Elizabeth Holmes might be regarded as a privileged, entitled fraud now, but for a few years there she was mostly identified as the world’s “youngest female self-made billionaire.” The chattering classes damn near wore themselves out fawning over Holmes as a model of indefatigable rise-and-grindism, whose “dues-paying,” “honesty, hard work, self-reliance and perseverance” had taken her—a “college dropout” they kept reminding us— from child “prodigy” to tech “wunderkind.” (“She only pauses in her work to run—seven miles a day,” The New York Times gushed in 2015.)
No one’s charging that everyone who ever said anything nice about Holmes, who is currently facing several federal criminal charges, should have known the Theranos founder was allegedly swindling rich marks for their untaxed millions.
But what is definitely worth noting is that Holmes, whose congressional staffer mom and ex-Enron vice president dad reportedly used their connections to hook her up with the same megarich investors she would later reputedly defraud, was never a “self-made” anything. All the endless hailing of her as such was as much a part of the con as the rest of her now debunked story.
Holmes was breathlessly and repeatedly compared with very rich entrepreneurs like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, all of whom I only bring up because none of them are self-made, either. For all the boot-strappin’ mythologizing of their supposed backstories, not a single one turned rags into riches, billionaire messiah-style.
Sure, Buffet has made a lot of brilliant investment decisions, but had his father been a janitor instead of a stockbroker who later served as a U.S. House member representing Nebraska, he would probably not have had a friend and “family circle” containing people who could afford to pony up the $10,000 in the 1950s (about $102,000 today) to invest in his first company.
Gates’ dad, a well-known corporate lawyer, married up when he got hitched to Gates’ mom, a highly successful business lady who reportedly mentioned her son’s little computer startup to a buddy who happened to be chairman of IBM, resulting in MS-DOS being chosen as the operating system for IBM’s first personal computer. (Gates’s maternal grandfather, who served as director of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in Seattle, left his grandson a million-dollar trust fund that rarely gets mentioned in all those “Harvard drop out” hagiographies.)
Mark Zuckerberg’s dad reportedly donated $100,000 in Facebook seed money, a contribution I assume he will later have to take up with his God. And the list goes on—Elon Musk’s white South African family reportedly mined blood emeralds during apartheid, Jeff Bezos’ parents gave him $250,000 to launch Amazon in the 1990s.
Obviously, these people were smart and tenacious, and frankly, ambitious and rapacious, but millions of poor folks have ambition, intelligence and drive. They did a much shittier job of choosing parents wealthy enough to grease their slide to success.
Look, America loves a good “self-made” story, no matter how false or insulting to the intelligence, which is why it keeps spinning them out like so much fool’s gold.
Perhaps you recall that Refinery29 Money Diarist piece from a few years ago with a headline about surviving in New York City on a $25-an-hour job—and then read the finer print about how the author’s rent, phone bill, and tuition were being covered by her family, meaning her wages were walking-around money, really.
Then there were those two girls who told the New York Times they would be splitting, fresh out of college, a $3,800 a month apartment, meaning the subtext—and I know the prefix of that word is working overtime — screaming “my parents are helping a lot.”
That duo’s tale was outdone by the Times account of a “Greenwich Village Apartment for a Creative Soul,” the titular character being a 22-year-old photographer who said he had been “roughing it” before paying $5,000 in broker fees and committing to $3,700 a month in rent. “If need be, he could rent the second room to a friend,” the article said, though clearly, he needn’t, probably because of some unmentioned family money.
These stories keep getting told as if they are about financial wizardry, frugality, vision, and one-of-a-kind talent instead of what they’re almost always really about: trust funds and inherited wealth. They beg us to believe that class elevation is easy if you just work hard, think smart, and want it bad enough, even as they conveniently omit the luxuriously soft cushion of intergenerational money these stories rest upon.
The message is that it is absolutely your fault for not somehow striving enough, as if there is a way in this world to possess the diligence required to retroactively build up the inheritance you were never handed. They also ignore, quite intentionally, that for some folks the opportunity to build that generational wealth was never there in the first place.
According to studies, “poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong.” Here’s another one: “poor kindergartners with good scores are less likely to graduate from high school, graduate from college or earn a high wage than their affluent peers with bad grades.”
There are exceptions, of course, but please don’t make me remind you how those relate to the rules. Yarns that ignore the role of passed-down wealth, as well as who has it and who does not—and why—are propaganda. See also, tired. And anti-Black. Stop telling them.
Of course, in a country where we have always been taught white supremacist half-truths, our stories of supposed breakout genius and daring—financial savvy and economic triumphalism—are carefully constructed to both bolster and burnish the premise that white people just cannot be stopped from making something out of nothing.
No wonder white parents are fighting so hard to make sure their children don’t learn about the interlocking lies that scaffold our shoddily rendered history. Start getting a clue that maybe the bottom you think you started from was actually someone’s else’s neck, and your whole sense of reality might start unravelling.
Welcome! You’re now in the America the rest of us have always occupied, where we had to commit lies that implied our own inferiority to memory so we could ace the test and try to respectability-politics our way into systems built to keep us out. Nice to see you here!