A self-made success? Let’s kill that myth

Economy

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the core tenets of the American dream is the belief that any individual, regardless of their background, can make it big.

Millionaire tech entrepreneur Jason Ford has done just that, but he believes that he and other successful people get a lot of help they don't often acknowledge.

He explains in tonight's edition of In My Humble Opinion.

JASON FORD, Entrepreneur: Everyone loves a good success story. It's the American dream, working your way up from nothing, armed only with your wits and a strong work ethic.

And for those who make it, it feels great to think you got there all on your own. I should know: I'm a millionaire, the first in my family, one of those tech entrepreneurs who built a software business and sold it for a fortune.

I didn't inherit my wealth. I created it.

But look a little deeper, and it turns out that version of my success story is a lie. Yes, my family background is rather humble. Both of my parents were teachers. I grew up in hand-me-down clothes from our neighbors.

But, before I was born, my parents got help from their parents to buy a house in a safe neighborhood with good schools. When my grandmother passed, she left each of her grandkids some money, not a fortune, but enough that I made it through college without school debt.

My wife's nana was a school teacher as well. She and her husband saved their humble income and bought land decades ago. And when I started my business, she believed in me enough to sell her land and invest the money in my start-up.

So, we can blow up the myth that I'm a self-made success. Sure, I had something to do with it, but I also had some serious help.

Now, one way to interpret this story is that the generations before me worked hard to provide the best possible future for their kids and grandkids. And that interpretation is true, but it leaves out some harsh realities rooted in history.

You see, if my ancestors had not been white, it is almost certain that I wouldn't be where I am today. My grandfather would have found it nearly impossible to climb to the top of the corporate ladder like he did. This was the mid-'70s, when almost every executive in a role like his was a white man.

As a result, my parents likely wouldn't have bought the House They did, with the good schools that prepared me for college. And two generations ago, lending discrimination would have made it similarly impossible for nana to buy that land that ended up funding my business.

Just as not everyone is qualified to be an astronaut, it takes a special kind of person to be an entrepreneur. You need discipline, intelligence, extreme dedication. But the best astronaut in the world can't fly to the moon unless someone gives them the rocket.

It's time for more entrepreneurs like me to stop telling stories about how they climbed their way to the top, to stop taking credit for flying to the moon all by themselves, as if the entire support structure they were born into had nothing to do with it.

And it's time for all of us to find more ways to empower the world's highest-potential entrepreneurs with their own rockets, so they can show us the stars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Something to think about.

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