By Ray Hennessey, Entrepreneur
Entrepreneurs are the new American superhero. Everyone wants to be one. Ask someone like Ashton Kutcher what he is, and he’s more likely to say “entrepreneur” or “startup investor” than “actor” (which, given his screen work, is probably the most honest answer).
But just because someone wants to be an entrepreneur — or, even worse, simply refers to him or herself as one — doesn’t give that person the right nor privilege to carry that title.
That’s why the whole obsession with the business acumen of Kim Kardashian West is particularly nauseating.
In recent days both MarketWatch and the New York Post have crowed about Kim’s entrepreneurial chops. “Her roots as an entrepreneur extend back to her teenage years,” MarketWatch wrote. More frighteningly, the URL for the story suggests “let-kim-kardashian-be-your-financial-adviser.” The New York Post, following on the MarketWatch interview, had the gushing headline “How Kim Kardashian Became an $85M Entrepreneur.”
The roots of Kardashian’s entrepreneurial journey come from an oft-told story of when she borrowed money from her dad, O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Kardashian, bought four pairs of Manolo Blahniks, then sold them on eBay (EBAY) for four-times the value. Great story, but it’s more likely to be fiction than fact. Manolo Blahniks are expensive. The value of luxury goods rarely rises on the secondary market, let alone at the multiple Kardashian claims. There’s been no effort to verify the story by journalists who have let her repeat it, even though it economically makes zero sense. It is an especially egregious journalistic lapse since Kardashian’s primary vehicle is her scripted reality show, which happily conflates truth with fabulist storytelling.
But put that aside for a second so we can get to the real meat of Kardashian’s rise. We know her not because of what shoes she sold on a public market, but rather what she gave away in a public forum: her sex tape with rapper Ray J (no relation to me, if you wondered). One can debate whether the release of that tape was an invasion of her privacy or a calculated publicity stunt, but it certainly got her name in the headlines and, arguably, launched the rest of her career. We knew her (and Ray J, too, not incidentally) because of their well-produced and widely distributed coupling.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting noticed because of your sexuality. Men’s careers have been helped by sex tapes, too. (Amazing what it did to keep Rob Lowe going all these years.) In some ways, it is great marketing. You’ve gone from someone we barely knew to someone we now want to know, bare. Companies and entrepreneurs covet that kind of attention. Good for her, I guess.
Yet, it’s important to remember that entrepreneurship carries more than just business success (which Kardashian surely has) and name recognition. Rather, true entrepreneurs provide two factors to the world missing from the Kardashian’s story: innovation and solving people’s problems.
First, Kardashian, rather than innovating, has simply followed a well-worn path of many a celebrity business owner: Leverage a well-known brand and slap it onto businesses. She is not actually creating, but extending her personal brand. You can buy her perfume, but she didn’t invent or even formulate her scent (thankfully, perhaps). Even her reality shows are based on a tried-and-true formula, just soap operas starring “real” people. Her biggest tech hit, her app, is, well, just an app. Everyone has one nowadays. Hers just benefited from her brand. In that way, she is more like Donald Trump than, say, Elon Musk.
Add this complete lack of innovation to the fact that Kardashian’s work has not solved people’s problems. When you think about the most successful entrepreneurs in history, the desire to solve a customer’s problem comes to mind. Whether you are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick, Jason Calacanis or Marc Andreessen, you built a business based around customer need or desire. You took pride in solving a problem. You filled a need. Unless you’re one of a select few in the NBA, a Kardashian has never filled a need for anyone.
Rather, the whole family has built an egotistical empire for the good of themselves. In a free market, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Good for them. That is just good business, and worth watching. It is a wonderful capitalist journey, and no one should begrudge them the wealth they’ve accumulated off of their brand.
But it isn’t entrepreneurship. Particularly as more and more people seek to wrap themselves in the flag of American success and innovation, it’s important to separate the wheat of entrepreneurs from the chaff of the Kardashians and their ilk. True entrepreneurs put their hearts in souls into doing things differently, going against the grain and helping to better people’s lives. It’s why I’ve always felt the term “social entrepreneurship” is redundant.
None of that experience fits into the Kardashian model. People can call Kim Kardashian West by a variety of names, some warranted, other unfair. But the dirtiest word to use is “entrepreneur.” Let’s have a little respect and put that to bed.
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