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Startup Wisdom from 10 Female Founders of Unicorn Companies

10 female-founded unicorns were born this year. In an effort to bottle up some mythical unicorn dust, we compiled a cheat sheet of wisdom from the women behind the billions.

Unprecedented growth for female-founded unicorns

2019 is on track to be a record year for female-founded startups. Already, 10 female-led startups hit the $1B valuation mark, gaining the coveted ‘unicorn’ status. For anyone feeling out of the loop, we aren’t talking about mythical horses with magical powers. A unicorn is a term for a privately held startup company with a current valuation of $1 billion or more. 

Currently, there are only 266 unicorn companies in the world. What’s even rarer, is finding unicorns that have female-founders. Only about ten percent of all unicorns have at least one female founder. 

This year, Airwallex, Away, Confluent, Coursera, ezCater, FabFitFun, Glossier, Horizon Robotics, Rent the Runway, and Vlocity all are helping flip the script. So, what can we learn from the leading ladies? We’ve selected our favorite startup insights published around the web to help answer that question.

“Choose investors who know your industry.”

Lucy Liu, Co-founder and President of Airwallex

Lucy Lui is the co-founder and president of Airwallex, a cross-border payment platform that simplifies the foreign exchange process for businesses and consumers. In a recent Smart Company article, she shared advice on how to choose investors and gain funding;

“To appeal to investors, you have to think like an investor. As a former investment banker myself, previously managing a fund in China, I knew that VCs have far more value to add to a business than just capital. You’ll have a much more engaged audience if you’ve done your research and are talking with potential investors about how their expertise or network would benefit your business goals, as opposed to just their money.” 

“An inch toward the bigger goal can actually be a massive step forward.”

Steph Korey, Co-founder of Away

Steph Korey and Jen Rubio founded Away, the trendy luggage brand for modern travelers. They’ve sold more than a million suitcases with Away, turning over more than $US150 million last year and on track to turn over more than $US300 million this year. When asked about how she stays focused, Korey has this to say;

“An inch toward the bigger goal can actually be a massive step forward. Whether your bigger goal is to IPO your company or you’re really focused on building a team, make sure everything you’re doing every day is in some way a step towards that. When those opportunities come up, take a step back and ask yourself if it is actually contributing to the brand you’re building.”

“The difference between a good product and a good brand is emotion.”

Jen Rubio, Co-founder of Away

Next up, Jen Rubio. Rubio describes Away’s marketing strategy as “people-first,” one that largely relies on creating compelling content. In a NewsCred piece, Rubio discusses why content and storytelling been so important to Away’s brand;

“We’ve always thought about the need to develop the product and the brand simultaneously – neither can succeed without the other.” She goes on the say, “In order to truly be successful, you have to understand who you’re trying to reach, and what they want to hear. I think more and more brands are starting to recognize and appreciate the importance of people-first marketing. It can’t just be about the consumer, but about the human who’s making the choice to interact and consume.”

“You can’t always be in the details.”

Eha Narkhede, Co-founder and CTO of Confluent

If you’ve ever seen Eha Narkhede speak, you know there is no lack of wisdom or ingenuity to glean. Her company, Confluent, sells management tools and services that make it easier to run Kafka, an open-source data-processing platform that the founding team created in 2010. 

Narkhede sat down with Kong for a fireside chat, where she discussed how she adapted to her shifting role as CTO as Confluent grew. She explains how the role of CTO, unlike other c-level positions has a wider range of potential focuses that need to be balanced carefully; 

“You can’t always be in the details,” Narkhede says. “Writing code, reviewing code, and making all of the key architectural decisions. It’s my philosophy that if you’re doing that, then what is your engineering team doing? How do they feel empowered? And so, as the company starts growing your role should be more outward focused.”

“Don’t be afraid to do something big.”

Daphne Koller, Co-founder of Coursera

Daphne Koller launched Coursera in 2012. Coursera is a learning platform founded by that offers open online courses, specializations, and degrees. She later left Coursera to become the chief computing officer at Calico, and is now the founder and CEO of Insitro, a drug discovery startup. 

In a machine learning discussion with Professor Yoshua Bengio, Koller shares the principles that have guided her for many years, and the regrets she has in retrospect; 

“People often ask me, ‘what do you regret about your career,’ and I think the one thing I maybe regret the most is not having tried to do something as big as Coursera earlier in my career. Take on a big important challenge. Very few people regret having tried something and failed. A lot of people regret not having tried.”

“Frugality breeds creativity.”

Stefania Mallett, Co-founder of ezCater

Stefania Mallett is the co-founder of ezCater, an online marketplace for business catering. She sat down on the Executive Breakthroughs Podcast to discuss the philosophies that have propelled her career. She discusses how startups should approach seeking funding. 

Of course, she says, the funding methods should vary based on the idea. Pharmaceutical and drug companies probably won’t get far with a bootstrapping approach. But generally speaking, Mallett’s advice is to accept money only when you absolutely need it, and only when you’re ready; 

“I think that it’s wise to not have a lot of money early on because it makes you be really creative and clever about how to accomplish what you need to accomplish. And, it makes you be pretty ruthless about what you need to work on first. I think that gives you a sharpened focus. So, I think not having too much money is a good move at every stage of the company.”

“Hire people who are smarter than you.”

Katie Ann Rosen Kitchens, Co-founder of FabFitFun

FabFitFun is a beauty box subscription service that has taken social media by storm. The firm uses thousands of influencers to connect with their target audience. And, with over one million subscribers, it’s clearly working. Katie Ann Rosen is the co-founder and Editor in Cheif. In a Huffington Post’s Women in Business Q&A, she talks about the most important lesson she’s learned in her career to-date;

“It can be very hard to let go. Especially in the beginning. You feel like you want to do it all but it’s pretty impossible. I’m lucky to have two incredibly talented, smart, creative, game-changing co-founders in Michael and Daniel Broukhim who always go above and beyond. But we still needed more than just the 3 of us to grow. I think it was especially hard for us because we are all big time ‘doers.’ I tend to suffer from a classic case of ‘it’s easier just to do it myself’ and I had to be proven wrong time and time again to really understand the importance of building a great team.”

“Brand is really, really important. It’s kind of everything.”

Emily Weiss, Co-founder and CEO of Glossier

Emily Weiss’ journey began when she was working as a fashion assistant. She first launched her blog, Into The Gloss, in 2010 and eventually began making products for its audience. Glossier, the beauty essential brand, uses the blog’s community to guide product iterations. So, Intothegloss.com is somewhat of a focus group for Glossier. They have a highly engaged audience and a direct line to customer feedback. 

Like Away, Glossier has managed to build a cult following online. She tells Business Insider, “Brand is really, really important. It’s kind of everything.” Glossier’s signature millennial pink packaging, playful stickers, and diverse models are all iconic to the brand. 

“Launch as many things as possible, fail as quickly as possible.”

Jennifer Hyman, Co-founder of Rent the Runway

As many of us know, failure is inevitable in startup life. Jennifer Hyam, co-founder of Rent the Runway, urges others to get that part out of the way quickly. She shares her take on failure with the The Muse

“I think people waste so much time strategizing about what they should do, rather than just going and doing something, making mistakes, and then pivoting. The goal of a startup should be: Launch as many things as possible, fail as quickly as possible, and then figure out how to move forward from there.”

Figure out how you are going to assess whether you have a good idea or not.

Jenny Fleiss, Co-founder of Rent the Runway

If you have a startup idea, it’s probably near and dear to your heart. Jenny Fleiss, the co-founder of Rent the Runway, tells hopeful entrepreneurs to keep their biases in check. In the same interview with The Muse, she says,

“Go do something, learn from it, and be able to have an unbiased view as to whether your idea works. Also, be very aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are, not just what your skills are. How successful you’re going to be as an entrepreneur is really a story of how compelling a leader you are.”

So, there you have it; All of the wisdom you need to transform your business into a mythical unicorn. What will you do next?

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Jenna Alburger

Jenna Alburger

Marketing Strategist / Co-Founder @ Outlier Creative

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