Top 10 Female Founder Unicorns

Meet the female founders busting the myth that women don't belong in the billion-dollar-valuation club.

By Lisa Calhoun (General Partner, Valor Ventures)

This story first appeared on Inc.com. Unicorns: that rare breed of startup with a valuation of a billion dollars or more. The unicorn startup moniker is courtesy of venture capitalist Aileen Lee at Cowboy Ventures. Once she named it, a 10-figure valuation became the sacred quest for many founders.

Hunting Female Unicorns

Fortune calls unicorn companies "the world's most exclusive boy's club." However, having a female founder is more and more associated with top competitive performance. These founders are busting the myth that women don't belong in the unicorn club:

10. Michelle Zatlyn of CloudFlare

CloudFlare was created in 2009 by Michelle, Matthew Prince, and Lee Holloway. Michelle's advice is, "If you’re constantly kind of making sure you’re making progress forward, don't over-optimize along the way. You’ll end up in a much better place. Also, if you decide when you’re 20 what you want, you can miss out on opportunities, being too heads down and focused on this path. I wish someone had told me that it’s OK if your path is more windy--embrace that and use it to your advantage."

9. Alexandra Wilkis-Wilson of The Gilt Groupe

Alexandra created Gilt Groupe with co-founder Alexis Maybank. Alexandra says, "We liked the name Gilt because there’s a play on words with guilty pleasures--shopping is notoriously a guilty pleasure--and it also implied the Gilded Age and the sense of luxury covered in gold. When we started, we were an itty-bitty startup, and we thought Groupe made us sound established. We like the 'e' at the end of the word just to make it seem a little more French and luxurious…a little je ne sais quoi!"

8. Holly Liu of Kabam

Holly is co-founder at Kabam, which creates massively multiplayer (and massively popular) social games. She's proud of growing the company from $0 to $400 million in 2014, which led to Kabam's valuation of $1 billion last year. She also led the design for Kabam's Kingdoms of Camelot, which grossed a quarter of a billion dollars in less than four years. "I decided that this was the thing I was going to go big on--all-in on. I was going to make sure I did everything in my power to make sure this product was a success." Her advice to founders is, "It's 95 percent executive and 5 percent idea." She also shares that finding a co-founder team is the most important item in your early control. She says go for a hacker, a hustler, and a designer. Learn more about her successful startup recipe here.

7. Anne Wojcicki of 23 & Me

Founded by Anne and Linda Avey, 23 & Me helps people learn what they're made of and where their ancestry hails from. Anne says, "I still meet old-school scientists who are like, ‘Oh honey, women aren’t good at science.’ You kind of dismiss them as insane." What she focuses on are her customers. "People want to see a cure," she says. "And cures don't magically appear. Cures come from pharma and biotech. And so part of what I think we can do is by making sure that the consumer really is at the forefront, that they are informed, that they know what's going on."

6. Lesley Eccles of Fanduel

Lesley and her husband Nigel met as students at Britain's University of St. Andrews. They combined talents with Tom Griffiths to build the Fanduel platform for one-day fantasy sports. Lesley says her biggest dream is, "that daily fantasy sports becomes the de-facto standard way of playing fantasy sports for those 30 million players." She wants you to know that as a founder, "Most of the things that you do won’t work. It will feel like you’re running one marathon after another but never getting there. The biggest challenge is just to keep going, to keep having faith, and to keep believing in your team and your product."

5. Sarah Leary of Nextdoor

Founded by Sarah and Nirav Tolia and Prakash Janakiraman, Nextdoor is a social networking site for neighbors designed to make communities safer and more cohesive. She a veteran of the tech industry with some perspective under her belt--or blouse as the case may be. "Early on, when I looked at tech, I looked at it as a meritocracy.... I certainly saw that at Microsoft, where I worked from the early to late ’90s, and that has continued for most of my career. That being said, it’s hard not to look at the data and just realize there is a point in people’s careers at which a lot of people drop out. And that, to me, is disappointing. You look at the data--fewer than 10 percent of all co-founders are women in Silicon Valley, and fewer than 5 percent of the venture capitalists are women. You just see this time and time again, that the data are suggesting that women aren’t getting far enough."

4. Amy Pressman of Medallia

With a valuation of $1.25 billion, Amy founded Medallia with her husband Borge Hald. They met in class at Stanford and both share a Boston Consulting group background. Medallia is a customer experience management platform that extends a brand experience to mobile. Here's an interview in which Amy tells Doug Leone from Sequoia, one of Medallia's key investors, how to extract value from your investors. Leone says, "Backing a husband and wife team was a little unnerving at first, and we took each other out to dinner a couple times." Amy replies, "Honestly, I think you need good communication in any management team--and in any marriage."

3. Julia Hartz of Eventbrite

Julia and her husband Kevin met at a friend's wedding. Not long after, they founded Eventbrite. They saw the power of events bringing people together. Enough said. For a recap of what Julia says helps them scale from startup to star, see my previous article on Inc.com.

2. Adi Tatarko of Houzz

Adi Tatarko and her husband Alon Cohen were inspired by the three years of struggles remodeling their ranch house. With a $2.3 billion valuation, their platform allows you to own your renovation project and find the resources you need. Want to see how they see home remodeling? Their visions are visible on Houzz at the ideabooks tagged Adi and Alon.

1. Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos

Valued at $9 billion, Theranos aims to reinvent health care, starting with affordable blood tests. Elizabeth recently told The New Yorker how it started: "I got to a point where I was enrolled in all these courses [at Stanford University], and my parents were spending all this money, and I wasn't going to any of them," she said. "I was doing this full time." So she dropped out of Stanford. Her parents let her use her tuition money as seed capital. Not long after, she was able to recruit her dean away from Stanford to help her start the company. You can learn more about Elizabeth here, in an Inc.com article by Larry Kim.

How do You Find Female Unicorns?

The old way to find a unicorn was to send a virgin woman to capture it. This article didn't rely on that method. Valor Ventures, my company, tracks top performing female founders to baseline our first fund, which invests in startups with female founders. (Recently, we reported on the top venture-backed female founders.) This analysis dug further into the data on women who've earned the mythical unicorn moniker. The subject of women in venture is not well tracked, so it's easy to leave someone out or make a mistake despite the best of intentions. Plus, the list is a moving target as more women join the club or some members exit. Sunrun's IPO this month, for example, took Lynn Jurich out of the list of top female unicorns. Please feel free to call out clarifications in comments; they are welcome. Valor's findings rely on Pitchbook data correlated with Crunchbase, which recently began tracking gender in founding teams. Pitchbook's data and their diligent team are invaluable for finding dynamic venture trends like this one.


About the guest blogger: Lisa Calhoun is general partner at Valor Ventures. She is the author of How You Rule the World and runs the online magazine FemaleEntrepreneurs as well as Female Founder meetups through the Southeast. She founded Write2Market, a tech public relations firm that ranks in the Top 10 agencies for startups in the country. Hobbies include golf, running and Dutch. @Lisa_Calhoun.