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99 Innovators Forbes Forgot and The Apologies

The Forbes 100 list of innovators with only 1 woman named elicited a collective WTF moment this week. The added rub, one of the men behind the list ranking methodology is slated to lead a workshop at Harvest Summit next month to help our invited delegate leaders rank their own Innovator’s DNA. Buckle up and read on. 


First, shout out to our community of innovators who quickly threw a flag on the field and issued their own lists. Here’s just one example:

Claire Diaz-Ortiz (@claire) was part of our founding Harvest Summit program and is considered one of the most innovative female voices in digital media today. As an author, speaker, angel investor, and innovation advisor, she was named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company. A list we can get behind.


Second, 46 female CEOs sent a letter in response to Forbes’ list and that letter was written by journalist Diana Kapp. 

We were in touch with Diana before all of this started and wanted to add her to our Harvest Summit program but the dates of Harvest Summit (Oct 17 & 18) conflict with her book tour for Girls Who Run The World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business. (Bummer for us, great book tour line up for her. Help a girl out and get your copy)

Diana’s letter signed by 46 CEOs calls on the magazine to “overhaul the criteria that determines who makes the cut.” Here’s where you can view the entire letter. Excerpt:

We reached out to Diana for comment and here’s what she said:

“The one good thing about such extreme tone-deafness on the part of Forbes is that it incited a mass backlash.

The viral social world has lit up with #innovationforall and alternate lists of outrage funny, cynical, and serious.

The List was such a gut-punch for me because I have spent the last 18 months writing a book for teen girls to inspire them to grow up EXPECTING to be CEOs. A collection of profiles of female entrepreneurs. 

What would my teen daughter, and her friends, think when they saw such a list, which they did? How does this inspire them to think anything is possible for them? 

I really believe we are going to change gender dynamics by raising up girls who refuse the status quo. Too many girls don’t believe they can lead. And invent. And run powerful organizations and businesses. 

The dialogue we need to have now is about structures that need to change. And methodologies for creating such lists. But even more, I think, about how we raise confident girls. Girls can’t be what they can’t see. I hope my book is going to help change that.

This List is a harsh reminder of how badly we need to spotlight and elevate badass female entrepreneurs—they are out there.

Thanks for doing this!” 

For CEOs who would like to sign on to the letter contact Diana at

Forbes, to its credit, issued a mea culpa, with editor-in-chief Randall Lane tweeting, “We blew it,” and vowing to establish a task force to ensure such an occurrence doesn’t happen again.


Now here’s the added rub. Slated to lead a workshop at Harvest Summit is Curtis Lefrandt of Innovator’s DNA. He’s one of the men behind the list ranking methodology. (We’ve included parts of the methodology below after our own unmethodologically sound list of top 99 women innovators and 1 man).

Per Forbes:

Business school professors Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr and Mike Hendron teamed up with consultant Curtis Lefrandt to measure four essential leadership qualities of top founders and CEOs: media reputation for innovation, social connections, track record for value creation and investor expectations for value creation. The researchers then ranked these visionaries in a high-powered selection of 100 innovators at top U.S. companies.”

As you can imagine, we reached out to Curtis. Is the methodology to blame or is it the editorial reasoning to go ahead and publish the resulting male-only list?

Here’s the crux as shared in the Forbes apology letter:

This pool ultimately proved the problem: Women, as we all know, are poorly represented at the top of the largest corporations (just 5% of the S&P 500) and fare even worse among growing public tech companies. In other words, for all our carefully calibrated methodology, women never had much of a chance here.


So what about the men behind the methodology? What did they have to say? Here’s the apology Nathan Furr sent to Diana and gave us permission to share:


Thank you so much for writing this letter.

I completely agree with you. 

Most of all I want to express how truly sorry I am that we created a list that reinforced an underlying structural problem … far too few women at the head of S&P 500 companies, particularly tech companies. As academics we were too slavish to the quantitative methodology and I agree, there are other methods to make a far better list that more appropriately honors how women leaders create immense value in the world.

It’s true that we are working on a list of women leaders, in partnership with a global women’s equity fund, and I would be eager to be involved in such a project to atone for this terrible mistake, but I also understand how it might be more appropriate for others to create the list.

One hope I have is that this mistake we made can be the start of a conversation both about innovative women leaders but also about changing the underlying structural problem that led to such an outcome in the first place: we need more women leading S&P 500 companies.

Thank you for your work. It is important for changing the world. I am sorry our work detracted from this effort.”

There you have it. 


September 14, 2019

We appreciate the feedback, criticism, and response that we have received since publishing our Forbes list of America’s Most Innovative Leaders, including the open letter to Forbes from Diana Kapp and many others. We completely agree with the concerns that have been raised and want to express how truly sorry we are that we created and published a list that reinforced a critical problem: far too few women occupy the head of S&P 500 companies today, especially within tech companies. In setting out to create this list, we did not intend to discriminate against women, but as academics we were too slavish to a quantitative methodology and failed to see the full ramifications of promoting a list with such clear inequity.

In hindsight, it was a glaring mistake to base the list on S&P 500 companies, where only 5% of CEOs are women. Many of your responses highlighted different methods or criteria that we could have used in making this list and we agree that these would far more appropriately honor how women leaders create immense value in the world. Some have asked about a list of innovative women leaders, and it is true we are working on a list, in partnership with a global women’s equity fund, and we are eager to be involved in such a project to atone for this mistake, but we also understand how it might be more appropriate for others to create the list.

We do want to make it clear that women are responsible for incredible innovation and progress and we highlight some of these examples in our recent book Innovation Capital. We describe women innovators like Indra Nooyi, (former CEO of PepsiCo), Gwynne Shotwell (head of SpaceX), Robin Chase (founder and former CEO of ZipCar), Leah Busque (founder of TaskRabbit), Kate O’Keeffe, creator of Cisco’s CHILL innovation lab, Mary Lombardo, former head of innovation at United Technologies Corp, and others.  Indeed, Ms. Nooyi ranked #20 on the list in our book and Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelez also ranked in the top 50 (Forbes only allowed current CEOs on the list published with them so Nooyi and Rosenfeld were dropped).

One hope we have is that we can take this mistake and use it as an opportunity to challenge the status quo and to ask ourselves why this inequity exists. What are we missing by having men dominate the positions of leadership? And most importantly, what can we do to disrupt and upend the underlying social structure that led to this outcome in the first place: we need more women at the helm of our organizations the world over.

Thank you again to all those that have helped us reflect, rethink, and revise our research. Your work and your perspective is invaluable and is changing the world. We are sorry we detracted from this effort and promise to do better going forward.


Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr, Mike Hendron, Curtis Lefrandt


Here at Harvest Summit we always have a bias for action, so here is what we have done to turn talk into meaningful traction:

  1. We created our own list of 100 innovators (99 women and 1 man) in collaboration with our board of advisors (7 women and 4 men btw).
  2. We’re offering the innovators on our list below a complimentary invitation to our Innovation Field Trip Oct 17 & 18 where we hold unplugged conversations on everything from AI, Climate Change and Blockchain to Education, Food Systems and Corporate Entrepreneurship. (Tag, flag and alert them they’re invited. Apply to attend at
  3. We asked ourselves, “Is our program representative?”


Our co-founder and Chief Harvester Jessica Kilcullen:

“It’s astounding they actually decided to publish the list. It underscores there is much work to do and these conversations must happen. In founding Harvest Summit, we considered making it women only. But in the interest of inclusion and innovation for all, we decided to invite both men AND women leaders outstanding in their fields to elevate the state of the art of innovation and explore a future of possible. We intentionally convene a diverse set of leaders at our cross industry, cross functional field trip in Sonoma County. The collision of minds that leads to unexpected ideas, where innovation happens, doesn’t discriminate. A list of top 100 innovators needs to reflect that.”

Our co-founder and former magazine publisher, John Kilcullen:

“I get it. Lists are part of the media ecosystem and are popular brand extensions. But it’s paramount publishers understand the stakes. It’s clear that a group of smart media execs and talented academics blew this one big time. The larger question is: why wasn’t a hand raised to object?” 

Innovation expert and Harvest Summit Board member Val Wright:

There just aren’t women out there” is a ridiculous defensive excuse. “It is the pool’s fault. I can’t help it if there aren’t enough women CEOs.” 

If the pool is the problem – go back and ask yourself what exactly are we trying to achieve identifying the top innovators and how can we best do that? It is like the lazy answer to why companies don’t hire more diversity of any kind. We can’t get the applicants, we don’t think they are out there, it’s not my fault it is the pool of available people.

I am not buying it.

What this list shows is that even when some of the smartest brains get together to create a showcase of brilliant minds, common sense does not always prevail.

Of course now everyone can see producing a list of top innovators with more men called Stanley than women on it is preposterous, but no-one in the creators or publishing side of this report saw it or had a loud enough voice to air it before it woke up the internet this week.”

The question now for executives everywhere is where does this show up in your company and what can you do about it?


Here’s our own UNmethodologically sound list in no particular order.

(And if anyone on this list wants to attend Harvest Summit next month, your ticket is on us!)


  1. Greta Thunberg
  2. Melinda Gates
  3. Michelle Obama
  4. Lisa Jackson
  5. Jane Goodall
  6. Gwynne Shotwell
  7. Beth Comstock
  8. Katharine Mach
  9. Jean Case
  10. Joy Buolamwini
  11. Katrina Lake
  12. Ava DuVernay
  13. Reese Witherspoon
  14. Oprah Winfrey
  15. Shonda Rhimes
  16. Beth Ford
  17. Ellen Agler
  18. Tricia Griffith
  19. Amy Wilkinson
  20. Sara Blakely 
  21. Arlan Hamilton
  22. Aileen Lee
  23. Arianna Huffington
  24. Elizabeth Gore
  25. Ellen Pao
  26. Serena Williams
  27. Laurene Powell Jobs
  28. Kara Swisher
  29. Anne Wojcicki
  30. Susan Wojcicki
  31. Esther Wojcicki
  32. Mellody Hobson
  33. Sallie Krawcheck
  34. Adriana Gascoigne
  35. Brene Brown
  36. Priyanka Chopra
  37. Lisa Ling
  38. Angela Ahrendts
  39. Andrea Jung
  40. Laura J. Alber
  41. Michele Buck
  42. Safra A. Catz
  43. Mary Barra
  44. Michelle D. Gass
  45. Fei-Fei Li 
  46. Indra Nooyi
  47. Beyoncé Knowles
  48. Taylor Swift
  49. Rihanna
  50. Lady GaGa
  51. Adi Tatarko
  52. Janet Yellen
  53. Beth Hoppe
  54. Jen Boswinkel
  55. Gail K. Boudreaux
  56. Anita Hill
  57. Tory Burch
  58. Belinda Johnson
  59. Dina Powell
  60. Whitney Johnson
  61. Kara Goldin
  62. Ellen DeGeneres
  63. Margo Georgiadis
  64. Julia Hartz
  65. Wayee Chu
  66. Carolyn Tastad
  67. Rachel Holt
  68. Ruth Porat
  69. Dawn Lippert
  70. Tami Erwin
  71. Janet Foutty
  72.  Kate Johnson
  73. Margaret Keane
  74. Liz O’Neill
  75. Kelly Bengston
  76. Teri List-Stoll
  77. Jill Woodworth
  78. Lisa Damour
  79. Julia Collins
  80. Victoria Medvec
  81. General Maryanne Miller
  82. Susan Schwab
  83. Jennifer Hyman 
  84. Samantha Skey
  85. Kate O’Keeffe
  86. Priscilla Chan
  87. Kathy Fish
  88. Kerstin Forsberg
  89. Kirsten Green
  90. Lynn Good
  91. Kathleen Kennedy
  92. Belinda Johnson
  93. Dana Walden
  94. Katharine Viner
  95. Anna Wintour
  96. Bonnie Hammer
  97. Amy Hood
  98. reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
  99. Malala Yousafzai
  100. Elon Musk

THE METHODOLOGY (as published on Forbes)

Since we couldn’t rank every leader, our sample of leaders includes the founders or CEOs (or CEOs who have become chairman of the board within the past year) of essentially the same sample of firms ranked in the Most Innovative Companies: (a) U.S. firms with greater than $10 billion market value, (b) the 50 largest private U.S. firms to go public over the past five years and (c) other U.S. firms within the top 100 companies on our most recent Forbes Most Innovative Growth Companies list.  This list is currently focused on U.S. companies because our measures of media reputation for innovation and social capital were only available for leaders of U.S. companies. CEOs of firms in regulated industries (such as utilities, defense contractors, finance/banking/real estate) were not included, consistent with the Most Innovative Companies list. We co-ranked leaders of firms when there were cofounders of the firm who were both in visible top management positions (for example, the founders of Alphabet/Google are CEO Larry Page and President Sergei Brin; founders of Regeneron are CEO Leonard Schleifer and President and Chief Science Officer George Yancopoulos). We felt it appropriate to co-rank these individuals because their scores were identical on firm-level measures.

We do not rank CEOs of companies that have been acquired or who are CEOs of subsidiaries or divisions of larger companies, since stock price and innovation premium data can only be calculated for an entire firm. This explains why leaders such as Susan Wojcicki, head of YouTube (part of Alphabet), and Jeff Weiner, head of LinkedIn (part of Microsoft) are not included in our list. Because having financial and stock market data is essential, leaders of privately held companies also could not be ranked, such as SpaceX head Gwynne Shotwell or Cargill CEO David MacLennan.

We believe that a leader’s ability to successfully drive innovation largely boils down to something we call innovation capital, a multifaceted set of characteristics that allows the leader to acquire and effectively deploy the human and financial resources required to take a risky and novel idea and turn it into an innovation with impact. These individuals have innovation leadership skills which are difficult to measure and thus are not a component of our ranking. 

However, we were able to create a composite measure from four factors that we believe represent important qualities of an innovative leader. They are the leader’s (1) media reputation for innovation, (2) social connections/social capital related to innovation, (3) track record of market value creation at the company they lead, and (4) investor expectations of future growth and innovation at their firm, as represented by the company’s innovation premium (the same metric we use to rank Forbes Most Innovative Companies).


Published in Blog

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