Owais Masood 7th March 2019
On Tuesday, Forbes announced that Kylie Jenner had become the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. This caused an online frenzy. “Kylie’s not self-made!” “When your parents are already millionaires you’re not self-made!” The public exclaimed on social media.
This got me thinking how many billionaires out there are actually self-made — that didn’t have a rich family or wealthy friends helping them out. The short answer is not many, not many at all. However, the few that there are will show Kylie Jenner and the rest of those “born into money” billionaires what self-made really means.
Top of the list is Do Won Chang and his wife Jin Sook. The Changs founded retail giant Forever 21, after moving from South Korea to California in 1981. With only $11,000 to their name, the couple decided to open the clothing store after Chang was working at a gas station and realised that the nicest cars were driven by clothing retailers.
His first store opened in 1984 and was called Fashion 21. In the first year alone the couple racked up $700,000 in sales. Soon after the name change came and so did the idea of expanding. The Changs decided to open a new store every six months. There are now over 700 Forever 21 stores in 49 countries and according to Forbes, the couple has a net worth of $3.1bn.
This wasn’t the Changs first business endeavour, the couple unsuccessfully tried to penetrate the coffee industry before opening Forever 21. The Changs would dust themselves off and try again and Forever 21 was born. Do Won told the LA Times “Forever 21 gives hope to people who come here with almost nothing and that is a reward that humbles me. The fact that immigrants coming to America, much like I did, can come into a Forever 21 and know that all of this was started by a simple Korean immigrant with a dream.”
As inspiring as all that is Forever 21 has been charged several times with breaching copyrights — essentially stealing the work of others — and have a pretty terrible record of employment rights, with the workers being underpaid and overworked. So self-made might be a little debatable.
Next on the list is Phil Knight. Phil Knight is the co-founder of Nike. One of the biggest companies in the world and the owner is self-made. He made himself. He just did it.
Knight, along with his track coach Bill Bowerman both put up $500 each to start the company. 50 years later Knight is worth $33.3 billion and one of the richest people in America. The son of a lawyer turned newspaper publisher showed signs of motivation and drive from a young age. When his father refused to give him a summer job at his newspaper because he believed his son should find work on his own and that’s what Knight did, at a rival newspaper.
The billionaire also served in the army for eight years (one year in active duty and seven in the reserve.) After the army, Knight enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business where his idea for Nike was born. Knight wrote a paper about whether Japanese sports shoes could make German sports shoes obsolete, which essentially was his business model for Nike. In 2015, it was announced that Knight would step down as chairman of the company and a year later he officially did.
Aside from the fact that Knight imported and distributed the Japanese running shoes Onitsuka Tiger before Nike made it massive, it was his partner Bowerman, that had the biggest impact on Nike’s success — experimenting with, and designing new footwear based on his experience with track and field at the Olympics. Bowerman, sadly never made it to the billionaire club, only ever amassing a measly net worth of $400m. Is Knight a savvy businessman? Sure. Is he self-made? Only if you don’t attribute any of Nike’s value to Bowerman.
Jan Koum moved from Ukraine to America with his mother and grandmother at the age of 16, his father was supposed to make the move the following year but unfortunately passed away before he could make the trip. Koum along with his mother and grandmother lived in a two bedroom apartment in California thanks to a social support program.
Koum’s first job was a cleaner at a grocery store and taught himself programming in his spare time. Eventually he enrolled at Jose State University and got a job working at Ernst & Young as a security tester, where he would meet Brian Acton. In 1997, the duo worked for Yahoo! as infrastructure engineers. The pair would go on to apply for a position and be rejected by Facebook.
In 2009 Koum realised the untapped potential of Apple’s App Store and decided along with Acton to make an app. You might have heard of it. It’s called WhatsApp and it’s pretty popular. In 2014, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg acquired the messaging app for $19bn. Koum would also join Facebook’s board of directors.
In 2018 Koum announced that he was leaving Facebook and WhatsApp along with $9bn. So far a self-made billionaires go, Koum actually seems to be one, but not the most impressive one. That award goes to…
Oprah Winfrey is the final billionaire on the list. Oprah grew up so poor that she would regularly wear dresses made out of potato sacks. Funny in cartoons, tragic in real life. The former TV host moved around a lot when she was young and lived with different family members (mother, father and grandmother) for financial reasons. Oprah’s mother had to put Oprah’s youngest sister up for adoption because of how dire their financial situation was.
Oprah would catch the eye of a local black radio station, WVOL, after she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. Not long after Oprah would become the youngest and the first black female news anchor for Nashville based WLAC-TV. Oprah would move around in the coming years until 1984 when she started hosting AM Chicago. AM Chicago went from being the lowest rated talk show in Chicago to the highest in a matter of months.
In 1986 Oprah signed a syndication deal with King World, the show was renamed to The Oprah Winfrey Show, expanded from half an hour to a full hour and was aired nationally. Her talk show would become the number one daytime talk show in America. The now 64-year-old has gone on to produce TV shows, co-founded television network Oxygen, become the president of Harpo Productions, published The Oprah Magazine and co-authored five best-selling books. Forbes states that Oprah is worth $3bn, which is impressive given all the shit she gives away.
There you go! A very small list of self-made billionaires (even then it’s pretty debatable). It’s a small list because — to the surprise of no one who lives in the real world — most billionaires aren’t self-made and have relied on the talent, hard work or investment of others. Saying Kylie Jenner is a self-made billionaire is like claiming she gave birth to herself. She isn’t and she didn’t… so far as we know.
Owais Masood 7th March 2019