The Alarming Truth About Who Gets to Be 'Self-Made'

Oprah Winfrey

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
April 22, 2024 at 9:50PM UTC

The son of a Jewish Russian immigrant, my grandfather was the first member of his family to attend college. He worked for Guardian Life as a life insurance salesman for a number of years before becoming a general agent and ultimately establishing his own corporation within the company, the first person to do so. Later, he earned a master’s in financial planning and formed a second company offering financial planning services.

My grandfather instilled in me the values of hard work and determination. He was generous but never believed in handouts; everything needed to have a purpose. He always seemed to be the ultimate self-made person to me. Today, however, the very definition of self-made is in flux. There is no question Americans value the label and narrative it suggests — but what does it actually mean?

What it means to be self-made

While the definitions vary, generally speaking, self-made refers to someone who became successful through his or her own means as opposed to acquiring it through inheritance or receiving it from someone else. Often, the term is used to describe someone who had no or few advantages growing up and fell into a low socio-economic bracket but changed her circumstances through hard work.

Who qualifies as self-made?

In 2018, Forbes published an article entitled “America’s Richest Self-Made Women.” Among the obvious “self-made women” like Oprah Winfrey was Kylie Jenner of the Kardashian family fame. Her inclusion on the list prompted questions — and even some outrage. How could someone like Jenner, a member of one of the most famous (and notorious, depending on who you ask), wealthy families in the United States be considered self-made?

Different people will offer a different definition of self-made, so it’s difficult to say who actually is actually “worthy” of the label. However, many people argue that someone born into extreme wealth cannot be considered self-made, even if they managed to create their own businesses and increase their wealth.

What does self-made billionaire mean?

A self-made billionaire is a self-made person who improved her socioeconomic so substantially that she now has or is worth $1 billion or more. Like any self-made person, a billionaire who falls into this category did not acquire the wealth from inheritance or being gifted the money by someone else but worked hard to earn her fortune.

Examples of self-made people

• Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey was born into poverty in rural Mississippi and suffered numerous hardships, including being raped by multiple family members and becoming pregnant, only to have the child die shortly after his birth, at the age of 14. After receiving a college scholarship, Winfrey began working at a radio station. Nearly everyone knows the rest of her story: at the age of 30, she began hosting her own TV show, later named The Oprah Winfrey Show, and went on to found a media empire and become a renowned philanthropist.

• Do Won Chang

The founder of Forever 21 emigrated from South Korea to the United States in 1981. With no money to his name, Chang worked as a dishwasher, janitor, and gas station attendant simultaneously to make ends meet, before opening a clothing store called Fashion 21. The retail store earned $700,000 in its first year, and the label, renamed Forever 21, took off. 

• J. K. Rowling

As an unemployed single mother, Joanne Rowling was forced to apply for welfare to support her daughter. It was around the same time that she finished her novel, only to have it rejected 12 times. Today, however, the author of the Harry Potter series has a net worth of approximately $1 billion.

• George Soros

In order to escape Nazi persecution during the Holocaust, George Soros, who was Jewish, received the help of a member of the Hungarian government, posed as his godson. Ultimately, Soros was able to go to England, before moving to New York City. There, he worked in investment banking for a number of years and opened Soros Fund Management, which created the Quantum Endowment fund, by some measures the most successful hedge fund in the world.

• Sara Blakely

When Sara Blakely was (exhaustedly) working as a door-to-door fax machine salesperson in Florida, she struggled to find pantyhose that wouldn’t cause her to melt. This led to her creating Spanx in her apartment at the age of 44. In 2012, Forbes named Blakely the youngest self-made billionaire woman. 

• Jan Koum

Jan Koum immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine at the age of 16, living with his mother in public housing. He became a skilled computer hacker, despite not owning a computer, and after a stint at Yahoo!, he began developing WhatsApp. When Facebook bought the instant messaging app, Koum became a billionaire. 

America’s obsession with self-made people

The American dream promises that that hard work yields payoff. As many people know, that promise is often unfulfilled. 

The rags-to-riches story is a compelling one because it feeds into the narrative about what kinds of opportunities the United States provides and who “deserves” to have them. No one wants to believe things were handed to them; they want to think they receive what they deserve to have through hard work and gumption. 

“Americans reflexively connect hard work with deservingness,” Maia Szalavitz writes in The Guardian. “But as effort and reward become ever more disconnected, what happens when strenuous labor is met with little money, or reward comes effortlessly, sometimes via inheritance?”

To be self-made is at the heart of this conflict. It’s also at the heart of the history and founding of the U. S. as a nation. In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin chronicles becoming an upper-class businessman despite his humble origins as the poor son of a candlemaker. Ralph Waldo Emerson encourages readers to follow their own paths in “Self-Reliance.” The ideal has been ingrained in American culture from the beginning — even when it’s far less prevalent than we’d like to think.

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