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Women founders are becoming billionaires and it could upend the entire startup ecosystem

November 29, 2021, 12:38 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! The Supreme Court will hear the Mississippi abortion case this week, Pinterest settles a shareholder lawsuit, and three female founders are crashing the billionaires’ club. Have a productive Monday.

– Billions! Earlier this month, I flew down to Atlanta to speak with Sara Blakely. The Spanx founder was in the process of closing a transaction to sell her shapewear and apparel company to Blackstone, the private equity firm, in a deal that valued the business at $1.2 billion.

Walking into Spanx HQ, it’s immediately clear this is a company that plays by its own rules. There are the bright colors; the floor-to-ceiling paragraph of text outlining Spanx’s unusual founding history—with the original shapewear patent in a red frame in the middle; and the paintings and sculptures of bras and butts. It’s a design that reflects how Blakely has developed her own blueprint for her business—one that led to her selling the company this month after 21 years as its bootstrapper and sole owner.

Blakely was one of at least three women to earn billion-dollar-plus paydays over the past year thanks to their companies’ exits, all abiding by their own playbooks, in a way. Other members of the group are Bumble founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd, whose 11.6% Bumble stake was valued at $1.5 billion on the dating app business’s first day of trading, and 23andMe founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki, whose company debuted via SPAC at a valuation of $3.5 billion.

This exclusive club is the subject of Fortune‘s December/January cover story by me and my colleague Maria Aspan. For the feature, we spoke with all three women, who reflected on what it means to achieve billionaire status—and how women’s wealth at this scale can move the needle for other female founders. Wojcicki told us how she thinks about investing—she’s willing to “take a ding” if necessary for an investment that does good—while Wolfe Herd outlined her vision for backing founders not just with money, but with insider information and education on what taking that VC investment really means.

COV.0122.Sara Blakely
Photograph by Celeste Sloman

Reaching the billion-dollar mark is a huge deal for these founders, obviously. But it also has significant implications for the larger startup ecosystem—and for those who benefit from the massive wealth generated by a successful exit. The three “liquidity events” also enriched investors, board members, and employees—groups of people who are, predominantly, and for the startup world, unusually, female.

The numbers, so far, back up the idea that such billion-dollar-plus exits could bolster the female founder ecosystem as a whole. According to a Crunchbase analysis for Fortune, 110 men who achieved billion-dollar exits this year—a group that includes the founders of Coinbase, Robinhood, Affirm, and Warby Parker—have made 732 public investments in other startups. Of those investments, 6% went to all-female founding teams and 14% to companies with mixed gender teams. Meanwhile, 10 female founders whose companies exited at the billion-dollar level made 59 public investments, 22% of which went to all-female teams and 25% to startups with founding teams that included at least one woman.

Blakely, Wojcicki, and Wolfe Herd represent a small sample size—and there’s still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to increasing access to startup wealth creation. (All three women are white, for one—although the international landscape has seen slightly greater diversity of female-founder exits).

For now, the trio is celebrating their personal milestones—and waiting to see how they might change the future of female founders. Says Wojcicki: “Seeing all these women actually having liquidity is amazing.”

Read our full cover story here.

Emma Hinchliffe
emma.hinchliffe@fortune.com
@_emmahinchliffe

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe

ALSO IN THE HEADLINES

- Case two. The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Wednesday over a Mississippi abortion case that is seen as a matter without a middle ground. (The court hasn't yet issued a decision on the Texas law.) In this case, the court can either "reaffirm the constitutional right to an abortion or wipe it away altogether." AP

- In and out. Well, that was fast. The tenure of Sweden's first female prime minister lasted just a few hours. Magdalena Andersson was forced to resign after a setback on her budget proposal. She'll face another vote this week. Bloomberg

- Settlement disclosures. Pinterest settled a shareholder lawsuit alleging that executives enabled a culture of discrimination. As part of the settlement, Pinterest is releasing employees from nondisclosure agreements in cases of racial or gender-based harassment. For more on that topic, read this profile of Pinterest whistleblower Ifeoma Ozoma. 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

- Don't bank on itFive centrist Democratic senators, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, are opposing President Joe Biden's nomination of Saule Omarova for comptroller of the currency. The White House is continuing to back Omarova for the banking regulator job, although her confirmation now appears unlikely. Axios

- Local leadership. South Africa achieved a major milestone for women's leadership, when women took charge of three out of eight of the country's largest municipalities. Mpho Phalatse is the new mayor of Johannesburg; Tania Campbell was named mayor of Ekurhuleni; and Eugene Johnson is leading Nelson Mandela Bay. Bloomberg

- Rule review. Last week, British MP Stella Creasy took her baby with her onto the floor of parliament. The House of Commons authorities reprimanded the Labour Party politician, telling her bringing a child into Westminster Hall wasn't allowed under current rules. Creasy shared the private complaint publicly, and the rules are now under review. NBC News

ON MY RADAR

The policing of Native American pregnancies has to stop Jezebel

Real men drive electric trucks The Atlantic

Lawsuit: ClassPass built fitness empire on thousands of 'fake' partnerships Vice

PARTING WORDS

"I would never want stardom so much that I would compromise my own integrity. And I have no problem taking a stand for anybody."

-Actor Natalie Mendoza on starring in Moulin Rouge: The Musical, speaking up about Harvey Weinstein, and her decade-long departure from Broadway

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