Debate Rages Over Forbes' Classification Of Kylie Jenner As 'Self-Made' Billionaire

Mar 6, 2019
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Yesterday, Forbes announced the world's youngest self-made billionaire - Kylie Jenner. She's the founder of Kylie Cosmetics. She owns the entire company. And at 21 years old, she beat Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg. He earned the title at age 23. On Twitter, some took issue with one phrase in particular - self-made. Critics wonder how a young woman who comes from the Kardashian family entertainment empire can be considered self-made. Forbes makes the list, so they get to decide how to define it. Natalie Robehmed profiled Kylie Jenner for the magazine, so we put the question to her. What does self-made mean to Forbes?

NATALIE ROBEHMED: Forbes defines self-made as somebody who built a company or fortune on their own rather than inheriting some or all of it. But Forbes is well aware that that term is incredibly broad and that some folks have a leg up and an easier start than others.

CORNISH: Right. People talking about, perhaps, Kris Jenner as the matriarch of that family having a heavy hand in their business endeavors.

ROBEHMED: Absolutely. So in 2014, Forbes came up with a scoring system to kind of show just how self-made somebody is. So between 1 and 5 means you inherited something and scoring between 6 and 10 means you kind of did it on your own. And obviously somebody like an Oprah Winfrey who grew up very poor, she counts as a 10. Somebody like Kylie Jenner, who came from a wealthy family and had sort of a head start in that regard, counts as a seven.

CORNISH: Let's talk about the business itself. What have you learned about why Kylie Cosmetics is so successful?

ROBEHMED: Kylie Jenner has been able to parlay her giant social following - she has 128 million followers on Instagram alone - into a giant business. And she's been able to do that by marketing for free to those millions of followers and by selling products, whereas in years past, celebrities might have, you know, endorsed a product made by somebody else. Kylie is able to outsource production to a different company, and because of that, revenues have been able to grow very quickly in three years to $360 million.

CORNISH: I think that it's fair to say that the Kardashian family and the Jenner daughters have a lot of, let's say, kind of cultural baggage, right? Everyone sort of has an opinion. But can you talk about why you think there's been such consistent backlash and conversation about this achievement?

ROBEHMED: Yeah. They're a very controversial family, as you've said. I mean, they got their start through Kim Kardashian's sex tape and have grown that into a massive empire. Because of that, there is a lot of folks who feel that they're famous for being famous and therefore shouldn't be as famous and wealthy as they are. So the second point is that I think we're at a very interesting moment in time where a lot of folks are raising questions about ultra-wealth and whether in fact there should be billionaires in the first place.

CORNISH: Do you think there is an element to the criticism of sexism? Like, she's a young woman and people don't think she makes anything.

ROBEHMED: I think as a society we're very quick to take away achievements of young women in particular and to detract from them. The truth is that all makeup companies outsource their production. And in fact, there are some who say she's been incredibly smart for keeping her business so lean and her overhead so small.

CORNISH: Because you actually talked to Kylie Jenner, is there anything you want people to know about her that you think is being overlooked in this conversation?

ROBEHMED: I think the thing that always surprises me is how much she actually cares about this. She really truly does live and breathe this stuff and is thinking about it kind of constantly. I also think there's kind of no limit to what she could do given how big her following is and how - just how many people are paying attention to her. This whole debate over self-made just plays right into that.

CORNISH: Natalie Robehmed is an associate editor at Forbes. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ROBEHMED: Thank you for taking time.

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