Contractor Advice
By: Chris Shepherd

Understanding Unicorns: Where did the top level executives of billion dollar companies go to university?

Although you may have heard the term unicorn, you might not be familiar with what it means. A unicorn in business terms doesn’t refer to the mythical horse with a horn on its head, but is instead a privately owned company worth in excess of a billion US dollars.

Even if you haven’t heard of the term, you might have heard of some of the companies that come under the definition: Stripe, Klarna, Squarespace, Reddit, Revolut and Bolt. The list is pretty big. In fact, according to CBInsights, there are currently 701 unicorns in the world right now.

But who founded these hugely successful companies? Who works in the highly-coveted c-level positions, and who sits on the board. More to the point, which universities did they attend?

In order to answer this question and discover if there is truly a correlation between the university you attend and your likelihood in being involved in a highly valuable start-up, we’ve analysed Crunchbase in order to discover the educational background of their highest level employees.

Which university has produced the most unicorn executives?

Unsurprisingly, Stanford University, the elite institution that has become a cradle of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, has produced the most executives of unicorns. Among this list are specific founders; Porter Gale who founded Reddit, Jack Conte who co-founded Patreon, and Edward Kim, who is a co-founder and the Head of Engineering at Gusto.

Stanford, which has been shown before to have produced the most founders outright, has further cemented their status as a unicorn staple. In a surprising second place is the University of California, Berkeley, with 114 executives originally studying there. Producing the likes of Roseanne Wincek, Investor of Glossier and Peter Sonsini, Board member at Databricks.

Although Harvard finished in third place overall, it is the leader when it comes to Ivy League schools, with 102 unicorn executives overall. Closely followed by its Business School counterpart, the Massachusetts college, which is famous for the fact that it has produced Facebook founder, and former unicorn, Mark Zuckerberg, but it has also produced such luminaries as Harry Nelis, who is a partner at Celonis, Lexi Reese who is the COO at Gusto and Neeraj Agrawal, who is the General Partner at Sprinklr.

Which countries have produced the most unicorn executives?

We have discovered not just the top universities on the list, but also the countries that have produced the most as well. The clear winner is the United States, with 2,757 unicorn executives, including the likes of Christian Lanng, CEO and Co-Founder of Tradeshift, Doug Mack who is the Board Director and CEO of Fanatics and Liza Landsman, General Partner of Squarespace. 279 US executives also come from Ivy League schools.

Taking the silver position is the United Kingdom, which has produced almost 217 unicorn executives and is one of the two European countries in the top five. 14 of UK unicorn executives went to the University of Oxford, including Hagan Bayley who is the Founder and Director of Oxford Nanopore Technologies, Jan Hammer who is the main investor and Partner at Robinhood and Collibra, and also Jason Austin who is the President and Co-Founder of Greensill Capital.

China, which has recently had a boom in start-up culture, resulting in a number of unicorns springing up, comes in 3rd place with 161 executives, whilst Hong Kong is 19th place, with only 12 unicorn executives. The majority of China and Hong Kong’s executives also went to University in the United States.

Mexico and Austria come in joint 20th place, with 8 unicorn executives each. Joint last place is Japan and Denmark who closely follow with 6 executives each.

Which Ivy League university has produced the most unicorn executives?

Harvard wins when it comes to Ivy League schools, with 102 unicorn executives overall, even though it places second out of all Universities. Famous as a law school as well as a business school, it has produced 55 more unicorn executives than the Cornell University, and 95 more than Columbia University. Yale ranks 3rd place with 36 executives.

American Football rivals Cornell and Dartmouth have competition not only on the pitch but also in the boardroom. Cornell comes in 2nd and Datrmouth places 5th. They have produced luminaries such as Josh Stein, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Talkdesk and also Jennifer Goldsmith, the Founder of Benchling.

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Methodology & Sources

We analysed Crunchbase’s unicorn seed list as a starting point to determine the private companies that have a valuation of $1bn or more. In the end we analysed 550 unicorns with workable data on the site.

From there we crawled this list of employees under their People tab, taking the education that is listed by Crunchbase. Where it was missing we supplemented where possible with LinkedIn profiles.

For the purposes of this study we have defined executive as any of the following positions: “CEO, Founder, Director, Board Member and any C-Level position.

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