Who are the serial entrepreneurs behind unicorns?

Photo Monique Dagnaud / Emerita Research Director, Institut Marcel Mauss (CNRS-EHESS) / October 4th, 2016

Over 60,000 US Internet startups have been created over the last decade but only 0.14% turned into unicorns i.e. startup companies with a market capitalization over one billion dollars. Who are the serial entrepreneurs who founded them? This winners club covered 84 entities in 2015 – against 39 in 2013. They have a very distinctive profile.

Nearly half of them went to Ivy League and other high level universities (Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton), even if they didn’t always complete their studies; only 19% are genuinely self-taught and dropped out of college. They all have a very strong technological background and most of them are engineers, computer science experts, designers. On average, they were around 34 years old when they created their startup and most of them still manage their firm. Startups are almost always a shared adventure between friends. 86% started their project with a partner, after having created other companies. One feature is known: there are very few women (under 10%). Another is much less: the strong presence of immigrants as half of these founders were born abroad (India, Iran, Israel and Ireland in particular). The dynamic growth of the tech sector, the fascination for American universities, not to mention the many opportunities of the Silicon Valley, attract talent from all around the world. This effervescent melting pot gave birth to a kind of universal language that merges technological knowledge, American values and a range of world cultures: many leaders of Asian and European unicorns went to California and later exported this kind of spirit (Jean-Paul Simon, How to catch a Unicorn, report for the European Commission). In addition, several features define these elites that control the renewal of the economy under the aegis of the mobile Internet.


Their driving force is their simple faith in innovation and, without false modesty, the energy they invest into reinventing the world. This is best observed in countless events organized by and around techies: forums, meetings, workshops, conferences and summits. “We need to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to create” was the opening question of Blecharczyk Nathan, one of the founders of Airbnb, at the “Collaborative, Peer, and Sharing Economy Summit” at the University of New York, in May 2014 – by which question he was merely repeating and emphasizing the gospel of all techies. In an article for the New Yorker devoted to the venture capital community, writer Tad Friend closely analyzed what the Silicon Valley was playing at (in a literal sense): their game is neither about unconventional intelligence, nor illogical investments, nor even wealth. It’s about prescience: “It’s not only a matter of seeing the future, but of summoning it”. In the American society where religious lyricism and the enthusiasm for new frontiers both run very deep, many figures of the high-tech sector have adopted a preacher’s voice. From projections on human enhancement to travels on Mars, no dream seems out of reach. These digital encounters continuously reactivate endogenous socialization and cultivate the miniature star system of some members of this e-aristocracy: Tim Berners-Lee, co-inventor of the World Wide Web, was greeted by a public holding lit candles during the Futur-en-Seine festival in June 2014; Rachel Bostman, the diva of collaborative economy, was welcomed as an oracle during the Ouishare Fest, in 2014.

Second feature, a love/hate relationship with academia: they both bathed in it and despise it. On the whole, the masters of the Internet are not really self-taught. It is true that many pioneers of the IT in the 1970s (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Stallman, Jimmy Wales… impossible to list them all) never really completed their studies. These mythical figures of the computer revolution, tired of classroom lectures, tried their luck in real life. Among more recent examples, in 2012, Evan Spiegel from Stanford devised the concept of Snapchat when he was 23 and abandoned his studies in Art and Design to devote himself to his project. When looking these examples, it could seem that the world of the Internet is full of rebels boasting their extra-small academic background. Nothing would be farther from the truth: Internet companies are mostly run by former students of the Ivy League or Californian universities. In terms of diplomas and self-confidence, not to say arrogance, they have nothing to envy to other elites. In the US, dropping out university never bothered anyone. It can even give extra credit to individuals who believe in their personal project and lucky star. In the jungle of the tech sector, universities have a poor reputation and many leaders of the digital economy despise the kind of intellectual conditioning, sterilizing of imagination and lack of risk they entail. Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, despite being doctor in law from Stanford, agrees to this. Putting his beliefs into practice, he launched in 2011 a program entitled 20 under 20: its purpose was to select on record geeks under 20 and giving them $100,000 to launch a startup or a research project… provided they drop out school.

More generally, the system of values of the founders of Silicon Valley reflects the system of values of American businesses (cf. journalist Gregory Ferenstein’s 2015 investigation based on 129 entrepreneurs). Unsurprisingly, these leaders are radically pro-business: they aren’t favorable to unions, they advocate for the extension entrepreneurial freedom and they think, among other examples, that the school system could be improved if it were run like a business. Their vision of society is that of an inegalitarian meritocracy. They aren’t shocked by income inequalities. According to them, incomes must be aligned on the contribution that each brings to society. This naturally induces inequalities between individuals. Besides, they also think, rather bluntly, “that citizens don’t have the same potential, the same talent, to contribute to society”. In other words, they say aloud what many US or foreign contractors think to themselves.

Their optimism leads them to think that every social problem finds its solution in more innovation, more education and a free flow of information. For them, information transparency is a panacea. However, they view this problem with a certain opportunism: they act as fierce sentinels of freedom of expression, but do not eschew high secrecy in their own business. They believe in the interdependence of relationships within society – any action by one affects all the others – and thus, they don’t project at all an atomistic vision of the social world. In contrast, they embrace the interactional philosophy, as worthy heirs of cybernetic memory. Far from the idea of the providential man.

These zealots of libertarians principles in terms of business philosophy, are quite the opposite, politically speaking. They readily recognize that the development of the Internet was based on the fiscal effort of the US government, the army and university centers. Without these efforts, nothing would have happened. They are often Democrats: 59% supported Obama’s health reform, 60% rejected the Keystone XL project (a pipeline environmentalists deemed harmful). On the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election, their preference matches that of cultivated layers of society and the establishment. Overall, they all run for Hillary Clinton, with the notable exception of Peter Thiel, who supports Donald Trump. However, there’s a substantial problem: this apparent openness quickly reaches its limits because their distrust towards the government and bureaucracy is very strong. They have more confidence in private foundations from people like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to solve their problems of poverty and cultural inequality – a rather widespread way of thinking among the American society. In reality, the turmoil and political debates have little impact on these contractors caught in an obsessive race for innovation, fundraising and creating shareholder value.

In the Forbes 2016 ranking of world’s wealthiest, the top 20 names include six founders of tech companies (Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Bill Gates). Among the many approaches to this new economy, one can focus on the opening of this inner circle of managers/proprietors: has there ever been, in history, a techno-cultural shifting lever as powerful as the Internet? So powerful, in fact, that within a few years from their creation, world fortunes have emerged from nothing.

The first version of this article was originally published in French by our syndication partner Telos-eu.com.



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