Who Do Unicorns Look for When They Want to Hire – The Answer May Surprise You

Want to hire like a unicorn? For one, look for people with no university degrees or equivalent educational qualification. According to a recent report by venture fund Notion Capital, unicorn companies are more likely than their non-unicorn counterparts to have at least one senior leader who possesses no degree. Yes, you read that right: not just any position in the company, but one with a prominent leadership role no less. Why is this so? If anything, the research conducted by Notion Capital highlights the importance of diversity and possessing multiple and varying points of view on a leadership team to bring out the best, while suggesting that startups and companies should reconsider the importance they place on a person’s educational background and qualifications.

Of course, just because the report says that unicorns hire people with no degrees to senior leadership positions, it doesn’t mean that they entirely ignore those with higher educational qualifications. The study also noted that, while unicorns do often hire people from prestigious universities and educational institutions to fill important leadership positions, those same unicorns also have a higher tendency than their non-unicorn counterparts to fill a senior leadership role with a leader that possesses no degree qualifications at all. The numbers speak for themselves: almost three-quarters (78%) of unicorns have at least one senior leader who has no degree, whereas just below half (44%) of their non-unicorn counterparts do.

Fifty non-unicorn and fifty unicorn software companies participated in Notion Capital’s study. The study was carried out to determine the differences in the practice of both the unicorn and non-unicorn company’s early-stage leadership hiring process. Both the unicorn and non-unicorn companies that participated in the study are based in the United States and Europe and have raised similar amounts. The study gathered data on all the companies’ senior leadership teams, including presidents, vice presidents and executive-level managers within the company such as chief executive officers, chief financial officers and other C-suite roles. It should be pointed out that, for the purposes of this study, the category of leaders with no degrees also encompass those who dropped out of university before completing their courses and getting their degrees.

One reason for the prevalence of senior leaders with no degrees in unicorns is that these leaders have to put in a lot more effort and work harder to get there, so by the time they have climbed up the senior leadership ranks they are already steeped in worldly experience. Maddy Cross, who led the research, believed that people who did not finish or participate in university degree programs have had to put in a lot more effort and push themselves harder in order to succeed, so by the time they become leaders of organizations or businesses they are already quite distinguished. The study also found that the two most prevalent pathways to senior leadership roles for those with no degrees is through technical and sales positions, with a common characteristic being those who are self-taught in coding.

The study also found that unicorns, when compared to their non-unicorn counterparts, are also more likely to have senior hires from top tier universities among their ranks. It can be gathered that one key component for a unicorn’s success is their diverse leadership teams, as the study also found that the leadership teams of unicorns even have a significant variation in the number of years of experience their leaders had. So, to hire like a unicorn, expand the pool of potential hires to include those with no degrees, and who want to work harder and smarter to prove themselves.