Forbes and the "Self-Made" Label

by cactus

Forbes and the “Self-Made” Label

I’m kinda busy these days, but this topic is small pet peeve of mine: what the heck is up with Forbes and the “self-made” label? On occasion, I’ve gone through the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans and marveled at who Forbes manages to decide qualifies as self-made.

Case in point. Take Aubrey McClendon, head of Chesapeake Energy, the largest independent gas producer in the US. His great-uncle was a governor and a three-time senator, and also co-founded a large oil company. His father worked for the company for 35 years, and one imagines he wasn’t a janitor or nightwatchman.

McClenond himself will tell you:

I had some early financial advantages in life that probably let me take a chance or two that I wouldn’t have been able to

But to Forbes, McClendon is a self-made man.

A few spots up from McClendon is another self-made dude (according to Forbes), Paul Tudor Jones II. The “II” is not an automatic marker of wealth, but it should have been a tip-off to Forbes that perhaps it was worth visiting “teh google”, which would have been kind enough to guide them toward this interview:

I already had an appreciation for trading because my uncle, Billy Dunavant, was a very successful cotton trader. In 1976, after I finished college, I went to my uncle and asked him if he could help me get started as a trader. he sent me to Eli Tullis, a famous cotton trader, who lived in New Orleans. Eli is the best trader I know, he told me. I went down to see Eli and he offered me a job on the floor of the New York Cotton Exchange.

And the name “Dunavant” should have rung a bell to Forbes – after all, Forbes ranks Dunavant Enerprises as one of the 400 largest private firms in the US. Another thirty seconds of “research” would have told the folks at Forbes this:

His paternal grandfather, Colonel William P. Dunavant, was in the railroad business and created one of the main cotton transporting railroads of the time, a railroad that grew into the southern leg of the famous Frisco Railroad. Billy’s father, William Dunavant, began working for T. J. White and Company at the age of twenty-one. After White retired, the company was passed to William Dunavant; however, because of the untimely death of his father in 1961, Billy Dunavant took over the company at the age of twenty-nine.

I’ll concede that a stream of events where all this is true and Tudor Jones was none-the-less a penniless guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps in a way that the rest of us were just too lazy to accomplish. It does seem unlikely, though. A more reasonable description of events is that this is another example (I’ve had a post or two on this in the past) that Forbes simply has a tendency label some very unlikely individuals as being self-made. And from what I can tell, this is a Forbes thing; most of the folks Forbes gives this label to that the rest of us might not don’t go around insisting they’re self-made. (I believe I recall one counter-example.) So what’s up with Forbes and the use of this label?
by cactus