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Deconstructing the Social Engineering Behind the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit
Is being on the 30 Under 30 list valuable?
Okay, so here was my question → is being on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list actually valuable?
Critics have hailed it as a fluffed-up dating status, an award that doesn’t actually mean anything, and a cliche Linkedin tagline. It seems to be the exact opposite of the Harvard alumni “I went to school in Boston.”
But is this actually true, or is there real value in landing a spot on the list?
I’m not a “Lister,” but after tagging along as a +1 to the 30 Under 30 event in Detroit, I have to say despite my initial preconceived notions about the event, I was honestly blown away at the social engineering behind the summit.
Here’s the breakdown of the event (and maybe some lessons you can apply to your own business on creating prestige within a niche).
Are the 30 Under 30 Listers “legit”?
A “Lister” is someone who made the 30 Under 30 list.
Don’t let the name fool you; there are actually way more than 30 of them. In the class of 2022, there were “600 of the brightest young entrepreneurs, leaders, and stars” that made the list.
This was my biggest question going into the event, were the people who won this award actually valuable (for lack of a better word)? Was this truly an exclusive award reserved for the very top individuals of our society?
The answer is yes, and no.
Objectively speaking, I sincerely doubt that for any individual category that the award is literally the top 30 people within that category. There were definitely a number of people (without naming names) who probably didn’t quite deserve the award.
With that being said - Forbes didn’t completely miss the mark. There were some absolutely incredible A+ humans (from a social status POV) that came to the Summit.
At dinner, I sat next to a founder who just IPO’ed his company, an M&A lawyer who made the list for running a charity, and a “tech consultant” who ran a firm with 80 people.
Afterward, we had dessert with some fellow YC founders who were currently going through the YC Growth program (read: they were doing well).
The Listers truly did include a mix of not only legitimately incredible entrepreneurs but doctors, nuclear bomb pilots, and rockstars.
And by rockstars I don’t just mean the random IG influencer with 10k followers - I mean real rockstars. Included in the list were celebrities like Kygo, Megan Stallion, and John Zimmer.
There are different levels of Listers
This is probably the most interesting part of the award. The average Lister was honestly decently amazing, but there were some truly world-class people on the list.
Especially Listers from past cohorts who went on to do even more incredible things.
“The CEO of Kickstarter is a 30 Under 30, and so am I.”
In my opinion, this is where 90% of the value of the award derives from. The Listers are people that Forbes thinks are “popping off” within their industry, and some of them go on to do incredible things. Founders of billion-dollar companies, supermodels with millions of followers, people who are truly impacting the world.
That then creates value for everyone else on the list because it lets you point to those people and say, “famous person is a Lister, and I am too.”
It’s a funny concept; why do awards mean anything?
Part of it is brand, most of it is the belief that other people have, about the award. If the world thinks that being a Lister is valuable, then it is valuable. Being in exclusive clubs is really only important when the exclusive club is desirable to other people.
The more that people want to win the award, the more valuable the award becomes.
This is honestly the brilliance behind the Forbes 30 Under 30. It’s not the fact that it’s truly a list of the top 30 people in each category, but it’s how they are selecting people whose careers are on an upward trajectory - and then some of them turn into absolute rockstars.
In a lot of ways, it’s almost like angel investors making a bet on risky early-stage startups. Some of the bets pay off and make up the bulk of the portfolio’s value.
Creating a Stage
One of the most important parts of being a Lister is getting to come to the 30 Under 30 Summit, after all, who doesn’t like a good party?
I mean it’s a conference - but it’s really a party.
The opening night kicks off with a Kygo conference, followed by dinner and a bar crawl. In fact, there’s a bar crawl just about every night. When you’re not eating and drinking, there are talks given on a huge stage by surprisingly incredible people.
The talks were my favorite part of the event.
Speaking was people like John Zimmer, CoFounder of Lyft, Andy Dunn founder of Bonobos, Josh Silverman CEO of Etsy, and Haroon Mokhtarzada, CEO of Rocket Money.
The talks were legit. They were filled with interesting people with interesting perspectives on the world.
I’m not sure I learned anything too incredible - but I walked away from them feeling like a really stupid person that hasn’t done anything with my life, which is low-key inspiring to start executing on shit.
Layered with the talks were these round tables, a chance for the average Lister to talk and feel important. Round tables were small group events on specific topics, usually 15-20 people each.
Each round table had one Lister selected to “run” the event. They were basically moderators who got a little bit of mini stage time.
Despite a certain level of everyone being really excited to talk about their startup, there was actually some really interesting conversation at these round tables. It was a bunch of smart people in a room talking about things that were good for the world.
So here’s the overall breakdown.
A big main stage with “rockstar” Listers next to other industry titans
Round tables where average Listers were selected to lead them
Average Listers got to participate at the round tables
Everybody got a little time to feel important, but more importantly, it did an amazing job selling the award to the audience by putting rockstar Listers on a huge stage.
So if I was going to reverse engineer this for my own industry, here’s what my basic framework would be.
Create an award to give out to top people within my niche/industry
Give the award to important people, especially those whose careers seem to be exploding
Create an exclusive event (or at least some level of exclusivity) and make sure the “most important” award recipients are coming
Leverage my own brand + the most successful people who received the award, to promote the importance of the award
My takeaway from the event is that it absolutely does have real value; even the “average” Listers are pretty incredible human beings. Overall I was honestly blown away at Forbes's ability to create prestige by simply making a list of important people and crafting exclusive events.
The most interesting part of the event was watching the playbook of how to create an important award for my own industry (and the incredible impact it could have).