Posted on
May 2, 2022
min read

What we can learn from female unicorn founders

Narine Davtyan
Narine Davtyan
Entrepreneur in Residence
Author Twitter

The path of owning a female unicorn company isn’t well-traveled, but it is one starting to emerge and change venture capitalists’ minds regarding the value of women’s startups. 

According to Crunchbase data, out of the total of 595 companies that made it to The Crunchbase Unicorn Board in 2021, 83 were founded or co-founded by women. This is more than 4 times the number achieved in 2020. The trend is continuing into 2022, and so far this year, 10 of the 100 or so new unicorns have at least one female co-founder.

In this article, we’ll be looking at 4 female unicorn founders, their journeys and advice they have to offer to aspiring entrepreneurs.

P.S. Interesting fact: The term ‘unicorn’ was also coined by a female. Venture capitalist Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, popularized the term in 2013 to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures. 

AMY PRESSMAN - Co-Founder of Medallia

Amy Pressman is the co-founder, former president, and a current board member of Medallia - a leader in customer experience management software helping organizations capture and act on customer feedback. Founded in 2011, Medallia has since then raised $325M and as of April 2022 has a valuation of $5.47Billion. It is serving 100s of global companies including Bank of America, TDBank, Sam’s Club, IBM, Comcast, Generali, Best Western, Marriott, and Hilton.

When she co-founded the company, Amy was in her 30s with a second child on the way, having to balance family responsibilities with the fast-paced, all consuming work life of a startup founder. Far from the image of the typical Silicon Valley tech genius college dropout in their twenties, Amy exemplifies that there is no typical mold an entrepreneur should fit. 

The quote that motivates Amy the most is “An entrepreneur is someone who gets motivated by the word ‘no’.” She believes that true entrepreneurs are motivated by challenges and tough times. 

Her advice for entrepreneurs would be to constantly keep learning about new things, be that from talking to experts, reading books, listening to podcasts, or reflecting on your own mistakes. 

An additional important piece of advice from Amy would be to watch the trail of talent. She is assured that the biggest predictor of senior leaders’ success is whether they attract both talented people with whom they’ve previously worked and new talent they didn’t know before. It’s a red flag when no one follows a leader or when the people who follow him or her aren’t particularly talented. It’s also a red flag when a leader can only hire people he or she already knows because it constrains the pool of potential candidates too much. The ability to attract talent broadly is a great proxy for the impact a leader is going to have.

Another thing she learned along her journey is the significance of telling stories and not overlooking the potential impact those can have. She believes storytelling is even more important today, when we are awash in numbers, metrics, and promises of a predict-the-future utopia. 

Born in a family of a theoretical physicist and a psychologist, Amy often recalls conversations with her mom about the newest findings in psychology, motivation, how to assess people and how to get on a journey of your own personal growth.

This might be the reason why she focuses so strongly on company culture. She has put in a lot of effort in helping her employees overcome the “imposter syndrome” when their perfect resumes of unbroken success crashed in the face of roadblocks. She also worked on fostering an environment at the workplace where employees feel safe to admit what’s not working, ask for help and establish a culture where its people and the entire organisation can learn faster. 

Last but not the least, she would advise CEOs that want to help their employees thrive to connect employees to the impact of their work. No one wants to clock eight or more hours a day and feel like it doesn’t matter.

MELANIE PERKINS - Co-Founder of Canva

Melanie Perkins, born 1987, is a tech entrepreneur who is the CEO and co-founder of Canva and one of the richest women in Australia. The graphic design startup has a valuation of $40billion and raised over $572M in funding since being founded in 2013. Perkins is the CEO of one of the few ‘unicorn’ start-ups that are actually profitable.

She has been named in the Forbes ‘top under 30 of the decade‘ tech founders list, landing in the top 10 alongside the likes of Mark Zuckerburg, Spotify founder Daniel Ek and Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

Melanie has always possessed an entrepreneurial spirit. As a teenager she started a little business making and selling scarves to women’s boutiques in her hometown Perth. By 19 Perkins had co-founded her first company, Fusion Books, which applied a graphic design platform to the school yearbook market, and within five years became Australia's largest yearbook publisher, expanding to France and New Zealand.

In 2013 Canva was launched. She came up with the idea for Canva while watching the students she was tutoring in design programs struggle to learn and use them despite months of coaching. From here also comes her controversial belief that you can’t ask your users or customers what you should create. It was the particular insight gained from watching people who knew nothing about design, trying to use the design tools that became the foundation for Canva.

Melanie’s main piece of advice for anyone is to find things you're passionate about, and put 110 percent into those things: “That way you'll have so much more experience for it, you'll have created your own things, and you'll know when making your own decisions in life whether you should try an entrepreneurial route or a job that you're maybe not as interested in. If you have track record of achieving your goals, you'll feel confident to pursue that path less travelled.”

What Melanie would recommend startup founders is to focus on good communication within the organisation. According to her, it is one of the most important aspects of being a good leader and helping the team make good decisions on achieving their goals. 

It’s crucial that everyone has as much context as possible about the work being done by other team members of the startup and each team caught up on daily progress. 

Improving upon her communication skills is also what helped her raise funding for Canva. She received a 100 ‘no’s from investors, but rather than give up Melanie kept refining her pitch deck and communication skills to better explain how Canva would innovate the graphic design industry. 

Her favourite quote that she lives by is from startup investor and advisor Paul Graham : "The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they're something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realise are worth doing”.

And if you are on a hunt for a good read, pick up Melanie’s recommended Robert Hoekman’s Designing the Obvious. It explains how to build good online experiences and Melanie believes it will change the way you think. 

Melanie is also committed to promoting gender equality at workplace. She has implemented a number of policies at Canva that eliminate bias in the hiring process. This resulted in Canva obtaining 41 percent female representation, much higher than the industry average of 28 percent.

EMILY WEISS - Founder of Glossier


Emily Weiss, aged 37, is the founder of the beauty industry unicorn Glossier. Founded in 2014, the company is the pioneer of a “skin first, makeup second” beauty philosophy that celebrates individual freedom and choice. Emily has been included in TIME's 100 Next, Vanity Fair’s New Establishment, Fortune’s 40 Under 40 and Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business.

Emily established her authority in the sphere way before launching the first product. Prior to starting Glossier, Emily founded the beauty blog Into The Gloss in 2010 which she worked on as a side project at 4am. in the mornings before her day job as a fashion assistant at Vogue. Her blog where she was testing popular beauty products and interviewing celebrities and fashion influencers about their beauty habits quickly became a genuine must read for beauty-lovers attracting around 10 million pageviews a month. Emily then quickly discovered a gap in the beauty market for accessible, affordable products with a luxurious feel. 

Four years after its launch, Into The Gloss raised $2 million in venture capital from BoxGroup and became Glossier. Now Glossier, which sells balms, makeup, skincare products and fragrances, has raised $266 million and is worth $1.8 billion. In November, the company also opened its first flagship store in Los Angeles.

The advice she’d give to entrepreneurs is to make sure there’s a real purpose behind what you’re working on, to make sure to stay really focused and connected on that purpose, and find people around genuinely excited about that purpose. 

She also has no plans of selling out her company any time soon. She once told on a podcast: “L’Oreal has a male CEO, Estée Lauder has a male CEO, but the majority of beauty brands that those companies own are founded by women so generally the woman is the CEO for a while, and maybe once the company gets bought or sold or enough time goes by, the female CEO ends up going away. I don’t have any plans to go away anytime soon.”

SARAH LEARY - Co-Founder of Nextdoor

Sarah Leary co-founded Nextdoor - a social networking tool for neighbourhoods in 2011. The company has a valuation of $4.3million. As of 2021, the company had over 10 million users in 116,000 neighbourhoods across the United States. Leary is a great model for building a consumer-centric company focused on cultivating a strong community of users. 

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. when raising capital for her businesses.

When it comes to growing a business and coming up with innovative ideas, Leary says you must immerse yourself in the problem you’re solving. You need to have hypotheses and be willing to test really crazy things. This will often include doing non-scalable things and having hands-on experiences first to figure out what works before building a more elegant and scalable solution.

Sarah’s advice for women aspiring to create a billion-dollar business is to go after a big opportunity, where there is a clear need, and build something that is unique that you can defend. Women tend to think a little more conservatively when it comes to the size of the market. You are going to work hard in any new venture, so you might as well target something that has lots of room for growth.

Another important advice from Sarah is not to get scourged from a “no”. The entrepreneurial journey is all about how you respond to adversity. Feedback is a gift. It is important to listen, understand why it’s been given, and decide how to respond.

Leary credits the inspiration for starting Nextdoor to the book 'Bowling Alone' by Robert E. Putnam, which is about the decline of community in America.

The stories of these 4 female founders offer the right motivation boost for anyone on their journey of building a startup. That is the reason why we’ll be making this article format into a series. So, watch out for our next list of inspirational women founders coming up soon. 

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Narine Davtyan
Narine Davtyan
Entrepreneur in Residence
Author Twitter LinkAuthor LinkedIN

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