Today’s Unicorn Companies: Where Are The Women?


Various cultures have come to recognize the one-horned mythical animal as symbolic of high social rank. But in today’s world of startups, the chances of achieving unicorn status--about 1 in 5 million--is no easy feat. In fact, the typical venture capitalist meets with 1,000 new companies a year and funds only two of them. “For every 10,000 startups that get funding, only one becomes a unicorn, the venture capital slang for a startup valued at $1 billion or more,” says Peter S. Cohan, of Peter S. Cohan & Associates.

As rare as unicorns are there’s something even rarer when it comes to business: a billion-dollar, woman-led venture. Of the 84 so-called “unicorn US companies,” only two have women CEOs, according to analysis published by TechCrunch. Additionally, only 2.4 percent of all startups have female CEOs and only 4.6% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. For reference, the TechCrunch article looked at companies founded between 2005 and 2015 valued at a minimum of $1 billion.

"For every 10,000 startups that get funding, only one becomes a unicorn, the venture capital slang for a startup valued at $1 billion or more"

A systemic bias for male entrepreneurs that starts the instant someone gets an idea for a business is partly to blame. Not surprisingly, funding decision makers are typically male-95% of investors. According to a recent study by researchers at MIT, investors overwhelmingly prefer pitches by male entrepreneurs - even when the content of the pitches is the same.

The need to close the gender gap is not rooted in a sense of fairness; it’s about achieving greatness. But, it’s becoming more clear that without greater female involvement, everyone loses.

There’s an obvious lack of women on the boards of unicorn companies. According to analysis by Fortune, 60 percent of the unicorns had all-male boards and none of the 55 companies included had more than one woman on their boards. Fortune also noted that among the startups with all-male boards were Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat and Tinder. Fortune reached out to all U.S.-based unicorns that have all-male boards. Only eight--JustFab, Lookout, Razer, Slack, Pluralsight, Pinterest, Snapchat and Legendary Entertainment--would speak on the record about the gender disparities in their businesses. Most stressed their commitment to diversity, but noted that early-stage startup boards tend to be composed of founders and investors-who are men.


To begin bridging the startup gender gap, more women must get onto company boards. If necessity is the mother of invention, then Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, a technology executive and entrepreneur, has a relevant solution: the #ChoosePossibility Project. Cassidy launched theBoardlist, the first initiative of the #ChoosePossibility Project, in July 2015. It’s designed as an online marketplace to connect CEOs looking for candidates with women who are peer-endorsed for private and public tech company boards.

When the site launched it included the names of over 600 women who had been endorsed by 50 investors and CEOs in the tech industry, from companies like Accel Partners, Twitter, Lyft, Greylock Partners and Box. And in October, 2015 theBoardlist announced its first placement of a woman (Karla Martin, director of global business strategy and strategic planning at Google) to the board of a private tech company.

Martin landed on theBoardlist via the recommendation of Core Ventures Group General Partner Joanna Earl, one of theBoardlist’s founding members. theBoardlist works by sourcing recommendations from its members, who are both male and female, to provide a platform for tech companies to discover and connect with board-ready women.

“Nearly 70 to 75 percent of tech companies - in Silicon Valley - have all-male boards,” says Justin Jarman, Co-Founder and President of theBoardlist. “One reason for that could be due, in part, to a discovery problem.” Jarman said that his network has traditionally given him access to a pool of male executives with board experience. According to the company’s mission statment “100% of tech company boards use gender diversity as an opportunity to realize greater company performance.”

Did You Know?

-90% of all unicorn founders attend just 3% of U.S. colleges and universities

-The most valuable U.S. unicorns are mostly founded by alumni from private institutions including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Yale.

-Stanford University boasts 38 current unicorn founder alumni, whereas Stanford Graduate School of Business boasts 10.

-Harvard University boasts 21 current unicorn founder alumni, whereas Harvard Business School boasts 9.

-University of California, Berkeley led all public institutions with 12 unicorn founder alumni.

-In 2015, 7 percent of female founders received venture capital.

-28% (or $.72 to the dollar) is the average gender pay gap for computer programmers- the biggest gender pay gap job in the tech industry.

-The average for the adjusted gender pay gap in the tech industry is 6 percent in the U.S., meaning women, on average, earn $.94 for every dollar that men earn.

-The proportion of women partners at venture capital firms has slowly declined from 10% in 1999 to 6% in 2016.


A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.

Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.