Han Jin was in a panic. It was 2017 and the 29-year-old tech entrepreneur was saying goodbye to the final months of his third decade—and with them his dream of ever being selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
In the days before online nominations for the list closed, Jin and the co-founders of his company—a virtual reality camera maker called Lucid—quizzed past honorees for tips on how to make the list. He begged as many as 30 people, including family members, to nominate him. The process was such a singular obsession that Jin made the phrase “Forbes 30 Under 30” the password for various online accounts around the office (he has since changed them).
Nabbing a spot on the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 list has become a high validation for success-obsessed young professionals. The list has also become the cornerstone for an important events business for Forbes in an era when advertising for many publishers is contracting.
“We’d work through the night, not sleeping, because we wanted to get on the list,” he said. “It really drives entrepreneurs.”
His efforts paid off. Jin made the 2018 list, one of 30 people selected by Forbes in consumer technology and a total of 600 figures recognized in sports, healthcare and other categories. For young professional strivers, landing on the list has become a status symbol that can lead to…it isn’t entirely clear what. At the very least, it offers honorees the tantalizing prospect of making a strong first impression on future employers, business partners and Tinder dates if someone Googles their names. Winners tuck the phrase “Forbes 30 Under 30” into their social media bios, alongside blue verification check marks, if they have been blessed with them.
“The two most coveted symbols online are an Instagram verification and being on Forbes 30 Under 30,” said Taylor Offer, founder of an apparel startup called Feat Socks, who mentions his Forbes win (class of 2018) in his Instagram bio. “It’s a mark of validation.”
For Forbes, the venerable magazine publisher, the Under 30 franchise has become a big money maker, providing the cornerstone for a lucrative live events business, including an annual summit in the U.S., packed with corporate sponsors and featuring celebrity speakers, concerts and group workouts. It also hosts exclusive dinners and meet-ups for people who have made the list.
To critics though, the list is a celebration of privileged networkers and the frenzy to get on it a lamentable symbol of hustle culture, the boastful spirit of workaholism and accolade-mongering that preoccupies some young professionals. Forbes reporters who worked on the list say they have increasingly struggled to find exceptional nominees.
“I wanted to throw up at the entire thing,” said Andy Sparks, an entrepreneur who was on this year’s list, describing his reaction to the Summit, a Forbes event that celebrates the Under 30 community. “I had an existential crisis coming back from it. I wondered why I wanted to get on the list and be a part of this community in the first place.”
A List Factory
Forbes is part of a much bigger media ecosystem of list-making. Fortune has carved out its own niche with its 40 Under 40 list, not to mention its Fortune 500 annual ranking of the largest companies in the U.S., now in its 65th year. For over a decade, Fast Company has compiled a list of the most innovative companies, charging applicants fees between $495 and $1,000 to be considered. The Information also publishes lists of startups to watch and diversity levels at venture capital firms.
The 102-year-old Forbes is a list-making factory though, and the Under 30 franchise is its most high-profile product. The company—whose unofficial motto was once “Capitalist Tool”—has dozens of them, all devoted to cataloging the wealthy and successful, from “The Midas List: Top 100 Venture Capitalists” to “Malaysia’s 50 Richest” to “Top Earning Dead Celebrities.”
As advertising in traditional publications contracts, media companies have been forced to look for new sources of revenue, such as events, and the Under 30 list has been a standout in that regard. Forbes is selling tickets to its upcoming summit in Detroit at the end of October—featuring appearances by athletes Kevin Durant and Serena Williams—for as much as $9,900 each, though finalists for the list pay $195.
Corporate sponsors such as The Macallan whiskey and Courtyard by Marriott pay big fees to get their brands in front of the young professionals who flock to the events. In 2016, Ocean Spray created a cranberry bog in a wading pool in Boston during the event, partly to highlight the fruit as an ingredient in cocktails.
The list was conceived in 2011 by longtime Forbes editor Randall Lane, who said that it was created as a way of chronicling a cultural shift in the mainstream perception of youth and ambition. “This was a list that was perfect for its time, in that this is the first time that being young is actually an advantage for most fields,” Lane said in an interview.
Nine former Forbes reporters who spoke to The Information under the condition of anonymity said that the Under 30 list was the most important franchise at the company, overtaking the publisher’s annual roundup of billionaires in terms of both readership and as an editorial priority. One of those staffers said the Under 30 list has been helpful for expanding awareness of the magazine beyond “old, rich white men” to a more diverse cohort of millennial changemakers.
Forbes says the Under 30 franchise amounts to a low, single-digit percentage of its total revenues and isn’t its sole focus. “There are many franchises and temples of products and services that we offer,” said Matthew Hutchison, a Forbes spokesperson. “It is one of many in our constellation.”
A private equity firm bought nearly half of Forbes Media in 2006 for about $230 million, and five years ago a group of wealthy Asian investors, Integrated Whale Investments, acquired most of the company in a deal that reportedly valued Forbes at $475 million.
The company has sought to use the Under 30 list to its business advantage in other ways. Last December, Forbes Media CEO Mike Federle told Digiday that the Under 30 list has also provided Forbes with a “nice pipeline for potential deals” as the company looks for more investing and acquisition opportunities. Forbes had made two such investments already, Federle said in the interview.
‘Better Than Harvard’
Anyone can nominate themselves or others for the Under 30 list, but Forbes reporters and editors determine the finalists for each category, typically numbering between 50 and 100 people, who advance to a group of three to four judges in their respective fields. The judges—often entrepreneurs, executives and alumni of the Under 30 lists who are selected by Forbes staffers—winnow the nominations to the final 30.
The Information spoke to more than two dozen Under 30 list alumni and nine former Forbes staffers who said many people seek to game their way onto the list. Some alumni said they asked dozens of friends, family and business associates to submit nominations for them to Forbes’ website. Alexander Pessala, a venture capitalist who made the list in 2016, said that someone he declined to name offered money over LinkedIn for a “consulting engagement” on how to make the list. Offer, the founder of Feat Socks, said he receives at least one email a day from people—many of them strangers—asking him to nominate them for the 2020 list.
“People will have briefs typed out, so all I need to do is copy and paste their information,” he said.
‘I had an existential crisis coming back from it. I wondered why I wanted to get on the list and be a part of this community in the first place.’
Former Forbes reporters said nominations from influential people typically carry more weight during their selection of finalists and the judges’ ultimate list picks. Reporters said they sometimes provided judges with notes pointing out which finalists had been nominated by prominent people in their fields. Getting featured in stories in Forbes magazine and befriending the publication’s reporters also helped increase the odds of making the list.
“I get flooded with requests to nominate people,” said venture capitalist Adam Struck (class of 2017).
Struck said he sought to improve his own chances of getting on the list by asking Sam Altman, an influential Silicon Valley investor, to nominate him. Altman said that while he had nominated people for the list in the past, he couldn’t remember whether Struck was one of those people.
Lane, the Forbes editor, downplayed the idea that getting nominations from influential figures helps people get on the list, saying “there’s no such thing as ‘You get to cut straight to the front of the line.’”
Forbes promotes the exclusivity of its Under 30 lists, claiming that the 600 people it selects for its lists—from the more than 15,000 nominations it typically gets each year—makes it pickier than the most prestigious schools. “That’s an under 4% acceptance rate; making it harder to get into than the nation’s two most selective colleges, Stanford University (4.8%) and Harvard University (5.2%),” read a Forbes story about the 30 Under 30 class for 2017.
It is a claim that appeals to some alumni of the list. “Hell yeah, it’s better than going to Harvard or Stanford,” said entrepreneur Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, who didn’t attend either school. “Getting on the list is way more legit than saying, ‘Hey, I studied at Harvard and I’m book smart.’”
To others, the comparison is a stretch. “Having applied to Stanford and attended, I can tell you that the process is very, very different,” said venture capitalist Anarghya Vardhana, who made the list in 2017.
Alumni cite numerous benefits from landing on the list. One entrepreneur believes it helped his company attract an acquisition offer, while another honoree said he had met prime ministers, presidents and royal family members as a result. Some snagged speaking engagements, met business partners or recruited employees who learned of them through the list.
“People think of it like an MBA, like an opportunity to get access to an amazing network,” said Scott Hempy, the founder of fuel startup Filld and a member of the class of 2016.
The list has conjured old flames. “My friends and I have a running joke about how all of our ex-boyfriends came running out of the woodwork,” said Sara Smoler, a business development marketer and alum of the 2019 list.
And the list has sparked new romances. Alissa Baier-Lentz, founder of a startup called Hero Backpacks, and Moritz Baier-Lentz, who runs a career advisory company called Future Friday, were both featured on the list and met at an Under 30 retreat in Israel last year. They married in a July ceremony that was officiated by another Under 30 alum. “I knew I liked her [immediately],” Moritz Baier-Lentz said about his first encounter with his future bride. “She seemed smart and cute.”
“But to be clear, I would only date people who made the list,” he joked.
The Forbes list comes to life every year at the Under 30 Summit, a four-day festival that takes place in a U.S. city, often drawing more than 10,000 attendees. The event is part bacchanal (happy hours with bespoke cocktails and food festivals), part TED talk (featuring panels and lectures on topics like artificial intelligence, media and “cannabis capitalism”). Model Chrissy Teigen, swimmer Michael Phelps and Monica Lewinsky have all been among the headline speakers at the events.
The point of the event—advertised as “the world’s greatest event for young leaders, founders, investors, and creators”—is a bit amorphous. “It’s confusing,” said David Comisford, an Under 30 alum and the founder of education startup EduSourced. “Is it about building community, or is it a big star-studded event? And if it’s a star-studded event, what does that have to do with 30 Under 30?”
As the Under 30 list became a tradition at Forbes, some former reporters said they increasingly struggled to find qualified people to bring to judges as finalists. In 2015, the publication made a rule that no nominees could be included on the list more than once, which made it increasingly difficult to find new candidates in later years. In interviews, three former Forbes reporters separately described the process as “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” with one former reporter saying that the phrase was often used internally at Forbes to characterize the process.
Several former Forbes staffers said it was especially difficult to pick finalists for categories in specialized, highly academic industries like the “energy” category where there is less dramatic change in the field from year to year compared to, say, technology and entertainment. Felipe Gomez del Campo, an entrepreneur and visiting scientist at MIT, who made the Forbes Energy list in 2016, said he was surprised that every person he had nominated for future lists in the category also ended up making those lists. Del Campo added that he considered making the list to be a “huge honor.”
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Lane, the Forbes editor, said he isn’t worried about claims that the list has declined in quality. That notion, he said, “isn’t consistent with capitalism or entrepreneurship…I passionately believe that in the United States there are 600 awesome people that the world should know about.”
There is also the passage of time, which every year creates new twentysomethings for Forbes to ponder as it eliminates the thirtysomethings from consideration. Fortunately, for people like Jin, who made the Forbes list just before his 30th birthday, there are new opportunities for recognition. In July, Silicon Valley Business Journal named him to its “40 Under 40” list.