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Exclusive: Female-founded unicorns quadrupled last year—but made up just 15% of billion-dollar companies

April 11, 2022, 1:15 PM UTC

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.

Courtesy of Female Founders Fund

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.)

Anu Duggal, founding partner at Female Founders Fund.
Courtesy of Female Founders Fund

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.

Emma Hinchliffe
emma.hinchliffe@fortune.com
@_emmahinchliffe

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ALSO IN THE HEADLINES

- A voté. President Emmanuel Macron was in the lead in Sunday's French presidential election with about 27% of the vote to Marine Le Pen’s 24%. But Macron will face a runoff with the far-right politician later this month, going into the second round as the favorite. New York Times

- From Ukraine. First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska talked to Vogue about the ongoing war in her country. Discussing the onset of violence and Russia's aggression, Zelenska says she wants readers to understand that Ukrainian women "lived a peaceful, modern life" and were not prepared to hide in bomb shelters from missile attacks. Vogue

- Best of the best. Fortune's annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For is out today. Companies were selected based on employees' views of their employers and the benefits they offer, from tuition payments to paid family leave. Accenture, led by CEO Julie Sweet, is among the top 10. Explore the list here: Fortune

- Keeping her Cool. Tracy Britt Cool worked for Warren Buffett for a decade. Now the Buffett protégé is running her own firm, Kanbrick, which aims to buy the kinds of companies Buffett himself might have invested in "30 or 40 years ago." Wall Street Journal

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Regulatory tech company Trulioo hired TransUnion SVP Dawn Crew as CMO. 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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- Jury says. Jurors on Friday acquitted two of the four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and declared a mistrial for the remaining two. Others have been charged in connection with the kidnapping conspiracy. Two men pleaded guilty before the trial and eight more were charged with related crimes in state court. Whitmer's office said in response to the news that "the governor remains focused on her work." CNN

- Bet on it. Sports betting startup Gaming Society raised $3.5 million in seed funding to bring sports betting to a more diverse group of sports fans. The company, cofounded by Players Tribune cofounder Jaymee Messler and Kevin Garnett, hopes to bring more women into the sports betting scene and increase bets on women's sports. (See: last week's women's N.C.A.A. championship, the most-watched women's college basketball final in two decades.) Fortune

- Home run. In more sports news, Opening Day last week marked the start of the 2022 baseball season. This year, more women are in professional roles in the sport than ever before. Rachel Balkovec kicked off her career as the first female manager of an MLB-affiliated team, the minor league Tampa Tarpons, with a win on Friday. 

ON MY RADAR

What does workplace retaliation look like? Teen Vogue

Women who say they've been sexually harassed by food-delivery drivers say the companies are failing to help them Business Insider

Seeing Britney Spears on Instagram as she sees herself Bustle

The end of mom guilt The Atlantic

PARTING WORDS

"She’s saying, 'I’m a person still, and I’m my person.'"

-Renée Ann Cramer, an academic and author of Pregnant With the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump, on the meaning of Rihanna's pregnancy style. Cramer is quoted in a New York Times piece by Vanessa Friedman about the politics of the star's maternity wear. 

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