Where Do Unicorns Come From?
September 21, 2023
Studying the Career Journeys of the Top $1+ Billion Founders
We’ve all heard the legendary origin stories where founders drop out of college and bootstrap tech revolutions from their garages, but what are the real stories? What career pathways do successful founders of unicorns actually take? To find out, our Endeavor Insight research team compared the pathways between 100 of the top unicorn founders in the United States and 100 more in key emerging markets.
Though we studied top unicorns by their valuation in this study, valuation is not the sole measurement of success. Unicorns don’t only scale up, they also pay it forward to future generations of entrepreneurs — initiating a virtuous cycle we call the Multiplier Effect. Nearly all of the unicorns in this study have inspired their employees to start their own companies, and many of the unicorn founders are mentors and angel investors. Below are other findings from our study.
This research is
This chart traces the pathways that those 200 founders took to starting a unicorn. Each line represents a founder of a unicorn company in an emerging market or the United States. The oval nodes represent key experiences along their journey to founding their unicorn company.
Fifty-five percent of the top US unicorn founders are immigrants or second-generation immigrants, and the top countries of origin for these entrepreneurs are India, Israel, China, Ukraine, Canada and Russia. Entrepreneurial migration is a common phenomenon for emerging markets too. Thirty-two percent of the top unicorn founders in emerging markets are immigrants or second-generation immigrants. Many of these are examples of South-South migration, like a founder moving across countries in Latin America. Founders also develop a global perspective by studying or working abroad. Sixty percent of the founders included in this research studied or worked abroad, gaining valuable networks and knowledge.
Elite institutions are not as common among unicorn founders as you might think. Nearly all (97 percent) of the 200 top founders we researched obtained a college diploma, but only one third of them received a bachelor’s degree from a top-ranked university. If we add in master’s programs and PhDs, a little less than half of the founders completed study at such an institution.
Work experience at elite employers including Big Three consulting firms, MAMAA tech companies, and bulge bracket investment banks was rare among this cohort of entrepreneurs.
Most of the world’s successful unicorn founders did not have experience working for name-brand employers. Usually, they worked for an entrepreneurial company prior to launching their unicorn company. Many of these founders served as C-suite executives of tech startups, or grew from within the ranks as that entrepreneurial company went from startup to scaleup. A significant number of those employers were unicorn companies themselves. In most cases, the entrepreneurial employer had a successful exit, either by going public or being acquired. Aspiring founders who work for companies that have an exit like this gain invaluable first-hand experience.
Previously founding a company may be a good resume builder for would-be unicorns. About 49 percent started a business prior to launching their unicorn company. On top of that, a majority of these serial entrepreneurs had successfully exited.
There are no shortcuts on the pathway to building a unicorn company. The unicorn founders included in this study gained a decade of experience following their undergraduate education, on average. Several existing studies have shown that the quintessential successful founder is not particularly young or a college dropout. Endeavor’s research builds on these findings, showcasing that successful founders usually gain entrepreneurial experience and build networks over time.
Sixty-one percent of founders majored in a science or engineering field in undergrad, compared to only 19 percent who majored in business. Computer science, electrical engineering, and mathematics were popular majors among those with science or engineering degrees. Science and engineering graduate degrees outpaced MBAs among those who continued to study, and for the 10 percent of founders who completed a PhD, most chose computer science.
Emerging market founders were ten times more likely than US founders to have previously worked in finance, consulting, business development, or marketing. On the other hand, US founders were more likely to have worked in product and engineering roles. Another difference between the emerging market and US founders is how fast they grow their companies. Founders in emerging markets achieved unicorn status for their companies in an average of five and a half years, while US founders took more than six years.
Emerging market unicorns are more often solving real problems at scale, compared to U.S. unicorns that tend to follow VC fads.
There were high concentrations of fintech, e-commerce, and logistics/transportation companies among the emerging market unicorns. In contrast, US unicorn founders tend to operate companies in various high-tech sectors, including those arising from recent VC-driven fads such as blockchain and cryptocurrency. Emerging market unicorns tend to create a more widespread impact by improving the daily lives of millions in areas such as financial inclusion, ride sharing, and super apps. These companies include Clip, Careem, and Rappi. Their founders’ pathways demonstrate many of the findings above.
Studying the journeys of successful founders unlocks a wealth of knowledge.
There is no gilded, shimmering pathway through life for all founders of the highest-valued unicorns. There are many yellow brick roads to success, and this study has shown some clear differences between founders in emerging markets and more mature entrepreneurial ecosystems like the United States. Much like our many studies on entrepreneurial ecosystems that show how they develop and vary between regions, we are now tackling many subjects in our new research on the career pathways of founders around the world.
Learn More About Our Methodology and Findings
This PDF includes the full list of founders included in the study, detailed methodology, and additional findings. Click the button below and complete the form to receive your copy.