Forbes 'Innovative Leaders' list sends a 'sinister message': Branding expert

Ameya Pendse

Last week, Forbes published a ranking of “America’s 100 Most Innovative Leaders.” The top spots weren’t much of a surprise — Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos tied for first. Also in the Top 10 were Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (No. 3), Salesforce’s Marc Benioff (No. 4), Microsoft’s Satya Nadella (No. 6) and Apple’s Tim Cook (No. 8) made the cut.

But readers had to scroll down to No. 75 to find the only woman on the list, Ross Stores CEO Barbara Rentler.

Sunny Bonnell, co-founder of branding firm Motto, told Yahoo Finance’s YFi AM this week that by not including more women on their list, Forbes sent a message to young women.

“This is just sending a message that we are less than, we are not equal, we don’t have the right qualities, we don’t have the right attributes, we’re too emotional,” Bonnell said. “And I think that’s just sending a sort of a sinister message to anyone that has those audacious dreams of becoming something.”

The oversight didn’t go unnoticed by others, either. Throughout the weekend, people took to social media to voice their concerns. “Not even a photo of Barbara Rentler,” one Twitter user pointed out.

The backlash finally led Forbes editor Randall Lane to tweet: “We blew it. Now we’re doing what journalists do: figuring out how this happened and learning from it.”

Jeff Bezos seen on day two of Summit LA17 in Downtown Los Angeles's Historic Broadway Theater District on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

While Lane’s mea culpa ended on a forward-thinking note, it set off even more frustration and anger at the publication.

“Blaming things that are beyond the control of the people who put it out, is I think quite ludicrous,” said Motto co-founder Ashleigh Hansberger. “It’s 2019, we should not be dealing with this in this country. We should not be questioning why are more women not in the forefront of our media, our business landscape, our political landscape. It’s time to change things.”

‘A rare breed’

The optics of this Forbes list still places women in the background, “sending a message that women are not good enough,” Hansberger told Yahoo Finance. She and Bonnell co-wrote the book “Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different.”

The title derives from the fact that female CEOs are a “rare breed,” Hansberger said. “There’s not a lot of women at the top, and that needs to change, first and foremost.”

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 12: Stitch Fix founder and CEO Katrina Lake (R) speaks onstage during Vanity Fair's Founders Fair at Spring Studios on April 12, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

Hansberger suggested some examples of women Forbes could have included, like Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake, Susan Wojcicki of YouTube, and her sister, Ann Wojcicki of 23andMe, who signed an open letter to Forbes after the release of the list. “There so many women innovators who should have made a list like this,” Hansberger said, “because they deserve it.”

Ameya Pendse is a producer for Yahoo Finance’s live show YFi AM.

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