor family, and hit their own home run. Fully 22 percent were born on first base, with an upper-class background that gave them some help. Another 12 percent were born on second base, receiving “substantial capital” or help from family members. And about 7 percent were born on third, receiving at least $50 million from their family. The group couldn’t determine the background of about a third of the group.
This is not to say that Kylie Jenner is not a savvy and successful businesswoman. She has leveraged her fame to real wealth, more than some of her siblings. She is no doubt just getting started on a lifetime of personal branding businesses.
But she received the most important capital in her business – fame and a social-media empire -- from her family. We can admire and respect her. But let’s just call Kylie Jenner a billionaire, if and when she actually becomes one, and leave out the other labels.