Countering the bootstrap myth: How I went from food stamps to founder
I live a good life. I am my own boss. I do work that I love and feel is important in the world; I am surrounded by loving and supportive friends and family, and I live in a city that fills me with hope and inspiration. As a tarot priestess and founder of my new beauty line, Melinda Lee Holm Beauty, I have been fortunate enough to travel great distances on epic adventures with the very best companions the world has to offer. I share space in rooms with some of the most creative, intelligent, and powerful people in the world. I make magick for a living. My tarot readings, classes, writing, and beauty products are all designed to help people take positive action in their lives while staying rooted in divine wisdom.
But this was not always my story. There was a time when it seemed impossible that either beauty or magick would play such a huge part in my story. I grew up poor—a recipient of food stamps and free school lunch programs. Basic necessities were hard to come by. It’s a background that, when discovered, leads people directly to what is called “the bootstrap myth”—this idea that I worked hard, pulled myself “up by the bootstraps,” and am standing here today self-made. I think very very few people (if any) are truly self-made. While I have worked extremely hard to get where I am today, and I am very proud of that work, none of my success would have been possible without the investment of others.
We think of investment as something people with extra money do, a practice involving funds and financial experts and Wall Street. But my first experience with investment was being a welfare recipient. The United States of America and the great state of Minnesota invested heavily in me. My food came from food stamps, government surplus programs, and free school lunches. My bills were paid partly by the (now defunct) Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, and my healthcare was paid for by the state. I went to free pre-school through the Head Start program, had a great public school education with a robust arts component, and attended community college and then university on federal and state grants and institutional scholarships. All of these investments made it possible for me to excel in my education and prepared me to successfully explore what I have to offer back to the world.
In addition to these financial investments, I’ve been the gracious recipient of personal investment—of the time and energy and trust of many women (and a few men) who hired me for jobs I was underqualified for at the time. These women took a calculated risk and devoted precious resources to training and supporting my professional development.
One of those women was my current business partner, Noreen. Noreen hired me to work at the Betsey Johnson boutique she managed in Seattle in the late ’90s. I had no high-end retail experience, but I was a huge fan of Betsey and was full of desire to succeed in the job. Noreen took the risk and hired me, providing me with sales training and support, and became a dear friend in the process. Almost 20 years later, she called me with a simple question—”Ever wanted to create a fragrance?”—and Melinda Lee Holm Beauty was born. Another opportunity created by the investment of time and energy and education by a generous woman in my life.
The list of institutions and individuals who have invested in me to get me where I am today is massive, from government assistance and educational programs to Noreen at Betsey Johnson and MLH Beauty to the countless others who took me under their wing when I first arrived in L.A., investing in me by answering questions, making introductions, and giving me much-needed encouragement along the way. While I have worked hard and dreamt big my entire life, there is no way I could have gotten where I am today alone. And I don’t believe for a second that there is anyone on Earth who could. If you scratch the surface, we are all products of investment.
The bootstrap myth is attractive, not only because it makes a standalone hero out of the one said to pull themselves up, but also because it lets the rest of us off the hook. If we believe it is truly up to each individual to create their own success alone, then nothing is required of us when see another struggling or suffering from a lack of resources. This is a dangerous world view. To live in vibrant, healthy communities filled with creative, successful people, we need to invest our time, resources, and confidence in those in need of a helping hand.
So I urge you to volunteer for educational and mentorship programs, hire someone with intelligence and drive that makes up for their lack of experience, support government programs and organizations that provide resources and opportunities to help people succeed.
Invest in poor kids. We’re really hard workers with great ideas. And I promise you, all of that time spent finding cheaper solutions for basic survival, amounts to a lifelong experiential course in creative problem solving. Our knowledge, perspective, and experience are valuable—literally.