Unicorn Startups, Entrepreneurship, Startups, Founders' Backgrounds, Entrepreneurial Education


Purpose: The rapid growth of unicorn startups — privately held startup companies valued at over $1 billion — has inspired researchers and investors to better understand the key factors behind their success. While product-market fit, timing, and business models are frequently studied, this paper dive deeper into the backgrounds of the founders themselves. By analyzing various educational, and professional attributes of unicorn startup founders, we seek to uncover common patterns and insights that might hint at the success criteria of unicorn creation.


Design/Methodology/Approach: Our study adopted an exploratory approach utilizing both quantitative and qualitative methods to discover the nuances of unicorn startup founders' backgrounds. Using a dataset of 3925 founders, we identified patterns in unicorn creation. In addition, qualitative insights were garnered through a review of existing literature. This approach provided a comprehensive view bridging the data with theoretical review.


Findings: A significant proportion of unicorn startup founders 1163 of the 3925 examined, had prior entrepreneurial engagements, which underlines the value of experience in high-impact ventures. A pronounced gender imbalance was observed, with a whopping 93% of founders being male, spotlighting potential systemic and cultural barriers in the entrepreneurial field. Fields such as International Relations, Public Administration, and STEM disciplines like Bioengineering and Medical Informatics were represented among the unicorn producing majors. These findings suggest a cross-disciplinary effect resulting in unicorn creation.


Originality: Instead of just focusing on one part of founders’ background, this study combines their education and experiences to give a full picture. This approach makes it unique and adds a new perspective to what we know about successful startups. This new angle can prompt more research and give us a deeper understanding of how unicorn startups come to be.


Download data is not yet available.


Ács, Z. J., & Audretsch, D. B. (2005). Entrepreneurship, innovation and technological change. Foundations and Trends® in Entrepreneurship, 1(4), 149-195.

Agarwal, R., Audretsch, D., & Sarkar, M. B. (2007). The process of creative construction: knowledge spillovers, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, 1(3‐4), 263-286.

Ahl, H. (2006). Why Research on Women Entrepreneurs Needs New Directions. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 30(5), 595-621.

Ahlstrom, D., Bruton, G. D., & Yeh, K. S. (2007). Venture capital in China: Past, present, and future. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 24(3), 247-268.

Azoulay, P., Jones, B., Kim, J. D., & Miranda, J. (2018). Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship. NBER Working Paper No. 24489.

Blank, S. (2013). Why the lean start-up changes everything. Harvard Business Review, 91(5), 63-72.

Boh, W. F., De-Haan, U., & Strom, R. (2016). University technology transfer through entrepreneurship: faculty and students in spinoffs. The Journal of Technology Transfer, 41(4), 661-669.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative research in psychology, 3(2), 77-101.

Brush, C. G., de Bruin, A., & Welter, F. (2009). A gender-aware framework for women's entrepreneurship. International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship.

Brush, C., Greene, P., Balachandra, L., & Davis, A. (2018). Women Entrepreneurs 2014: Bridging the Gender Gap in Venture Capital. Babson College.

Carter, S., Mwaura, S., Ram, M., Trehan, K., & Jones, T. (2015). Barriers to ethnic minority and women’s enterprise: Existing evidence, policy tensions and unsettled questions. International Small Business Journal, 33(1), 49-69.

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The innovator's dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business Review Press.

Cohen, S., & Hochberg, Y. V. (2014). Accelerating startups: The seed accelerator phenomenon. Available at SSRN 2418000.

Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94, S95-S120.

Cox, T. (1994). Cultural Diversity in Organizations: Theory, Research, and Practice. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2017). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.

Dencker, J. C., Gruber, M., & Shah, S. K. (2009). Pre-entry knowledge, learning, and the survival of new firms. Organization Science, 20(3), 516-537.

Etzkowitz, H. (2003). Innovation in Innovation: The Triple Helix of University-Industry-Government Relations. Social Science Information, 42(3), 293-337.

Feldman, M. (2001). The entrepreneurial event revisited: Firm formation in a regional context. Industrial and Corporate Change, 10(4), 861-891.

Feldman, M. P. (2001). The Entrepreneurial Event Revisited: Firm Formation in a Regional Context. Industrial and Corporate Change, 10(4), 861-891.

Florida, R. (2002). The rise of the creative class. Basic books.

Gans, J. S., Stern, S., & Wu, Y. (2019). Foundations of entrepreneurial strategy. Strategic Management Journal, 40(5), 736-756.

Gompers, P. A., Gornall, W., Kaplan, S. N., & Strebulaev, I. A. (2017). How do venture capitalists make decisions?. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Gompers, P., & Wang, S. Q. (2017). Diversity in Innovation. Harvard Business School Working Paper, (17-067).

Guillaume, Y. R. F., Dawson, J. F., Otaye‐Ebede, L., Woods, S. A., & West, M. A. (2017). Harnessing demographic differences in organizations: What moderates the effects of workplace diversity? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(2), 276-303.

Guo, X., Guo, J., & Zhang, X. (2016). Entrepreneurial universities and their roles in the regional innovation system. International Journal of Technology Management & Sustainable Development, 15(1), 45-56.

Gupta, V. K., Turban, D. B., Wasti, S. A., & Sikdar, A. (2009). The Role of Gender Stereotypes in Perceptions of Entrepreneurs and Intentions to Become an Entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 33(2), 397-417.

Hair, J. F., Black, W. C., Babin, B. J., & Anderson, R. E. (2017). Multivariate data analysis (8th ed.). Cengage.

Hallen, B. L. (2008). The Causes and Consequences of the Initial Network Positions of New Organizations: From Whom do Entrepreneurs Receive Investments?. Administrative Science Quarterly, 53(4), 685-718.

Harrison, R. T., & Leitch, C. M. (2005). Entrepreneurial learning: researching the interface between learning and the entrepreneurial context. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 29(4), 351-371.

Hsu, D. H. (2007). Experienced entrepreneurial founders, organizational capital, and venture capital funding. Research Policy, 36(5), 722-741.

Hsu, D. H., Roberts, E. B., & Eesley, C. E. (2007). Entrepreneurs from technology-based universities: Evidence from MIT. Research Policy, 36(5), 768-788.

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. Simon and Schuster.

Kerr, W. R., Nanda, R., & Rhodes-Kropf, M. (2014). Entrepreneurship as experimentation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28(3), 25-48.

Kim, E., & Kim, W. (2016). Firms’ reactions to public scrutiny: Examining the role of reputation in the pursuit of a favorable institutional environment. Corporate Reputation Review, 19(4), 317-333.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lazear, E. P. (2005). Entrepreneurship. Journal of Labor Economics, 23(4), 649-680.

Lee, A. (2013). Welcome to the unicorn club: Learning from billion-dollar startups. TechCrunch.

Lee, N., Florida, R., & King, K. (2020). The Rise of Global Startup Economy and the Changing Geography of Venture Capital. The Martin Prosperity Institute.

McClelland, D. C. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

Parker, S. C. (2013). Do serial entrepreneurs run successively better-performing businesses? Journal of Business Venturing, 28(5), 652-666.

Philpott, K., Dooley, L., O’Reilly, C., & Lupton, G. (2011). The entrepreneurial university: Examining the underlying academic tensions. Technovation, 31(4), 161-170.

Porter, M. E., & Heppelmann, J. E. (2014). How smart, connected products are transforming competition. Harvard Business Review, 92(11), 64-88.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America's declining social capital. Journal of Democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

Rosenbusch, N., Brinckmann, J., & Bausch, A. (2011). Is innovation always beneficial? A meta-analysis of the relationship between innovation and performance in SMEs. Journal of Business Venturing, 26(4), 441-457.

Roure, J. B., & Maidique, M. A. (1986). Linking prefounding experience and start-up performance of new high-technology ventures. Journal of Business Venturing, 1(3), 261-273.

Saxenian, A. (1994). Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. Harvard University Press.

Shane, S. (2000). Prior knowledge and the discovery of entrepreneurial opportunities. Organization Science, 11(4), 448-469.

Shane, S. (2002). Selling university technology: patterns from MIT. Management Science, 48(1), 122-137.

Shane, S. (2003). A General Theory of Entrepreneurship: The Individual-opportunity Nexus. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Shane, S. (2004). Academic Entrepreneurship: University Spinoffs and Wealth Creation. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Shane, S. (2009). Why encouraging more people to become entrepreneurs is bad public policy. Small Business Economics, 33(2), 141-149.

Shepherd, D. A. (2003). Learning from business failure: Propositions of grief recovery for the self-employed. Academy of Management Review, 28(2), 318-328.

Stam, W., Arzlanian, S., & Elfring, T. (2014). Social capital of entrepreneurs and small firm performance: A meta-analysis of contextual and methodological moderators. Journal of Business Venturing, 29(1), 152-173.

Teece, D. J., Pisano, G., & Shuen, A. (1997). Dynamic capabilities and strategic management. Strategic Management Journal, 18(7), 509-533.

Ucbasaran, D., Westhead, P., & Wright, M. (2006). Habitual Entrepreneurs. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Wadhwa, V., Rissing, B. A., Saxenian, A., & Gereffi, G. (2008). Education and tech entrepreneurship. Kauffman Foundation of Entrepreneurship.

Wallace, J., & Erickson, J. (1992). Hard drive: Bill Gates and the making of the Microsoft empire. John Wiley & Sons.

Westhead, P., Ucbasaran, D., & Wright, M. (2005). Experience and Cognition: Do Novice, Serial and Portfolio Entrepreneurs Differ? International Small Business Journal, 23(1), 72-98.

Wright, M., Hmieleski, K. M., Siegel, D. S., & Ensley, M. D. (2007). The role of human capital in technological entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 31(6), 791-806.

Wright, M., Robbie, K., & Ennew, C. (1997). Venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs. Journal of Business Venturing, 12(3), 227-249.

Yamakawa, Y., Peng, M. W., & Deeds, D. L. (2013). Rising from the Ashes: Cognitive Determinants of Venture Growth after Entrepreneurial Failure. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 37(1), 111-129.

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research design and methods (5th ed.). Sage.

Zacharakis, A. L., Shepherd, D. A., & Coombs, J. E. (2003). The development of venture‐capital‐backed internet companies: An ecosystem perspective. Journal of Business Venturing, 18(2), 217-231.

Zahra, S. A., & Wright, M. (2011). Entrepreneurship's next act. Academy of Management Perspectives, 25(4), 67-83.

Zhang, J. (2018). The advantage of experienced start-up founders in venture capital acquisition: evidence from serial entrepreneurs. Small Business Economics, 50(2), 391-410.

Zhang, M. (2009). High-tech start-up firms in universities: A case of Tsinghua University in China. Journal of Technology Transfer, 34(1), 68-80.

Zhao, H., Seibert, S. E., & Lumpkin, G. T. (2010). The relationship of personality to entrepreneurial intentions and performance: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Management, 36(2), 381-404.




How to Cite

Stafeev, A. (2024). WHAT MAKES A SUCCESSFUL UNICORN STARTUP FOUNDER? EXPLORING FOUNDERS’ BACKGROUNDS. International Journal of Professional Business Review, 9(5), e04638. https://doi.org/10.26668/businessreview/2024.v9i5.4638