What is Forbes 30-Under-30 And Why It's Flawed

Bernardo Montes de Oca

Startup founders aim to transcend normality through our products or our company. So, from time to time, it's almost a given that the startup world surrounds itself with preeminence. These young and scrappy companies want to stand out, and one way to do so is by landing their founders in the coveted Forbes' 30-under-30 list. 

For years, getting your name there meant privilege and that you had made it. Still, recently, in my eyes, the list has lost credibility, and two significant flaws have arisen. First, as the startup world becomes even more mainstream, people realize that confining your accomplishments to a certain age might not be healthy. Second, the list lacks accountability.

The 30-under-30 list was born in 2011 to promote young visionaries who had transcended their sectors. One of the biggest positives this list had was that it included people from across the globe. That's in theory. From the outside looking in, the list has worked wonderfully. However, year in and year out, it underperforms in diversity, but at least the idea was good.

Does Forbes 30-under-30 Have Credibility? 

Yes. After all, there are solid cases. We learned of cases such as Rachel Haurwitz, an American biochemist and structural biologist, who had created Caribou Biosciences. She was selected for the 30-under-30 list in 2014 and then the 40-under-40 from Fortune in 2016. Her startup initially focused on gene editing, then shifted its focus to cancer therapies. Caribou's most recent breakthroughs revolve around targeting aggressive cancers through cell therapies that help "clip out" the damaged cells. In 2022, the company landed $350 million in funding, which was, at the time, one of the largest funding rounds in the sector. So, without a list such as 30-under-30, few of us would've heard of this story. 

There are also mainstream products, but we might only know a few background stories. In 2013, Forbes selected Instacart founder, Apoorva Mehta, as part of the list. His startup became one of the most important delivery and pick-up services in the US and Canada. However, did you know that Mehta had created 20 startups before Instacard and all of them failed? Fast forward to 2020, and Mehta became one the youngest billionaires in the world at age 33 when his company reached a valuation of more than $39 billion. His story is admirable and works as a prime example of resilience. 

On that behalf, the 30-under-30 list becomes an excellent tool for the world to know about these cases. We want young entrepreneurs to see that there's a chance to make it big. The biographies of those individuals who make this list include countless adversities, many of which are relatable and could serve as motivation, but only that. Making it to the list doesn't mean your professional life ends there. Moreover, you could do something that shatters your reputation, and to land on the list has no meaning. 

This, and other lists, have one essential flaw regarding who they select. There's no backing out. Once it's there, if that person screws up later, magazines such as Forbes won't look great if they take down the biographies. They can't backtrack on their choices. One prime example includes the youngest woman ever to become a billionaire. She had created technology that would revolutionize the medical industry forever, and the world loved her for that. Then it all turned out to be a fraud. 

Controversy Around Forbes 30-under-30

We're, of course, talking about Elizabeth Holmes. What happened afterwards was a sobering reminder that making it big by 30 isn't necessarily good. Nevertheless, her profile is still on the Forbes website, with a fascinating net worth, and it will remain there forever, showcasing how hype can turn into a bust in months. 

Elizabeth Holmes is one of many examples. Martin Shkreli and Sam Bankman-Fried excelled at a young age, earning a reputation as relentless investors and businessmen. The world had no choice but to pay attention. That is another significant flaw with this list. Sometimes, it's about the millions you make and not how you make them. Shkreli and Bankman-Fried became fraudsters and paid a high price for it. 

Still, the records show that, way back, Forbes didn't hold back in praising them as heroes. One notable piece on Shkreli praised his effort to "battle" the pharma industry. Months later, he ended up spiking prices and landing in jail. As for Sam Bankman-Fried, he too earned praise for his "uninterested" views on crypto. In the end, he was no different from other scammers. At least he drove a cheap car. Perhaps, Forbes was blinded by the millions. 

Being a part of the 30-under-30 list isn't as elegant as it once was. As a result, the magazine has taken a lot of flack. One of the latest examples is Charlie Javice, who is being lauded as the 30-under-30 whizkid to become the next Elizabeth Holmes. I'm sure neither Javice nor Forbes are too happy with this headline. At least one thing is sure: it takes a lot of skill to fool JPMorgan out of millions of dollars. 

Then there's the issue with the idea itself. Why do we restrain everything in the startup world to age? I've seen this unwritten commandment firsthand that, in the startup world, you have to do everything before the big 3-0, but not everyone will. In fact, obsessing over these lists could cost us dearly in our mental health. 

Our twenties can be an overwhelming period where one must navigate their career path, financial stability, and lack of work experience, making it seem impossible to achieve wealth or take part in the next big technological breakthrough. That's not to say we won't accomplish that; we can. So, whenever you’re reading those lists, do so from a different perspective. As hard as it seems, it's time we ditch the age.

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Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable.
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