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Forbes 30 under-30: True Cases of Young Achievers, or Simply “Brother Bernards?”

Forbes 30 under-30: True Cases of Young Achievers, or Simply “Brother Bernards?”

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Being on Forbes under-30 also has permanence to it. An inclusion in the revered list can cause a significant boost in one’s career progression. For this reason, Forbes under-30 can be just as problematic…

By Sybil Fekurumoh

In its expected fashion, the news of the recently-published Forbes Africa 30 under 30 list had a rave in media spaces, and with the announcement, much fanfare followed. This year’s under-30 gathers together entrepreneurs, professional athletes, entertainers, content creators, scientists, and healthcare practitioners alike, from across Africa. The list featured entertainers like Nigerian Tems, Ayra Starr, and South African, Focalistic, who have amassed global recognition recently. The under-30 list also brought to the spotlight and amplified the feats of scientists, health professionals, and mental health advocates. This is the case with the recognition of achievers like Namibia’s first female entomologist, Rosalia Nghitalesheni Joseph. Joseph shared the excitement of making one of the most sought-after lists with me. She described this win as an exclusive privilege and a validation for scientists in Africa. “I believe my nomination is a paradigm shift for young African scientists. I mean, science is already overlooked in our context, and this nomination validates the importance of science in Africa, moreover, to solve societal issues and contribute to novel solutions. I believe this nomination also serves as a model for every young scientist to continue the path and for aspiring scientists to be more determined,” Joseph revealed.

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Forbes under-30 list is very sort after; I daresay the most coveted of all of Forbes curations, or any other curation rankings. Times 100 for example, curates a list of hundred influential people from around the world. The standard for Forbes under-30 is not age-limited, but rather, a recognition of the works or influence of the achievers, regardless of how those actions affect the world. Understandably so, the allure of being on a young achievers list is in good measure. We have come to idolise young achievements. The accomplishment of youth undoubtedly inspires awe, after all, especially more so for young Africans who may face structural limitations. For example, recognising, in 2013, the founders of Nigerian job search engine, Jobberman: Opeyemi Awoyemi, Olalekan Olude, and Ayodeji Adewunmi was in due merit. Also, spotlighting  Malawian William Kamkwamba, who at 14, invented a windmill to generate power for a steady water supply for his father’s farm, would inspire.

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Being on Forbes under-30 also has permanence to it. An inclusion in the revered list can cause a significant boost in one’s career progression. For this reason, Forbes under-30 can be just as problematic. The list becomes a means to an end, rather than an end that crowns one’s achievement. It becomes a part of a business strategy to kick off a bucket list. The dark side of this strategy is the need to continue to keep up with the appearance of success or legitimacy. It is no surprise the number of members whose businesses have gone under and crashed like poor “Brother Bernard” and had the founders peddled with fraud. Charlie Javice was on the Forbes under 30 list of 2019. The CEO of the tech startup, Frank, was poised to help American college students with financial aid. Javice now faces criminal charges for allegedly inflating the number of customers on their platform, so as to be acquired by JP Morgan Bank. Martin Shkreli, and Sam Bankman-Fried, both featured on the Forbes under-30 list, have had to serve prison time for fraud. They also had businesses that eventually collapsed.

Perhaps the spotlight of being on Forbes’s list makes its featured trailblazers more scrutinised than others not in the list. The fear of criticism likely makes these founders feel pressured to keep up with the image of success. Success at a young age can be a double-edged sword which makes these young achievers more prone to criticism. It is a love-hate relationship where, one minute, the public is fawning over their success, and the next, turning on them with rage. We’ve witnessed this happen with child actors and athletes who have been vilified by the public when they falter.

This also begs the question of the premise of under-30 curations. Perhaps Forbes under 30 is a faux that promotes the ideology of young success and glorifies material wealth and privilege in favour of the rich. Forbes’s lists, including the 30 under 30, have many times, been pilloried about its criteria for selection. There are claims that Forbes would give preference to wealth by the numbers. This is not unfounded. Forbes curated achievers lists have become caught up in controversies about its lack of due diligence in vetting its nominees. It’s been said that the list can be influenced by how prominent a person is, or how hard a prospective nominee can “hustle” for the spot, and work their way around the system. The Forbes curation has become a highly profitable franchise that makes a profit from hosting lucrative live business events and summits, which attract celebrity and corporate sponsors. It’s just another day for capitalism. Africans for one, won’t forget in a hurry the now-convicted Invictus Obi, who made the Forbes Africa 30 under 30 list in 2016. Obi fronted as an entrepreneur and committed Internet and wire fraud until he was apprehended in 2012. Also, American healthcare con artist, Elizabeth Holmes, once graced the cover of Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made billionaire, but was later found to be a fraudster who deceived investors about her healthcare startup, Theranos.

Forbes, whether deliberately or not, aids the rhetoric that people have to attain success at a certain age, thereby proselytising an unhealthy hustle culture amongst young people. The theme of this year’s Forbes Africa under 30 further drives this point. Forbes led the show with “Self-Made.” Forbes’s intent is to give a new meaning to the phrase, and with that, its curators identify these individuals as solution-seeking young people who are “starting from scratch to build businesses and brands.” Perhaps Forbes’s themes are merely fanciful. Or Forbes’s intent of self-made is an abstraction, away from meaning someone who built a fortune without any help from others. Interestingly, its 2018 list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women was publicly scrutinised for including socialist and cosmetic mogul, Kylie Jenner, who already had an influential status as part of the Jenner-Kardashian clan negated the notion of a self-made individual. Forbes, in response, set its explanation of “self-made” as someone who built a fortune on her own, rather than inheriting some or all of it. No surprise that Forbes eventually redacted Jenner’s billionaire status when it was found that she inflated the size of her business so as to be listed on its 2018 list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women.

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In this age of sensationalism, the notion of “self-made” further pushes negative age-related stereotypes for young adults. Within the African context, there are already several limiting factors for young people to set milestones such as the ricocheting effect of bad governance where policy makers create policies that limit structural growth. To paint a picture in an African context, imagine a parent who constantly compares a child to their contemporaries with phrases such as, “Look at what your mates are doing,” or “Do these people have two heads?” To use colloquial terms, the pressure gets wesser.

Ultimately, success is not age-bound, and one does not necessarily have to be in one’s twenties. Of course, being ambitious has its benefits, but there’s also an “unfair advantage” that puts one in a privileged position. In our chat, Rosalia Nghitalesheni Joseph talked about how being ambitious prompts her to take advantage of every situation and make it work. “Undoubtedly, I have had people who contributed to my upbringing and career trajectory, but what made me and continues to sustain me is passion and ambition. I have had to feel the sting of defeat once upon a time, but I knew where I came from and that I had a better place to get to if only I allowed the sting to mold me… I dared to be different, contrary to what was expected of a young black lady to assume a career; that is my self-made career,” Joseph shares, encouraging perseverance. The take-home here is, as much as young success is aspirational, take every public exaltation with a grain of salt.


Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.

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