The Endeavor Insight team was thrilled to share our latest study on the career journeys of 200 top unicorn founders. Now that it’s published, we wanted to give everyone a behind-the-scenes look at how we developed it.
No Single Road to Success
Endeavor has worked for more than 25 years to help founders in emerging markets scale up, and many of them have achieved unicorn status. We’ve seen how their life stories and career backgrounds vary from one another, and from what people might assume from the resumes of Silicon Valley founders. We came up with the Unicorn Founders Pathways project so we could better understand these journeys and see who was taking the “road less traveled” yet still reaching the same levels of success.
There are a lot of studies on entrepreneurship that focus on company-level data or aggregate industry trends. These approaches are helpful, but it’s difficult to uncover insights on high-growth founders without going directly to the source, which is why we decided to use founder-level data in our research.
When it comes to assessing high-growth founders, common industry conversations also focus on a “recipe” for success. Investors are always looking for the special ingredient that will help them weed out potential investees. In answer to that, several other studies have searched for groups of founders that went to a certain school or have a specific characteristic. But we wanted to better understand what experiences really matter and take a closer look at the real steps founders take.
For instance, when we dug into our data, very few unicorn founders attended any given university or worked at any specific company. When put together, founders who attended Ivy Leagues and other top-ranked schools only made up one third of our sample. Most founders attended other types of universities, with hardly any concentration or commonality among them.
Where It All Began
Our goal at Endeavor is to support high-impact entrepreneurs — those that are scaling up and paying it forward — in emerging markets around the world. Our research team has done this by publishing videos, scrollytelling reports, multimedia microsites, and other fascinating insights. We aim to reach those who have the power to help or hinder ecosystem growth in our markets, including investors, founders, corporate leaders, and policymakers.
We’ve studied entrepreneurial ecosystem development for more than a decade. Our signature network mapping research demonstrates the invaluable experience entrepreneurs gain by working at a scaleup company prior to launching their own. In Sofia, Bulgaria, for instance, Telerik had dozens of employees who went on to found very successful companies, including Payhawk — the country’s first unicorn. This phenomenon jumpstarted the market’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
In recent studies, we looked at how founders develop their networks over time. This included the series on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (funded by the Lemelson Foundation), where we examined co-founding teams based on their backgrounds. We noticed that companies with at least one co-founder who had studied or worked abroad attracted more capital, support, and resources than all-local teams. This was true across all the markets we studied in that report. International experience shows up in our new research, as well.
We also published a report on Scaling Climate Tech last year studying climate tech founders in six hubs around the world (in partnership with HSBC). This is when we first experimented with Sankey diagrams to show the exchange of resources between geographies. After seeing these findings, we knew we wanted to do more with Sankeys to explore the entire founder journey.
A Sankey diagram is a type of flow chart. It is named after Matthew Henry Phineas Riall Sankey, an Irish-born military engineer who depicted ways to optimize energy efficiency.
What’s Coming Next
Studying unicorn founders in emerging markets and the United States is just the beginning for us. There is a lot more we want to do with this line of research. We’re developing a fuller methodology that will include primary data (from interviews with founders) and post-launch variables like when and how they got capital, or what mentorship they received along the way.
Future Founder Pathways projects may include:
- Studying Specific Markets: We plan to examine the training grounds for founders with more specificity so we can answer important questions. For example, which universities and employers in your city are the true training grounds for successful entrepreneurs? How have the pathways for scaleup founders changed in the last 3-5 years, and are current programs and policies keeping up?
- Studying Underrepresented Groups: So much of the dialogue around female entrepreneurship, or Black and Hispanic founders, focuses on the gaps. We plan to flip the script to demonstrate strengths, inform investors about the opportunities they are missing, and point people to where we can reduce bias at earlier stages of a founder’s journey. Our initial prototypes studying female founders in STEM fields already show a lot of promise.
- Researching Portfolio and Pipeline Companies: We plan to help any investor or support program better understand the many different life experiences and career pathways of individual founders and co-founding teams who are reaching success in specific verticals.
This research holds a lot of potential for founders, too. We’re hearing from many entrepreneurs around the world who see their own journey in our chart and are celebrating these untold stories with us. By debunking the myths around entrepreneurship and showing how many paths to success there are, we hope this research will inspire future generations of entrepreneurs to dream BIG.
Leah D. Barto is the Senior Director of Research at Endeavor.
If you would like to commission Endeavor Insight to study the pathways of entrepreneurs in your investment portfolio or local market, please contact us at [email protected].