MBA News: MBAs Founded 25 Percent of 2019’s 50 Top-Valued Unicorn Startups

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About a quarter of the 50 unicorn startups with the world’s highest valuations count at least one MBA as a founder, according to new data analyzed by BSchools.

Surprisingly, however, unicorn startup founders make up a much more diverse group than the press and commentators appear to suggest. That’s encouraging news for most entrepreneurs who aspire to launch their own unicorn startup.

Privately held startup firms carrying valuations over $1 billion are called unicorns. In a pioneering analysis published by TechCrunch in 2013, Palo Alto, California venture capital investor Aileen Lee originally coined the term in reference to “magical” qualities associated with such rare performers. Lee’s analysis disclosed only 39 firms that met her criteria as United States-based “software firms started after 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors.” Of venture-backed consumer and enterprise software startups, that worked out to only include about 0.07 percent.

Times have changed and although the $1 billion threshold remains, the term’s usage has broadened somewhat since Lee’s article six years ago. As of October 2019, 496 unicorns exist worldwide, according to TechCrunch’s free public tracking database the publication calls the Crunchbase Unicorn Leaderboard. These unicorns so far have raised an aggregate of $370.4 billion in funding and their valuations total $1.8 trillion. To put that in perspective, that aggregate valuation is about 8 percent of the entire gross domestic product of the United States and roughly equivalent to Canada’s GDP.

Moreover, Lee’s term has spawned its own lexicon. Unicorns with valuations over $10 billion are now known as decacorns, and those valued above $100 billion are called hectocorns.

Two of the most widely known former unicorns, the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, went public earlier in 2019. At the time of this writing, the largest unicorns currently include the Chinese hectocorn Ant Financial and the American decacorns Airbnb, JUUL, and Palantir Technologies.

Do Unicorn Startup Founders Require Technical Degrees from Elite Universities?

The press and commentators have suggested the notion that unicorn founders are almost exclusively STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) students or graduates of only a few highly selective research universities like Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Berkeley.

Maybe that was true at one time, but our 2019 analysis doesn’t support that contention. The lack of technical training from an elite university certainly does not disqualify a founder from launching a startup that grows into a well-financed unicorn.

We examined the LinkedIn profiles of each of the 87 founders who started the 50 unicorns with the highest valuations tracked by CrunchBase’s Leaderboard in October 2019. These 87 founders earned approximately 96 university degrees. (Our data isn’t exhaustively accurate because not every founder with an advanced degree discloses an undergraduate degree on their LinkedIn profile.)

Business administration students and graduates, who make up most of BSchools readership, should especially take heart. Of the top 50 unicorns, 12 of them—or 24 percent—were started by at least one MBA founder. Moreover, 19 of them—or 38 percent—were started by at least one founder with a business administration degree, either at the undergraduate or graduate level. And compared to the impression created by the press and many commentators, that’s a fairly healthy percentage of founders with degrees in fields besides strictly STEM-related disciplines.

What is Surprising About Unicorn Founders’ Backgrounds?

But what did surprise us was the geographical diversity of the founders and their university degrees. For example, of the fifteen universities that conferred business administration degrees to unicorn founders, six of the universities are based in China. Of those six business schools, two are joint ventures with American or European institutions.

Business Schools of Founders with MBAs

United States

  • Harvard University: Harvard Business School (four founders)
  • Stanford University: Stanford Graduate School of Business (four founders)
  • University of Pennsylvania: Wharton School
  • Columbia University: Columbia Business School
  • Northwestern University: Kellogg School of Management

China

  • Tsinghua-MIT Global MBA
  • Fudan University
  • China Europe International Business School (Executive MBA)
  • Peking University (Executive MBA)

Business Schools of Founders with Undergraduate Business Administration Degrees

United States

  • University of Pennsylvania: Wharton School
  • Boston University: Questrom School of Business
  • University of Southern California: Marshall School of Business
  • City University of New York (CUNY): Baruch College

China

  • Zhejiang Gongshang University
  • Zhongnan University of Economics & Law

Unicorn Founders’ Geographic Diversity

If many United States readers who don’t closely follow business news publications are surprised to learn that six Chinese universities conferred business administration degrees to founders of Chinese unicorns currently valued at $318 billion, they might also be surprised to learn other facts that we uncovered from this data.

For example, most of the unicorns among the current Top 50 are not headquartered in the United States. In fact, only 22 of the top 50 unicorns, or 44 percent, are U.S. companies.

Traditionally, founders from all over the world moved to Silicon Valley to launch startups, mostly because that’s where all the “infrastructure” (i.e., the aspects of technology production) was based. They came to the Valley starting in the early 1960s because everything one could possibly need to start a technology business was available between San Francisco and San Jose—from custom wafer fabrication equipment and services, software design and development, and management of technical teams, to the capital required to finance all these new ventures in the first place.

A good example of a startup that followed this model is the unicorn with the 22nd-highest valuation in the world at $11 billion. That’s the wild, hyper-deep-discount online store Wish.com, where many items cost nothing or next-to-nothing so long as patient customers pay “shipping charges” to transport the goods directly from Asian manufacturers that bypass middlemen.

Wish’s founders are two STEM graduates of a college which for five decades has offered one of the top-ranked computer science programs in the world: the University of Waterloo. After many years in Silicon Valley working for Google, partners Peter Szulczewski and Danny Zhang set up shop, not just east of Toronto, Canada near their alma mater, but in San Francisco—one of many cities near San Jose that makes up the greater Silicon Valley.

But by contrast, and largely thanks to the Internet, many other unicorn founders have reversed this trend. Most capitalized on their education and contacts from top-tier U.S. universities to help them win backing for their startups from investor syndicates that typically included U.S. venture capital firms. But then, several of these founders domiciled their startups outside the United States. Soon they grew into unicorns like these:

  • Grab, a Southeast Asian clone of Uber ranked #17 and valued at $14 billion, was launched in Singapore by Anthony Tan and Hooi Ling Tan—and no, they’re not a couple—who met at Harvard Business School (watch their August 2019 Bloomberg video interview).
  • Free MasterCard provider Nubank, valued at $10 billion and ranked 25th, may have been launched by two Stanford MBAs and a Northwestern MBA, but calls São Paulo home.
  • Billionaire Harvard College graduate and Harvard Business School dropout Bom Kim based his $9 billion “Amazon Killer” unicorn, named Coupang, not in Seattle, but in Seoul.
  • Mark Yang, who graduated from Yale with a master’s degree in computer science, launched his online car sales platform Chehaoduo—now valued at $9 billion—in Beijing.
  • And Vivek Ramaswamy, a Harvard College and Yale Law School graduate, headquartered his $7 billion biopharma giant Roivant Sciences not in South San Francisco next to Genentech, but in Basel, Switzerland.

Unicorn Founders’ Collaboration Patterns

We also spotted some surprising trends in the collaboration patterns of the unicorn founders.

Collaboration Among Co-Founders Trained at Stanford and Harvard Universities

Based on our small sample, in general it appears that founders from Stanford University tend not to collaborate with founders trained by other universities. We counted 13 founders, granted 15 degrees by Stanford, who launched five unicorn startups currently valued at a combined $89 billion: DoorDash, Nubank, Robinhood, JUUL, and the highly secretive U.S. government contractor Palantir Technologies. (Palantir is currently facing intense controversy for reportedly selling big data mining software and technical support to Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE], a United States federal agency with a $6 billion-budget that conducts raids to deport undocumented immigrants. ICE’s relationship with Palantir appears to have launched as early as 2014, during the Obama Administration.)

To the extent disclosed by our sources, these 13 Stanford-trained entrepreneurs collaborated with only three co-founders from other universities. One co-founder, Northwestern University MBA Cristina Junqueira of Nubank, also happens to be the only woman among the five Stanford founder teams.

By contrast, founders trained at Harvard University seem much more willing to collaborate with those trained at other schools—apparently at least if their co-founders also attended private universities.

Harvard alumni co-founded six of the top 50 unicorn startups: in addition to Coupang, Roivant Sciences, and Grab, they also founded Airbnb, GoJek, and Hulu. These unicorns currently account for $77 billion in valuation. And in all but one of these cases, the Harvard alums teamed up with co-founders trained at other universities—none of which was Stanford.

Harvard alumni’s co-founders trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, MIT, the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, Boston University’s Questrom School of Business—and incredibly enough, even at a public university: the College of William and Mary.

Collaboration Among Co-Founders Trained by Chinese Universities

Two aspects relating to the Chinese founders’ collaboration patterns also struck us as remarkable. First, we couldn’t find a single example of Chinese founders who collaborated with co-founders from any nation outside of China.

And second, seven of the Chinese unicorns among the top 50 were launched by only three founders. Billionaire tycoon Liu Qiangdong alone has launched three unicorns; fintech mogul Peter Ma has founded two. And Lucy Peng founded both the $30 billion Beijing-headquartered Alibaba subsidiary, Alibaba Bendi Shenghuo Fuwu Gongsi, as well as the world’s top-valued hectocorn: the Hangzhou-based $150 billion fintech secured transaction provider, Ant Financial.

This analysis should clarify who has founded the world’s most lucrative startups, and time will tell whether these trends hold.

Check out the research for this piece below, including information on where the top 50 most valuable companies are based; their founders; and the types of degrees their founders hold.

Unicorn Company Founders & Degrees (Research)

Company (Country) Founders MBAs? Founders’ Alma Maters & Degrees
Ant Financial (China) Lucy Peng (Peng Lei) Zhejiang Gongshang University, BBA
ByteDance (China) Yiming Zhang Nankai University BS Software Engineering
Infor (USA) Jim Schaper University of South Carolina BA in Journalism
Didi Chuxing (China) Bo Zhang, Cheng Wei University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing University of Chemical Technology
We Company (USA)* Adam Neumann, Miguel McKelvey BBA Baruch College | University of Oregon BA Architecture
Lu.com (China) Peter Ma Zhongnan University of Economics & Law
JUUL (USA)* Adam Bowen, James Monsees, Kevin Burns, Tim Danaher 1 Stanford University MS Prod Design | Stanford University MS Product Design | Wharton (MBA) | Loyola University Maryland BBA
Airbnb (USA) Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, Nathan Blecharczyk RISD BFA ID | RISD BFA ID/GD | Harvard University BSCS
SpaceX (USA) Elon Musk Wharton (Undergraduate)
Alibaba Bendi Shenghuo Fuwu Gongsi (China) Jack Ma, Lucy Peng (Peng Lei) Hangzhou Normal University B.A. in English | Zhejiang Gongshang University, BBA
Stripe (USA) John Collison, Patrick Collison Harvard College, physics (in process) | MIT
Palantir Technologies (USA) Alexander Karp, Garry Tan, Joe Lonsdale, Nathan Gettings, Peter Thiel, Stephen Cohen Stanford (JD) | Stanford BSCS | Stanford BSCS | N/L, Stanford (JD), NL
JD Digits (China) Liu Qiangdong 1 EMBA China Europe International Business School
Kuaishou Technology (China) Su Hua Tsinghua University
Epic Games (USA) Mark Rein, Tim Sweeney Unknown | University of Maryland ME
Grab (Singapore) Anthony Tan, Hooi Ling Tan 2 Harvard Business School, Harvard Business School
JD Logistics (China) Liu Qiangdong EMBA China Europe International Business School
DoorDash (USA) Andy Fang, Evan Moore, Stanley Tang, Tony Xu 2 Stanford CS, Stanford GSB, Stanford CS (in progress), Stanford GSB
Samumed (USA) Osman Kibar Caltech BSEE, UCSD PhD Biophotonics & Optoelectronics
Bitmain (China) Wu Jihan, Micree Zhan Peking University Econ & Psychology | Shandong University BSEE, Chinese Academy of Sciences MSEE
Wish (USA) Danny Zhang, Peter Szulczewski University of Waterloo BS Math & CS, MS Math | University of Waterloo BS Math & CS
Ke.com (China) Peng Yongdong 1 Zhejiang University BSEE, Tsinghua-MIT Global MBA
One97 Communications (India) Vijay Shekhar Sharma Delhi College of Engineering BSEE
Nubank (Brazil) Adam Edward Wible, Cristina Junqueira, David Velez 3 Princeton CS, Stanford GSB | University of São Paulo, Northwestern MBA | Stanford BSMSE, Stanford GSB
GoJek (India) Kevin Aluwi, Michaelangelo Moran, Nadiem Makarim 1 USC Marshall BS | Boston U. Questrom BS | Harvard Business School
Coupang (South Korea) Bom Kim Harvard College, Harvard Business School In process
Chehaoduo (China) Mark Yang Yale MCS, UST MSE
Coinbase (USA) Brian Armstrong, Fred Ehrsam Rice BCS MCS | Duke BSCS
DJI (China) Frank Wang Hong Kong University of SciTech
Instacart (USA) Apoorva Mehta, Brandon Leonardo, Max Mullen Waterloo BSEE | SJSU BSCS | USC BBA
Robinhood (USA) Baiju Bhatt, Vlad Tenev B.S. in Physics and M.S. in Mathematics at Stanford | B.S. in Mathematics at Stanford
OneConnect (China) Peter Ma Zhongnan University of Economics & Law
Jiedaibao (China) Tongchuang JD Capital Shareholding Co., Ltd N/A
Uber ATG (USA) Eric Meyhofer Carnegie Mellon University BSEE
Roivant Sciences (Multiple) Vivek Ramaswamy Harvard College A.B. in biology, Yale Law
JD Health (China) Liu Qiangdong 1 EMBA China Europe International Business School
Tokopedia (India) Leontinus Alpha Edison, William Tanuwijaya Universitas Atma Jaya Yogyakarta BSIT | Bina Nusantara University BSIT, Harvard Kennedy School
UI Path (USA) Daniel Dines, Marius Tirca Universitatea din București MSCS | Politehnica University Bucharest BSCS
Melcal (China) Chuanjun Liu, Xueyin Xu Chinese Academy of Sciences BSAE | University of Science and Technology of China BS Physics
Argo AI (USA) Bryan Salesky, Peter Rander University of Pittsburgh BSCE | Carnegie Mellon University MS PhD EECS
Tanium (USA) David Hindawi, Orion Hindawi Israel Institute of Technology BSIE MSIE, UC Berkeley PhD | UC Berkeley, in process
Magic Leap (USA) Brian Schowengerdt, Rony Abovitz BS Psychology, PhD Psychology UC Davis | University of Miami MS Biomedical Engineering
Snapdeal (India) Kunal Bahl, Rohit Bansal BSME, BBA University of Pennsyslvania | Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi BSEE
Compass (USA) Ori Allon, Robert Reffkin, Ugo Di Girolamo 1 UNSW Phd CS | Columbia BA MBA | University “La Sapienza” of Rome AeroEng
SenseTime (China) Bing Xu, Li Xu, Xiaogang Wang, Xiaolan Xu Chinese University Hong Kong BS, Ph.D. in process | MSIE Chinese University Hong Kong, Ph.D. MIT
HomeLink, Lianjia (China) Zuo Hui 1 EMBA from Peking University
Manbang Group (China) Zhang Hui, Dai Wenjian
CMC Capital Group (China) Ruigang Li 1 Fudan University MBA
Unity Technologies (USA) David Helgason, Joachim Ante, Nicholas Francis Københavns Universitet, Physics & Psychology (in process) | Kaiserin Friedrich Gymnasium
Hulu (USA) Elizabeth Comstock, Jason Kilar 1 College of William and Mary BS Biology | UNC, Harvard Business School

Please note that as of fall 2019, the stock values of the We Company and JUUL were both in flux—the former due to a possible overvaluation at its IPO and the latter due to a rising death toll from vaping devices and a federal crackdown.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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