Forbes 30 Under 30 is an awkward ego-fest

The view from being a "list-maker"

Walking the streets of New York City on your way to an upscale event is a mood. Such moments are the lifeblood of the city—its jazz, its psychogeographical resonance frequency. That sort of thing. On the subway you stand so your clothes don’t get dirty. Your clean dress shoes click satisfyingly over the grime of the sidewalk, fundamentally above it.

Before I moved out of the city I went to one last event like that: the Forbes 30 Under 30 launch party in 2018. I had “made the list” as they say, and was heading to the brand-new Forbes on Fifth event space that the company had just opened.

Of course I had perused the list and found the one person I’d really liked to meet: Vitalik Buterin, the inventor of Ethereum, the second-largest cryptocurrency behind Bitcoin. But would he come? Or was he so successful that Forbes needed him more than he needed Forbes?

Regardless, when you’re going to an event like this you need to muster some courage. Better to be a bit drunk, I thought. So I, in my best fancy blazer, stopped by a local Irish pub just a few blocks down.

At the grungy bar I tried to think of a way to tell the cute bartender that I was heading to the exclusive Forbes 30 Under 30 party. But no opportunity presented itself. I asked for nuts.

“What?”

“Bar. . . bar nuts.” I croaked out.

“Umm, we don’t have those.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said, picking a bit of lint off my blazer to have something to do. I chugged my beer as soon as she set it down and could still feel it churn in my stomach as I made my way up the street toward the gigantic FORBES sign.

After picking up my name tag amid the congratulatory signs, I went inside, seeing what looked like a dancing stage and a cooly-lit bar, different in all respects from the one I’d just come from, along with ramps and high ceilings. There was a throng of blazers. I had a hard time imagining Vitalik here, but scanned the crowd for him anyways. The conversations formed an imbrication over the same theme:

“So, how’d you make the list?”

“I’m only 24.”

“I should have made it last year.”

“V.C. or non-V.C?”

“They made really good choices this year.”

“So, how’d you make the list?”

Soon I was in one of these, talking to a young woman in a little black dress.

“Well, anyways, that’s why the V.C. fund chose me. And as Elon told me, it’s natural that things go this way,” she said, trailing off.

“Elon, like, Elon Musk?” I asked.

“How could anyone think of any other Elon? Being on a first-name basis is so important. But whatever. It’s not that impressive. A lot of people are on a first-name basis with him.”

There was a long pause filled with thumping bass. Wait. Was that who I was looking for?

No, the man grinding just looked like Vitalik.

“So what’d you win it for?” the girl finally asked, drink in hand, yelling over the music perfunctorily.

“Oh, I proposed this theory, a, ah, a mathematical theory of emergence.” I replied, wincing as I did so. I took a sip but my drink was gone.

“They give it out for stuff like that?”

“Well, I’m also, I’m also a writer. I’ve gotten awards. For my fiction!” I ended with a shout.

“Didn’t it start as purely finance? When’d they add that other stuff? Like the science?”

Suddenly the music dampened. The lights flashed onto the main screen at the center of the dance floor and onto a suited speaker.

“LETS HEAR IT FOR ALL OF YOU!!!!!!!”

The crowd lost it.

After it quieted down, and after some preamble, the speaker launched into advertising their next event.

“Equity is a chief concern for us. No, the chief concern for us. That’s why our next event is the Forbes 2019 ALL WOMEN’S SUMMIT, celebrating the achievements of our AMAZING women. No men! Just women! Taking place in Israel!”

At this there was silence, outside of the lone enthusiastic cheers of a smattering of women. But the men looked perturbed, and meanwhile most other women looked puzzled. Both sides seemed to be privately asking themselves: without the dating prospects, what’s the point of attending?

“We have to send a clear message. Equity matters. That’s why our attendees will access the most elite VIP experiences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The creme de la creme of experiences across four days—we’ve got incredible speakers, world-famous celebrities, the best chefs, the most beautiful sights and the coolest clubs, and attendees will ring the bell to start the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange—all in celebration of equity!”

At the mention of the perks the cheers grew louder.

“TEL AVIV! TEL AVIV!”

Balloons and confetti began to fall on the rave and the music pumped up while images of Tel Aviv played on the giant screen. Underneath it scrolled the sponsors of the women’s summit event: J.P. Morgan and EvioBeauty.

I’d lost my conversation partner and the line was too long for a drink, so I shrugged my way out of the crowd, passing a row of people convivially chatting as they waited in line for something. It was a life-size green screen set up on a stage, with groups and individuals posing in front of it; all around them were flashes of photos being taken. A sign marking the start of the line read BE ON THE COVER. Because not everyone is. Sure, you’re one of the 30 Under 30, but you didn’t get chosen for the cover. But with a quick photo in front of a green screen, they’ll email you your own magazine cover version to post on your website.

An attractive and perfectly diverse group of Under 30s were holding a pose in front of the green screen as I passed, heading outside to the cool breathable October air. It had just rained. A few of the dejected stood outside as well, all looking lonely. We did our best to pretend we weren’t looking for someone, anyone, to talk to. I pulled out a cigarette and stood smoking on the curb. A big guy, big beard, also smoking, nodded me over.

“What the fuuuuuuuuckk,” he said. I laughed, both of us gesturing helplessly to the door and the party within. “I don’t know man, that’s a lot of concentrated, you know, ahhh. . .” and he trailed off.

I nodded with him. “So, the obvious question. The boring one,” I said. “How’d you make the list?”

“I created a V.R. company.”

“Oh, shit,” I said. “How does that work?”

“It doesn’t.”

“Oh, shit.”

“You just pitch investors on it and it’s all just vaporware.”

He saw the look on my face and broke into a big but artificial smile. “I’m just kidding.” He blew smoke out. “I’m just kidding, man.”

“Right. . .”

“Dude,” he said, looking beyond me, amazed. “That’s Forbes.”

“What?”

“The guy. He’s Forbes.”

“Wait, ah, which one of them?” I asked, but the Forbes was already upon us. We had been smoking next to his limousine, blocking his path. Around him was a walking court—or maybe some form of security?

“Pleasure to meet some young honorees,” he said, beaming perfunctorily, his gentlemanly face coming out of the dark.

Smiling beneficently he reached out and shook my hand. His palm felt papery but weighty, like money, like thick stacks of money extending into the distance, money forever, enough money to do whatever you wanted, enough money to land on Mars, to reshape cities, to buy thousands of shipping containers full of mosquito nets, enough money to live with a harem of beautiful models on a private island and have them feed you coconuts, enough money for helicopters and private schools for your kids and plastic surgery and experimental medical care. Enough money to make this world merely a lucid dream you’re having.

And then he let go of my hand and all the money left too. His entourage retreated, shepherding him into the car, moving us out of the way. As he pulled out we stood mute, as if recognizing for the first time we were only minor players in the dream of the rich.

I scanned inside—the line for the green screen had grown longer. The line for the bar as well. Finishing my cigarette I took my little complimentary gift bag and went home.1

What did I go home with? What exactly do you get for being a member of the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30? Well, some kind of strange stuff.

First, a $150 gift card to Warby Parker, along with similar gift cards to a couple other brands. You’re also given the contact information of a “Forbes concierge” who is there to, I don’t, help you in the way a concierge does? Buy tickets? Arrange things? When I tried to think of what one could possibly use a concierge for, I came up blank. To experiment I asked the concierge for Burning Man tickets (you know, “to research a novel”), but they said they were all out, so sorry. Can’t blame them.

You also get access to an exclusive Forbes 30 Under 30 alumni Facebook group, which is filled mostly with posts about either funding amounts raised or the “hey who is in London y’all hit me up" type of post.

The most mysterious gift was access to a Forbes 30 Under 30 “marketplace” which was a bunch of discounts via coupons from companies. Why did I now have a 10% discount on Apple products? Why did I have a 10% discount on USPS? Or Target? Of course, I kept forgetting to use these. But I was curious as to why, or how, it all worked.

To answer this, it’s worth noting that the Forbes list only started in 2011. There are 20 sections, from Science to Finance. Given that 30 are chosen in each, this makes 600 “winners” a year, or a total of 6,000 total “list-makers” so far. My suspicion is that after ten years they are scraping the bottom of the barrel (thus, you know, my own nomination). Supporting this, in recent years there have been multiple deadline extensions of the Forbes 30 Under 30 North America and also the European list, likely due to simply not having enough viable nominees that don’t dilute the brand.

And let’s not forget Forbes also exists in a bunch of different countries. Even in Bulgaria there are Forbes list-makers and events. Alas, lacking a green screen they had to resort to holding up cutouts.

Which brings me to my main question: what exactly are we, the tens of thousands worldwide members of the Forbes 30 Under 30? Its image is of an exclusive club, a prestigious award for excellence—although the vetting process and choices remain an opaque internal function of Forbes itself. And as I said, there are already thousands of us.

Let’s be clear: what we actually are is a marketing tool for the Forbes brand. Of course, all awards in some sense are marketing for some brand, but Forbes is not a nonprofit like the McArthur Genius Awards or Templeton Foundation or the Fulbright Program. Forbes is a big private company that has created something incredibly popular, and, I suspect, is still searching around for some way to directly secure profits off of us. One way is via the $9,900 ticket costs to events like the Forbes summits. But mostly I think they try via branding and marketing, e.g., if you examine how the brand is monetized:

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.

As an explanation for the discounts you receive, I think it’s likely Forbes goes to brands and says: “Hey, we can get all those cool 30 Under 30s with lots of Instagram followers wearing your brand of shoes for just a small fee—how about you give them a special discount?” That would fit the fact that:

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. 

I’m not going to comment on the marketing acumen of informing millennials about cranberries, but you get the point. And I’m not claiming there’s some sort of nefarious conspiracy going on here—Forbes is pretty open about all of this. Yet the idea of being monetized as brand ambassadors for a private company never seems to get commented on by any of the “list makers.” Not one.

But why would they? Why show any discomfort or hesitation at all? It’s not like we’re race-car drivers showing off company logos on our clothing—right? Although this is on offer at the Forbes store, just in case, as part of an “exclusive collection.”

No, most of us don’t wear the clothing. That’d be garish, low-class!

Instead, we just put their logo in our twitter bios. And on our websites. And pay for the summits. And the group workout classes. Every time we do, a marketer at Forbes, Inc gets their wings.

What’s funny is that recently I needed new glasses and decided to try out Warby Parker. When I went to order I had a vague memory—hadn’t there been a gift card? I tore my house apart but couldn’t find it. It’d gotten lost in some move.

So at the Warby Parker website I clicked pay with credit card like some sort of normal person, and sighed.

1

The description of the Forbes launch event is how I experienced it. It was four years ago, however. In particular, the suited speaker’s full speech is paraphrased.