2019 was extraordinary in terms of the sheer number of female-led businesses crossing that final billion-dollar mark, that turned them into startup unicorns.
It set an excellent precedent for a growing number of talented female founders, showing that hard work, vision, and skill are the keys to success no matter what your gender.
And the great news is that the trend is on the rise, despite the fact that women-led companies receive less than 2% of venture capital funding overall, making it more difficult for them to thrive.
But thriving they are!
Particularly in industries where other women dominate in terms of buying power (e.g. travel, fashion, beauty, healthcare, etc.), and with women driving 70-80% of all purchasing decisions within the household, it’s clear that they’re here to stay!
Here at Bundl, we’re celebrating this wonderful achievement by featuring 5 of 2019’s newly minted, female-founded startup unicorns. Get ready to be inspired!
5 startup unicorns and the female founders behind them
Airwallex is a fintech company originally founded in Melbourne, Australia in 2015. Their claim to fame stems from having used technology to develop a “cross border transaction infrastructure” designed to help users set up overseas bank accounts.
Their goal is to make it easier for businesses to create foreign currency accounts globally, access interbank exchange rates, and send funds to more than 130 countries.
In March of 2019, Airwallex achieved unicorn status after raising $100 million in a round of Series C funding. This made them Australia’s third startup unicorn.
Meet the female founder
Lucy Yueting Liu is the only female of the four Airwallex co-founders and she’s also currently taking on the role of President. Her main focus is managing business operations and furthering the company’s global marketing efforts.
Born in China, and having moved to New Zealand at age 12, she ended up earning her Master of Finance degree at Melbourne University.
Aside from her lead role in Airwallex, Lucy Liu is also the Director of Hong Stone Investment Development Ltd and is involved in quite a few fintech panels. Is it any wonder that Forbes Asia made her one of their “30 under 30”?
According to co-founder Lucy Liu, Airwallex plans to use its new-found status to expand beyond its current nine locations in London, Beijing, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Singapore, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Tokyo.
They plan to leverage their expertise in the Asia Pacific markets to give similar companies like Stripe a run for their money.
Rent the Runway
Rent the Runway has been called “one of the most disruptive companies” in the world and CNBC recently made them number 5 on their Disrupter 50 list for 2019 – and we think the reputation is well deserved!
This company has been keeping the apparel industry on its toes, by giving women the option to rent out new garments (and trade them back in for new ones at the end of the month), instead of filling up their closets with items they’ll only wear once.
They’ve essentially forced established players like Zara, Urban Outfitters, Express and Gap’s Banana Republic brand to find new ways to innovate or fade out. The last three competitors have responded by launching their own clothing rental platforms.
Rent the Runway hit unicorn status in March of 2019, after raising $125 million during a round of funding with Franklin Templeton Investments and Bain Capital Ventures among others.
Meet the female founders
Rent the Runway was founded by Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss, with the goal of renting women designer dresses for events like weddings, galas, and parties. The idea for the business came to them during their second year at Harvard Business School.
Both ladies have had extremely impressive careers so far.
Jennifer Fleiss ended up leaving Rent the Runway in 2018 to become the head of Jetblack, which is part of Walmarts startup incubator, Store No. 8. She’s also been honored in Fortune’s “40 Under 40”, the Forbes “30 Under 30” list and Fashionista.com’s “Most Influential People in New York Fashion”. Not too shabby!
Jennifer Hyman, on her part, remained at Rent the Runway as CEO, taking the company to the heights of success it currently enjoys. She’s also been quite active in a variety of national conferences and panel discussions on topics like the economy, women in business and company culture. On top of all that she’s part of Estée Lauder’s Board of Directors.
Since becoming a unicorn, Rent the Runway has expanded its subscription options to keep clients coming back for more. As described by Hyman herself:
“I have aspirations to create the Amazon Prime of rental. We want their subscription to be as seamless as going to the closet and getting dressed.”
More recent plans include partnering up with Marriott International’s W Hotels to offer travelers a one of a kind apparel rental experience. Additional partnerships have been established with companies like WeWork and Nordstrom, to reach a wider array of clients.
Horizon Robotics is based in China and specializes in making chips that are powered by artificial intelligence (AI). The chips are mostly used for automobiles and cameras.
They recently partnered up with German carmaker Audi and China’s Chongqing Changan to develop self-driving cars. Additional partnerships have been established within the security and smart retailing industries.
In February of 2019, Horizon Robotics raised $600 million during a funding round, bringing its valuation to about $3 billion.
Meet the female founder
Annie Tao co-founded Horizon Robotics, along with Kai Yu and Chang Huang who are both leading AI experts. She’s been Vice President of Operations since 2016.
After earning her Master’s Degree in Marketing from Northwestern University in Chicago, she went on to work for Google in Silicon Valley and Baidu in both the US and China.
As described on her own Linkedin page, Annie believes in:
“the power of business intelligence that comes from the beauty of combining technology, large scale data, human logic, connections, and imagination”.
Her specialties include data-driven strategies, digital advertising, and marketing analytics.
In January of 2020, Horizon Robotics revealed its new Horizon Matrix 2, their most recent autonomous driving computing platform.
This new offering builds on the success of its predecessors (e.g. with an improved cooling system and more resistance to the environment) and is already being used by autonomous driving fleets across global markets.
The sky is the limit in terms of what this startup unicorn will achieve in the future.
Away is a travel and lifestyle brand that’s best known as a luggage designer, manufacturer, and retailer. They’ve redefined the traditional retail experience by focusing on their own distribution channels, building loyal digital communities and leveraging client reviews for product development.
In 2018, Away was named one of the “Top 10 Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company.
Their suitcases stand out from others because of their unique styles and colors and the company also regularly offers trendy, limited-edition products with creative personalization options (e.g. leather stickers that can be hand-painted, engraved, or monogrammed).
Away has also made it a priority to appeal to millennials by incorporating features like a built-in battery pack, and portraying its suitcases as part of a larger social media story about travel.
In May 2019, after a round of funding, they reached a valuation of $1.4 bn.
Meet the female founders
Stephanie Korey is currently the co-CEO at Away. She earned her MBA at Colombia University and has been featured in the Forbes “30 under 30” list. In 2018, she also received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award.
Jen Rubio is co-CEO and the Chief Brand Officer at Away and she’s involved in various side projects as an angel investor and startup advisor.
She’s been featured in the Forbes “30 under 30” list and has been involved in various high-profile speaking engagements including the Women’s Wear Daily Summit, Google Atmosphere, the Inc. 500 conference, and Tedx.
According to Jen Rubio, future plans for Away include branching out from their initial focus on suitcases to include a wider range of products.
Although much of their client base is made up of women, they want to expand their offerings to appeal more to both men and children. Specifically, they want to develop more travel-themed products, like apparel, wellness, and lifestyle accessories.
Also among their plans for expansion is the goal of growing from 7 stores to 57 stores within the next three years.
It all started when founder Emily Weiss decided to write her own beauty blog, “Into The Gloss”. It was an immediate hit, with 10 million page views a month and about 60% of readers checking the site daily.
The success of “Into the Gloss” quickly became a stepping stone for Glossier, a makeup, and skincare company that started off with just four products. But growing the business was no easy feat.
According to Forbes, 11 out of 12 Venture Capital firms turned Weiss down before she got her lucky break from venture capitalist Kirsten Green in 2014. In her own words:
“I had no idea what I was doing. I was 28 years old. I didn’t have an M.B.A. I went to art school.”
Today, Glossier is widely known as the “people-powered beauty ecosystem”, that boasts 200 employees and has offices in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Ireland, France, and Scandinavia.
Since its inception, Glossier has doubled its annual revenue, which now surpasses $100 million. So it’s not surprising that they reached unicorn status in 2019 with a valuation of $1.2 billion.
Meet the female founder
Founder and CEO Emily Weiss graduated from New York University with a degree in studio art.
Since then, she’s 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 started her blog “In the Gloss” while she was still working as a styling assistant at Vogue, making time to write in the early mornings (4 a.m.) before going into the office. Talk about passion!
2020 will be all about scaling for Glossier. A great part of 2019 was spent putting a new team in place to help in the transition. As described by Emily:
“You have a sense of your company’s true potential. And you need to be honest with yourself about what skills you need for the next phase of growth.”
With a new management team in place, there are also some exciting plans for the launch of nine new products and several pop-up shops.
A bright future for female entrepreneurs
If there’s one key takeaway from all these amazing stories, it’s that we reached a tipping point in 2019.
Without a doubt, we’re about to enter a new era in which companies like the ones in this article represent a taste of tomorrow’s reality: a world in which there is a more diverse representation of entrepreneurs building the next wave of unicorns in every industry.
That’s not to say that it’ll all be smooth sailing from here on out. Aspiring female founders still have plenty of hurdles to overcome. According to Crunchbase:
Only nine out of the 100 top VC partners worldwide are women.
In the U.S. only about 11% of VC deciders are women.
Only 17% of venture capital went to companies that had at least one female founder.
Less than 2% of all venture funding goes to women.
This figure drops to about 0,006% for companies led by women of color.