What It Takes to Lead a Unicorn

This Women’s History Month, our expert shares her advice for other women founders about the resiliency it takes to scale successfully.

Written by Anne Boden
Published on Mar. 05, 2024
What It Takes to Lead a Unicorn
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
Brand Studio Logo

Founding a business and then successfully scaling it to become a major player in the market is rare, but it does happen. To achieve this remarkable feat of scaling, a business needs to perfect the seemingly elusive combination of a great product, perfect timing, a determined founder, a talented and hardworking team, some chutzpah and a little bit of luck.

It has been said that leading a high-growth business is like hanging onto a rocket ship. It’s tense, exhausting and all consuming. Founders will think of nothing else. I stepped down as chief executive officer of Starling Bank in May 2023, and yet it is still my first thought every day. For the first few weeks, I had to make a conscious effort to not pick up the phone to a colleague every time I had an idea.

I stepped aside because the business had reached a size where it was felt that separating my two roles as a leader of the business and a large shareholder was in its best interests. The roles of shareholder and chief executive do differ. I do, however, remain on the board as a non-executive. What, then, can I share about the experience of running a high-growth business?

2024 Women in Business Statistics

  1. In the U.S., 42 percent of all businesses are women-owned.
  2. Businesses led by women employ 9.4 million workers and create $1.9 trillion in revenue per year.
  3. The main concern of women-owned businesses is to secure more funding.
  4. For women-owned businesses, the average loan size is 50 percent lower than for male-owned businesses.
  5. In the U.S., only 2.4 percent of venture capital funding goes to women founders.

More women voicesWant to Reach the Senior Level in IT? Here’s Advice from 5 Women Leaders.


What Is the Boiled Egg Syndrome?

My first observation is that the realization you are running a venture of significant size can hit you quite suddenly. For months and years, every waking hour is devoted to getting people to notice you and the startup. The number of hours spent in meetings, knocking on doors or appearing on Zooms will be into the thousands. Every ounce of energy will have been put into selling the idea of the startup to everyone, whether key hires, investors or customers. You’ll find yourself doing all sorts of things you maybe never dreamed of before.

I used my frustration about being discounted and turned it around, vowing to prove everyone wrong. It’s a powerful motivator and many other successful women founders do the same thing.

In our case, I realized that our distinctive teal-colored Starling cards were being used everywhere I looked. When I pop into a coffee shop and see people using our cards I still get excited about it, although I also want to interrupt their conversation to ask why they don’t use their phones to pay for their cappuccino. This is what entrepreneurs dream about in the early days.

There’s a downside, too. Women founders always come under intense scrutiny, and successful women founders will experience this to the extreme. Every action will be picked over by the media. If someone senior leaves, there will be question marks over whether women bosses are too harsh, or not harsh enough.

I call this boiled egg syndrome. Women leaders are always criticized for being too forthright, or not forthright enough. Never perfect. News about profits, or otherwise, will be picked over in minute detail.

Something else will happen, too, again because of the rarity value: Women founders will find themselves being approached by senior political figures, established business leaders and trade bodies, and invited to all sorts of events. It’s perceived to be good to have a successful woman around because it implies that the group doing the inviting are doing their bit for diversity. Of course, if not careful, it’s easy to end up being permanently showcased, rushing from one event to another. But, you can’t allow yourself to become distracted. Running a high-growth business is a 24/7 job.

More reading on women in techHow Bridging the AI Skills Gender Gap Will Reshape Our Workforce


What Does Resilience Look Like for Women Leaders?

No one will ever be as fully committed to a business as its founder or co-founders. All being well, the rest of the team will be proud of working for the startup, but they won’t see the jeopardy it gets into on the rollercoaster ride towards success. They won’t know that if a particular set of numbers isn’t reached that month, or that next round of funding secured, the business may need to close. They won’t experience the fear of being responsible for a group of people and their dependents.

That’s stressful. And, of course, that stress doesn’t just disappear once the business reaches a certain size.

I have asked myself: If I knew what it was going to be like when I started in 2014, would I still have done it? If anyone had told me that I would have more than 500 meetings with investors, would I have still decided this was a good idea? I am a rational person and on paper this does not seem like a sensible way to live one’s life. I think the naivety about what lay ahead helped. If someone asked me to start another bank today, I’d probably say “No way.”

I prefer to look at it in another, more positive way, which is, I realize, how I deal with pressure. Did those hundreds of meetings actually help me build a better business? I think they probably did. It was like having a really, really tough business coach. Plus, if I didn’t have to work so hard to raise money, I might have spent it more easily, without thinking about every pound that went out. I still believe that a great deal of the reason why Starling has been so successful is because we had to fight really hard to build it.

Female Founders’ Playbook cover
Image provided by Kogan Page

The other character trait that has always spurred me on is the deep-seated desire to prove everyone else wrong. I used my frustration about being discounted, knocked back and disparaged so often, and turned it around, vowing to prove everyone wrong. It’s a powerful motivator and many other successful women founders do the same thing.

The resilience of a founder will have an impact on the success — or otherwise — of their startup. Whatever reserves of strength you have, or whatever keeps you keeping on, is what you will need to draw upon when things are at their most difficult.

Something all women founders should realize is that there are not as many of us, but we are a powerful network. Not only that, we fully understand that challenges that we face with all sorts of people trying to put us back in our place. It is so good to have people beside you, people to whom you can say, “Why is it so difficult?”

This extract is from Female Founders’ Playbook by Anne Boden ©2024 and is reproduced and adapted with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. Read from women business role models on how to build a billion dollar business in Female Founders’ Playbook.

Hiring Now
JPMorgan Chase
Fintech • Machine Learning • Financial Services