In 2013, Aileen Lee coined the term “unicorn” in a TechCrunch article to describe startups valued at $1 billion. That same year, Statista revealed only four female unicorn companies emerged. As of 2019, that number changed to 21. This means the number of women leading billion-dollar startups increased by 400 percent in six years.
While this shows progress, female entrepreneurs still face significant challenges as they launch their companies. For example, successfully gaining venture capital is rare for white women and nearly impossible for women of color. Crunchbase found in 2020, only 2.3 percent of female-founded startups receive support from VCs. As reported by USA Today, out of the $276.7 billion venture capital investment funds available, Latino women and black women received 0.64 percent combined.
As Maddy Cross from Notion Capital explains to Sifted, “There are so few female role models that it can be tricky to understand how to forge the path into leadership.”
It’s difficult to blaze a trail when you’re staring at a jungle.
However, it can be done.
In this article:
- Meet the changemakers who launched female-led unicorn companies and challenged the status quo every step of the way.
- Learn how these female founders established their businesses.
- And receive guidance on how to set your business up for the highest level of success using their example.
Founder: Emily Weiss
Valuation: $1.8 billion
Emily Weiss, the founder of the beauty industry unicorn Glossier, is a great example of how to grow a business by establishing a community and letting them test your minimum viable product (MVP).
In 2010, she began building herself up as an authority with her beauty blog “Into the Gloss.” She grew her following for four years before ever launching a product.
By 2013, Weiss was seeking funding to grow a company. Out of the 12 venture capital firms she met with, 11 turned her down. Ultimately, an investor named Kirsten Green (Forerunner Ventures) gave her a shot, writing Weiss a check for the 1 million dollars she needed to begin Glossier.
The following year, Glossier launched four products. Instead of aggressively tackling every aspect of the beauty industry, Weiss focused on developing her core offering first. Once she perfected these products, she ventured into different types of makeup, skincare, perfume, and merchandise.
Intothegloss.com, Weiss’s blog, is still one of the top ways the company connects with its target audience and tests ideas. As Alison Gaither, a beauty analyst, tells CNBC, “Glossier is so successful because they leverage Intothegloss.com and their various social media channels to truly make products for their audience . . . [it] is essentially Glossier’s focus group, and they can find out exactly what their followers want by simply asking, ‘what is your favorite scent?’”
To model Weiss’s startup success:
- Get to know your target audience. Take time creating a community before you begin pushing people to buy your products.
- Focus on quality over quality. With an MVP, launch the first iteration, get feedback, and continue refining that specific product until you perfect it.
- Market alongside the customer instead of at the customer. As Weiss says in an interview for Recode Decode, “At Glossier, something we’ve always stayed very true to, since pre-launch, day one, is that every single person is an influencer.” Glossier features user-generated content on their website and social media channels. This makes the brand feel more community-driven, authentic, and personal.
Founder: Melanie Perkins
Valuation: $40 billion
Melanie Perkins is another excellent example of a leader that women interested in owning female-led unicorn companies should model. Like Weiss, Perkins didn’t immediately jump into the deep end of leading a multi-billion dollar company. She first got her feet wet by starting a yearbook design and publishing company with her now-husband, Cliff Obrecht.
In 2013, Perkins, Obrecht, and Cameron Adams launched Canva, a full-scale design platform that made the creation of high-quality digital designs available to everyone. Above all, Canva is a company designed to solve real-world problems. Perkins tells Entrepreneur, “Solve a real problem that many people experience. If you find a problem that people care about, then it will make every other aspect of running a business much easier.”
Her laser-sharp focus on creating a seamless user experience for those intimidated or frustrated with the process of learning graphic design worked. According to TechCrunch, as of 2021, the unicorn has 60 million monthly users in 190 countries with a valuation of $40 billion.
To become a leader like Perkins:
- Be open to feedback and remain resilient. She and Obrecht were rejected over 100 times when seeking capital. Perkins kept refining her pitch deck and communication skills to better explain how Canva would innovate the graphic design industry.
- Have the mindset of a winner. Perkins refused to accept “no” as an answer despite the constant rejection. She even took up kitesurfing when she realized it would help her establish better connections with potential investors.
- Make purpose the focal point of the business. Canva is a purpose-driven company. Aside from solving a huge real-world problem for their customers, the business’s leaders are committed to using their revenue to solve some of the world’s greatest issues. In 2021, Perkins and Obrecht vowed they would give $30 billion dollars to fight extreme poverty. They also provide teachers and non-profit organizations premium services for free.
Founder: Tessa Wijaya
Valuation: $1 billion
In September 2021, Indonesia-native Tessa Wijaya’s fintech company Xendit reached unicorn status. Like Perkins, Wijaya’s business idea came from the desire to solve a real-world problem. Her story also demonstrates the importance of having a strong identity, an extreme amount of self-belief, and a lot of passion.
Early in her career, Wijaya gained a position as an analyst at a private equity firm in Jakarta without any experience. During the interview, she displayed a strong mentality that earned her the job. Because many of her colleagues had Ivy League degrees, she automatically became the company underdog. Even worse, she tells CNBC that one of her managers discriminated against her and would completely ignore her when she was speaking.
But Wijaya is a fighter. She studied her craft, consuming as much knowledge about the financial industry as possible. Over time, she became a key player in Southeast Asia’s world of finance.
In 2015, she launched Xendit after noticing a gap between eCommerce and ride-hailing services in Southeast Asia. As of 2021, the company has raised 150 million dollars and quickly become one of the biggest payment platforms in Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries in Southeast Asia.
To demonstrate the leadership traits of Wijaya:
- Find your passion and let it motivate you. This female founder spent many long years studying the world of finance after work. Because she had such a deep passion and love for what she does, seeking knowledge and learning wasn’t a burden to her.
- Look for opportunities. The running theme of successful female unicorn companies is their founder’s ability to notice opportunities that no one else sees or takes. Think about where there are gaps in your industry. What is missing? How can it improve? What can you do to solve people’s real-life problems?
- Take action and change the narrative. As a leader, Wijaya is all about paying it forward and mentoring women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). She realizes that one of the biggest reasons there are few female-founded startups in tech is due to the lack of mentorship. Her mission is to change this—and she is. Almost half of her team members are women. Because she’s pouring herself into a group of women in tech, these people will be able to do the same for other women, creating an infinite cycle of great female leaders in the technology sector.
Founder: Lucy Liu
Valuation: $4 billion
The co-founder of Airwallex, another fintech payment platform, is a great reference for female startup owners interested in practicing strengths-based leadership. Like the other businesses referenced, Airwallex solves a real-world problem. The company exists to combat unreasonable bank fees when importing goods from overseas.
It was an issue that Jack Zhang and Max Li, two of the co-founders, faced when purchasing cups for their coffee shop. The duo consulted with Lucy Liu, and another friend from college, Xijing Dai, to build a company that could eliminate this issue for other business owners.
Each individual on the team brought forth a different strength to ensure the organization successfully launched. While her co-founders brought expertise in coding, engineering, and machine learning to the table, Liu’s top abilities were related to finance.
She further explains to StartupSmart, “I’m very happy to represent women in the tech industry. But what I stay away from is making it a label . . . It’s just how you play to your strengths. I have other co-founders, and we complement each other in different ways.”
Since the business launched in 2016, her team of strengths-based leaders has experienced incredible success. In 2021, the company reported a “165% YoY revenue increase, with annualized revenue exceeding US $100 million.”
To run a startup like Liu:
- Know your strengths and actively develop them. She didn’t become one of the best female-led unicorn leaders overnight. Liu worked in the corporate world as an investment consultant and director of an investment firm, gaining the years of experience and the knowledge she needed to help lead Airwallex to success. Liu also has a master’s degree in finance from the University of Melbourne.
- Stay humble. In interviews, Liu always credits her team for the accomplishments they’ve achieved together. She’s extremely careful about accepting acclaim without first recognizing how others have helped make these achievements possible.
- Don’t try to go at it alone. The founders of Airwallex worked together to reduce costs for business owners importing goods by as much as 90 percent. This isn’t exactly an easy problem to solve. It took the expertise of four extremely talented individuals and a strong attitude of teamwork to make Airwallex a reality.
Founder: Sarah Leary
Valuation: $4.3 billion
Sarah Leary is one of the co-founders of Nextdoor, an app that connects people to their neighbors. Like the first entrepreneur listed, Emily Weiss, Leary is a great model for building a consumer-centric company focused on cultivating a strong community of users.
In 2010, the Harvard MBA graduate and former Microsoft employee founded the digital sports platform Fanbase with her business partner Nirav Tolia. As the two received additional funding to grow the website, they realized they needed to expand their vision.
To do this, Leary and Tolia would meet every day at 10:00 a.m. and brainstorm creative ideas. They would spend the next 24 hours thinking about if the concepts were viable and would work in the real world. Eventually, they came up with the idea for Nextdoor after recognizing an issue with the disconnect people felt with their neighbors.
When it comes to growing a business, Leary says you must immerse yourself in the problem you’re solving. As she tells Marie Claire, “We did lots of non-scalable things first, like physically visiting neighborhoods, so that we could figure out what works before we could build a more elegant and scalable solution. True innovative solutions come from those hands-on, non-scaleable experiences.”
As of 2021, the company has over 10 million users in 116,000 neighborhoods across the United States.
To follow in Leary’s footsteps:
- Experiment with your ideas. As Leary states in a speech captured by Greylock, “You need to have a hypothesis and be willing to test really crazy things . . . That’s actually how I think you come up with innovative ideas—being willing to test things, do it as cheaply as possible, and figure out what’s working and what’s not working for your product.”
- Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. The great thing about the Nextdoor app is that it gives an age-old concept—neighborliness—a modern platform. It shows you don’t need a wild idea to capture people’s attention in your industry.
- Invest in other entrepreneurs when you have the opportunity to. In 2019, Leary stepped down from her role as Vice President of Global Marketing and Operations. However, she still serves as a board observer for Nextdoor. As of 2021, she is a venture partner at Unusual Ventures, providing entrepreneurs with the same opportunities she received when raising capital for her businesses.
How to Set Yourself Up to Become the Next Female-Led Unicorn
While there are still areas of progress to address, these five women prove owning a female unicorn company isn’t a pipe dream. Though the path isn’t well-traveled, one is starting to emerge—and it’s changing venture capitalists’ minds regarding the value of women’s startups.
After all, dismissing someone like Melanie Perkins would be a 40 billion dollar mistake.
If you’re interested in continuing to blaze the trail, the best thing you can do is get a mentor who will guide you in building a successful company. A report from SCORE found that spending five or more hours with a mentor increases your chances at business success. While it is great to have a female mentor by your side, the study found that success doesn’t depend on the mentor’s gender.
“Be a sponge and absorb as much information as possible from as many people as possible,” advises Kathleen Henson Sarpy, the founder of Agency H5.
More importantly, when you become a leader at your business, make sure you follow Wijaya’s (the founder of Xendit) example. Make it a point to grow your leadership qualities. Then, pay it forward by pouring into your team just as much as others have into you.
When you do this, you might see a unicorn.