Today’s Unicorn Companies: Where Are The Women?

Today’s Unicorn Companies:

Where Are The Women?

Various cultures have come to recognize the one-horned mythical animal as symbolic of high social rank. But in today’s world of startups, the chances of achieving unicorn status–about 1 in 5 million–is no easy feat. In fact, the typical venture capitalist meets with 1,000 new companies a year and funds only two of them. “For every 10,000 startups that get funding, only one becomes a unicorn, the venture capital slang for a startup valued at $1 billion or more,” says Peter S. Cohan, of Peter S. Cohan & Associates.

As rare as unicorns are there’s something even rarer when it comes to business: a billion-dollar, woman-led venture. Of the 84 so-called “unicorn US companies,” only two have women CEOs, according to analysis published by TechCrunch.  Additionally, only 2.4 percent of all startups have female CEOs and only 4.6% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. For reference, the TechCrunch article looked at companies founded between 2005 and 2015 valued at a minimum of $1 billion.

“For every 10,000 startups that get funding, only one becomes a unicorn, the venture capital slang for a startup valued at $1 billion or more”

A systemic bias for male entrepreneurs that starts the instant someone gets an idea for a business is partly to blame. Not surprisingly, funding decision makers are typically male-95% of investors. According to a recent study by researchers at MIT, investors overwhelmingly prefer pitches by male entrepreneurs – even when the content of the pitches is the same.

The need to close the gender gap is not rooted in a sense of fairness;  it’s about achieving greatness. But, it’s becoming more clear that without greater female involvement, everyone loses.

There’s an obvious lack of women on the boards of unicorn companies. According to analysis by Fortune, 60 percent of the unicorns had all-male boards and none of the 55 companies included had more than one woman on their boards. Fortune also noted that among the startups with all-male boards were Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat and Tinder. Fortune reached out to all U.S.-based unicorns that have all-male boards. Only eight–JustFab, Lookout, Razer, Slack, Pluralsight, Pinterest, Snapchat and Legendary Entertainment–would speak on the record about the gender disparities in their businesses. Most stressed their commitment to diversity, but noted that early-stage startup boards tend to be composed of founders and investors-who are men.


To begin bridging the startup gender gap, more women must get onto company boards. If necessity is the mother of invention, then Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, a technology executive and entrepreneur, has a relevant solution: the #ChoosePossibility Project. Cassidy launched theBoardlist, the first initiative of the #ChoosePossibility Project, in July 2015. It’s designed as an online marketplace to connect CEOs looking for candidates with women who are peer-endorsed for private and public tech company boards.

When the site launched it included the names of over 600 women who had been endorsed by 50 investors and CEOs in the tech industry, from companies like Accel Partners, Twitter, Lyft, Greylock Partners and Box. And in October, 2015 theBoardlist announced its first placement of a woman (Karla Martin, director of global business strategy and strategic planning at Google) to the board of a private tech company.

Martin landed on theBoardlist via the recommendation of Core Ventures Group General Partner Joanna Earl, one of theBoardlist’s founding members. theBoardlist works by sourcing recommendations from its members, who are both male and female, to provide a platform for tech companies to discover and connect with board-ready women.

“Nearly 70 to 75 percent of tech companies – in Silicon Valley – have all-male boards,” says Justin Jarman, Co-Founder and President of theBoardlist. “One reason for that could be due, in part, to a discovery problem.” Jarman said that his network has traditionally given him access to a pool of male executives with board experience. According to the company’s mission statment “100% of tech company boards use gender diversity as an opportunity to realize greater company performance.”

Did You Know?

-90% of all unicorn founders attend just 3% of U.S. colleges and universities

-The most valuable U.S. unicorns are mostly founded by alumni from private institutions including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Yale.

-Stanford University boasts 38 current unicorn founder alumni, whereas Stanford Graduate School of Business boasts 10.

-Harvard University boasts 21 current unicorn founder alumni, whereas Harvard Business School boasts 9.

-University of California, Berkeley led all public institutions with 12 unicorn founder alumni.

-In 2015, 7 percent of female founders received venture capital.

-28% (or $.72 to the dollar) is the average gender pay gap for computer programmers- the biggest gender pay gap job in the tech industry.

-The average for the adjusted gender pay gap in the tech industry is 6 percent in the U.S., meaning women, on average, earn $.94 for every dollar that men earn.

-The proportion of women partners at venture capital firms has slowly declined from 10% in 1999 to 6% in 2016.

Stephen Doyle

"Steve Doyle, originally from Philadelphia, holds a B.A. Professional Writing from Penn State University. He's a blogger, short-story writer and has created several hundred marketing content pieces for clients such as: JC Ehrlich, Ambius, Henckels & McCoy, DDC Group, Burns Logistics Solutions, Inc., etc. Steve is an award-winning, highly skilled communicator who loves to help get others' stories told in as an engaging manner as possible."

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