Topical Focus: Dispelling the Myth – The Female-Founded Unicorn

Following on from a record-breaking 2019, female-founded unicorns continue to represent a growing phenomenon across the US. 
Despite a challenging business environment, we take a look at five such success stories

Writer: Phoebe Harper


No longer such an elusive mythological creature in the world of business, the number of female-founded unicorns across the US is growing. This widely used term connotes privately held start-up companies that are valued at more than $1 billion, with some of the world’s most famous examples including Airbnb and SpaceX.

A 2020 report from Fundera showed that across North America, 40 percent of businesses are women-owned. As of last year, this numbered some 12.3 million enterprises. In terms of private sector revenue, businesses run by women produce $1.8 trillion a year, according to the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. Although a relatively minimal proportion of the overall private sector annual revenue, this elucidates the potential that women-owned businesses have to influence the economy. Between 1997 and 2007 alone, women-owned businesses accounted for the creation of half a million jobs across the US. 

Yet according to corporate venture development firm Bundl, women-led companies receive less than two percent overall funding in venture capital, further contributing to the already challenging environment of launching a start-up. Indeed, female entrepreneurs receive just seven percent of venture funds for their start-ups.

Nevertheless, compared to 20 years ago, the number of female entrepreneurs in the US in 2020 has shown explosive growth, expanding by a staggering 114 percent. Whilst this might be considered a heartening and empowering statistic, there is a dark side to this figure, as research has shown that this is linked to the gender discrimination and unforgiving routine of managing full time work and childrearing that many women experience in a traditional workplace. This explains the appeal of independent entrepreneurship, leading to the coining of the term ‘necessity entrepreneurship’ by the National Women’s Business Council.

Data from Crunchbase shows that in 2019, 21 start-ups founded or co-founded by female entrepreneurs went on to achieve unicorn status, compared to 15 in 2018. As this growing movement develops from the odd rogue figure to a herd, we anticipate a full-blown stampede. Here’s our selection of five US based, female-founded unicorns that are worth keeping an eye on.

1. Possip
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FOUNDER: Shani Dowell 
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CATEGORY: Technology
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Dowell is founder and CEO of Possip - an EdTech platform dedicated to connecting schools and the families of their students. Dowell first gained recognition in 2019 for being the first black woman in Tennessee to raise more than $1 million in venture funding in a financial climate where just 0.006 percent of venture funding is allocated to companies led by black women.

2. Cloudflare
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FOUNDER: Michelle Zatlyn 
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CATEGORY: Technology
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Zatlyn established web-performance and internet security company Cloudflare in 2009, following a career working for tech titans including Google and Toshiba. Now a household name in the tech sphere, Cloudflare secures all external-facing online digital resources and is the defining platform for globally-scalable applications.

3. Medallia
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FOUNDER: Amy Pressman
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CATEGORY: Technology
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Pressman co-founded award-winning software-as-a-service (Saas) cloud platform Medallia in 2001, following a successful career including consultancy work at the Boston Consultancy Group and working as a Legislative Aide on Capitol Hill. Leveraging the technological possibilities of IoT and AI, Medallia delivers crucial personalized and predictive insights, enabling pioneering experience management on behalf of businesses worldwide.

4. Glossier
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FOUNDER: Emily Weiss  
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CATEGORY: Retail
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Founded in 2014, Weiss is the name and CEO behind world-renowned beauty start-up Glossier. As a direct-to-consumer beauty company, in 2019, the brand hit a $12 billion valuation which is reflective of the cult following that the brand has amassed.

5. Away
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FOUNDER: Jennifer Rubio 
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CATEGORY: Retail
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Another retail success story, Rubio is the co-founder, President and CEO behind world-leading luggage manufacturer, Away. The company reached a valuation of $1.4 billion in 2019, thanks to its range of popular travel products and the brand’s innovative online marketing strategy catering to modern travellers.