Race, Millennials, and the Problem (again) with Forbes’ “30 Under 30.”

This week, Forbes celebrated the accomplishments of outstanding millennials in its annual “30 Under 30” list. The list seeks to uplift and recognize the contributions of the best young people we have to offer in tech, education, social entrepreneurship, science, art, and more.

I had high hopes for the potential diversity of this list, particularly as millennials come of age. 43% of this generation, the largest in US history, is non-white. Only 65% were born in the U.S. and 38% are fluent in at least two languages. 57% of undergraduate college students in the U.S. are women, yielding 170,000 more female college graduates than male every year. In addition, this generation is redefining gender and sexuality, defying restrictive categories of the past.

Because I work predominantly in tech, I was particularly interested in the venture capital, consumer tech, retail & ecommerce, and enterprise tech lists. As I scrolled through each sector’s choices of “gamechangers, movers and makers,” my heart sank. Each list is an overwhelmingly white, male representation of the generation I just described above.

Forbes, like so many other institutions, just took another giant step away from the reality of our country’s demographics, further distancing itself from the lives led by people of color who will soon become the majority of the U.S. Of particular exclusion, yet again, are young Black and Latin@ leaders who are blazing trails through every sector of American life.

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that ascertaining Black and Latin@ representation via visual scan is a flawed method. With respect to Forbes’ lists, I hold out hope that I am wrong about how people self-identity and recognize that racial/ethnic delineations among millennials in particular can be nuanced. That being said, I’ve also been at this for over two decades and can recognize a pattern of exclusion when I see it.

Some will ask, “This is just a list, does the racial representation really matter?” Yes, and this is why:

Forbes declares this list to be “600 young disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs who are transforming our world.” It’s a bold claim to make about a group of young people who do not come close to accurately reflecting the generation of which they are a part. Each one of them, in their own right, is undeniably exceptional. But as a group, they give a distorted picture of what their generation’s leaders look like, and where they are from.

In addition, this group was chosen by leaders from generations that came before them; generations that are still wearing blinders keeping them from thoughtful race and gender analysis. Forbes proclaims them “A-List judges,” an overwhelmingly white and male panel across all categories. Based on their choices, it is likely that many of them fell into the trap of thinking, “I recognize the lives of these young people. They remind me of myself.”

This mentality is dangerous because it ignores experiences of people unlike themselves and lauds an outdated model of “disruption” and “leadership” that will not serve our changing demographic. In Silicon Valley, this is the same dynamic at play in hiring decisions and investment choices by VCs.

To put it more plainly, 75% of white people have zero non-white friends. The people of color with whom they come in contact are not within the judges’ professional networks; they are largely serving these “A-Listers,” are seen via mainstream media tropes, and are relatively easy to dismiss. Therefore, it is easy to pretend that they are not contenders for recognition. This is what Forbes has chosen to do with their 2015 Class of “30 Under 30.”

I cannot assume that Forbes did not consider diversity when creating these lists. As recently as 2011 The Root took them to task for the lack of Black and Latinos on that year’s “30 Under 30“ media list. So if they have been criticized for this in the past, what are we to conclude about their unwillingness to change the process?

Experience tells me that two dynamics are at play. First, is the belief in “meritocracy,” a myth that has a stronghold in the private sector. Meritocracy is the notion that there is an objective measure of excellence where race, gender, geography, and a myriad other identifiers do not come into play. Meritocracy rewards those who have met an “objective” standard of excellence, independent of context. It ignores privileges, advantages, and networks bestowed largely at birth. In reality, these “objective standards” are laden with biases and presume “achievement” to take a single form.

The second dynamic is willful ignorance. In my line of work, I see this quite a bit. For many people, ignoring facts that do not suit a comfortable worldview is incredibly easy. If presented with an alternate view that threatens one’s lifestyle, position of power, or challenges one’s ability to control resources, “willful ignorance” is a handy tool that maintains the status quo. The Forbes list reinforces a worldview that perpetuates a narrative where the “best and brightest” of the next generation reflect existing power structures.

Forbes’ “30 Under 30” is unfortunately just a microcosm for the private sector overall. Understanding how to identify talent from diverse backgrounds is the Achilles heel of corporate America. There never has and never will be a shortage of talented, deserving people of color to celebrate with accolades or hire as the newest engineer in a tech company. This generation is bursting with unprecedented diversity and initiative — companies that do not recognize this reality quickly will soon find themselves lost in a sea of irrelevance.


Thank you to Amanda Gelender, who contributed significantly to this piece.