Gone are the days when college hopefuls picked a campus merely because it was close to the beach. For today’s entrepreneurially minded set, the choice of higher education could open doors to a Series A or even the first billion.
Specifically, we wanted to see which school has produced the most unicorns, privately held startups valued over $1 billion, over the past decade. Especially when the U.S. student loan debt reaches a staggering $1.53 trillion, which campus statistically offers the most promising return?
Several schools position themselves as premier academic institutions for the entrepreneurial elite of the startup scene. Among these are a handful of Ivy League Universities, naturally. Yet, Stanford, MIT, and the University of California, Berkeley are the real standouts, together producing billion-dollar startup founders at a prodigious rate. In fact, let’s call the latter “Tech Ivies” for the sake of this argument.
As background, we looked only at unicorn startups founded in the mid-2000s. The population is not meant to be collectively exhaustive of all unicorns but a sufficient sample to form reliable conclusions.
Of the 455 unicorn founders we examined, across 226 unique companies, 57 came from just these 3 universities, whereas the Legacy Ivies produced just over half the number of unicorn founders as the Tech Ivies.
Stanford sets the bar high. No less than 30 co-founders of unicorn startups in the last 5 years have their most recent educational experience at Stanford, for instance:
- The entire DoorDash Team of Tony Xu, Stanley Tang, and Andy Fang.
- Newly minted rockstars Baijju Bhatt and Vladimir Tenev of Robinhood fame.
- Two-thirds of the GoodRx team, Scott Marlette and Trevor Bezdek.
Something novel is at play here. A single school, renowned though it may be, churned out as many founders of billion-dollar startups in the last five years as Harvard, UPenn, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Columbia combined.
While the Tech Ivies punch above their weight, the Legacy Ivies remain well-represented in the ranks of the unicorn club. Harvard’s 12 unicorn founders were the most from any legacy Ivy, good for the number 3 spot above Berkeley. Yale, Penn, and Columbia clean up on the regatta-circuit, but their combined contribution of 18 unicorn founders barely edges out MIT alone. We did not discover any startup unicorn talent who graduated from Brown, Dartmouth, or Princeton.
Age, Gender, Team-Play
Comparing Tech Ivies against Legacy Ivies vs. schools in the non-Ivy category, a few interesting similarities emerge:
- Unicorn founders started their companies at roughly the same age.
- They took roughly the same number of years to reach $1 billion.
- They have comparable current valuations.
However, a couple of patterns diverged:
- Legacy Ivies graduated female unicorn founders at more than twice the rate of either Tech Ivies or non-Ivies, though women remain a distressingly small minority in the industry.
- A unicorn founder from a non-Ivy is more than two times as likely to be a sole founder (22.5%) than a unicorn founder from a Tech Ivy (9.4%). At Stanford, Berkeley, or MIT, it’s probably easier to find a second or third person with an entrepreneurial mindset willing to embark on a decade-long startup adventure.
Both Stanford and Berkeley have the luxury of proximity to Silicon Valley and a long history of co-operative engagement with the industry. When your stats professor used to consult with Larry Page in Google’s earliest days and your academic advisor is Sergey Brin’s squash partner, those connections matter. Access to elite faculty and a wealth of institutional knowledge is a formidable advantage.
Impressive, too, is the rapidity with which Stanford and Berkeley have transformed from local schools catering to in-state California students into powerhouses of the tech/startup space comparable to MIT.
What about levels of educational attainment? Non-Ivy-League founders are much more likely to have founded their unicorn with only a bachelor’s degree (>50%) than founders from the Legacy (~30%) and Tech (~25%) Ivies. Meanwhile, Stanford (6) and MIT (9) have more Ph.D.-holding unicorn founders than all other schools combined (15), per our data.
MBAs among unicorn founders are most popular at the Ivy League level.
- Oscar Health Insurance co-founders Joshua Kushner and Mario Schlosser were 2 of 6 co-founders that attended Harvard Business School.
- All 7 of UPenn’s unicorn founders earned their MBAs there. Most of UPenn’s unicorn cohort comes from Warby Parker’s entire co-founding team of Jeff Raider, Andrew Hunt, Neil Blumenthal, and David Gilboa.
Finally, 53 founders came out of Tech Ivies compared to 34 from the Legacy Ivies, but 138 came out of non-Ivy educational backgrounds. If you have the aspirational drive to build a truly successful startup, you can make it happen without an Ivy degree to your name. But if you are looking to an elite institution of higher learning to equip you with the right education and connections, then a Tech Ivy education tends to serve you better than a Legacy Ivy.
Or if all else fails, look for the one closest to the beach.