Yesterday Forbes made it official (or, at least as official as estimated rich people rankings get): 21-year-old Kylie Jenner is the world's youngest self-made billionaire. Fans of the extended Kardashian clan cheered, but many others furrowed their brows in confusion. Can someone born into such wealth really be labeled "self-made"?

Handily, we have an answer from the experts at Dictionary.com. In a word: no. Here's their tweet responding to the Forbes announcement:

But while arguing about the exact balance of privilege and hustle that got Jenner to her first billion is a fun way to generate clicks and pass a lull in your workday, some more serious commentators are using the kerfluffle to raise important issues about entrepreneurship, wealth, and privilege.

Privilege isn't just for reality TV stars.

Yes, Jenner is pretty high up the privilege scale, according to just about anyone's ranking (and hilariously, Forbes apparently has an actual numbered scale to rank privilege). But a lot more of us get a leg up in life than we like to admit.

Take this week's New York Times think piece pointing out a fact many young people living in expensive urban centers already know if rarely admit: a majority of 30-somethings in places like New York with sky-high costs of living get help from own their parents to afford their lifestyles. And here's another factoid worth mentioning: studies show that having well off parents hugely increases your chances of entrepreneurial success.

Don't argue semantics. Expand the circle of privilege.

The plain truth is that privilege isn't just something that applies to reality TV stars and heiresses. It applies to lot more folks than are willing to admit it. And as VC Hunter Walk points out in his measured and thoughtful take on the Jenner mini-controversy, the right response to this fact isn't to agonize over where to draw the line between self-made and not, but to work hard to ensure more aspiring entrepreneurs and assorted dreamers get the leg up they need to build wealth and innovation-generating businesses.

"Economic class mobility has statistically slowed as the inequality gap widens but many of us hew to the pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American Ideal," he points out.

By insisting we're all characters out of some John Wayne western tackling the world with nothing but our lonesome to rely on, we lose sight of all the supports -- the solid public school education, the parental support for college, that "family and friends" round in the early days of a business -- that help many of us succeed. And if we're not acknowledging those things, we're not thinking about how to make sure more folks, especially groups who have traditionally not had them, can start to access them.

If, for instance, your pride is stopping you from admitting how much a leg up your parents paying for college was in life (thanks, mom and dad!), then you're not going to let yourself think about how much of an obstacle wildly expensive tuition and student loan debt is to those from less well off families. And you're less likely to fight for policies that lower sky-high college costs.

So yes, snicker at Kylie Jenner if you want. She's an extreme example and she's put herself into a position of public scrutiny. But don't laugh too hard. Many of us are more privileged than we let on, and that's preventing an honest conversation about how to expand opportunity.

Or as Walk puts it, closing his post, "It's wonderful that some people are able to be helped by their families directly or have stability to fall back on. It doesn't belittle the hard work that they did to continue or extend their success." But we still need to start a "conversation about how to support others even fractionally to the degree they were kickstarted."

Published on: Mar 6, 2019
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