Exclusive: Female-founded unicorns quadrupled last year—but made up just 15% of billion-dollar companies
Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list is out, First Lady Olena Zelenska discusses life in Ukraine, and women-led startups made strides in 2021. Have a meaningful Monday.
– Big year. The number of female-founded unicorns quadrupled in 2021, according to a new report by Female Founders Fund shared exclusively with Fortune.
Last year minted 83 new women-led and -founded unicorns worldwide—more than four times the 18 such companies in 2020, but still just 15% of the year’s 595 new unicorns overall.
Some of the year’s female-founded companies newly valued at more than $1 billion included Kate Ryder’s Maven Clinic, the first unicorn dedicated to women’s and family health; workforce management system Papaya Global, led by Eynat Guez and valued at $3.7 billion after a $440 million funding round; crypto-backed loan provider BlockFi, led by Flori Marquez and valued at $3 billion; and Adena Hefets’s real estate platform Divvy Homes, valued at $2 billion.
In the public market, seven women-led companies debuted with $1 billion-plus valuations in the U.S. The year’s notable exits included IAC spinoff Vimeo, led by Anjali Sud; the SPAC mergers of Nextdoor, led by CEO Sarah Friar, and 23andMe, led by CEO Anne Wojcicki; and the IPOs of Caryn Seidman-Becker’s Clear, Whitney Wolfe Herd’s Bumble, Jennifer Hyman’s Rent the Runway, and medical scrubs business FIGS, the first company to go public led by two female cofounders.
Standout M&A exits included the sales of Sara Blakely’s Spanx and Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine to Blackstone, Edgewell’s $310 million acquisition of Georgina Gooley’s razor business Billie, and Ro’s $225 million acquisition of Modern Fertility. Digital health proved to be an especially strong category for the highest valued women-led startups across the board.
The cash influx into women-led companies last year, and their successful exits, speaks not only to the uptick in capital routed to female founders, but also the potential that lies ahead, says Female Founders Fund founding partner Anu Duggal. “A powerful trickle down effect is going to disrupt the entire VC ecosystem,” she tells Fortune. “This is just the beginning. In many ways we haven’t even scratched the surface.” (Duggal is an investor in many, but not all, of the companies mentioned in her firm’s report.)
A number of women-led growth-stage companies also experienced wins last year, besides the year’s unicorns. Julia Cheek’s Everly Health raised $75 million, maintaining a $1.3 billion valuation; Shivani Siroya’s fintech business Tala closed a $145 million Series E; and addiction recovery program Workit Health, led by Lisa McLaughlin and Robin McIntosh, secured $118 million in Series C funding.
Of course, the ever-present question remains: will these trends hold up? One quarter into 2022, momentum for women-led startups seems to be strong, but with room to grow. Crunchbase found that about 10% of the this year’s 100 new unicorns globally are female-founded.
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