Behind some of the world’s leading unicorns and startup ventures today are a collective of founders who you might not have heard of. The common denominator among this group of high-flyers is that they’ve all proven to the business industry that they have what it takes to make it on their own.
Whether success comes down to grit, having the dream team or simply growing up with very little, the truth is every one of these entrepreneurs has their own story. In fact, some were reasonably content in their corporate roles before the flame of passion took hold and the yearning to try something new kicked in.
The CEO Magazine endeavored to find out what makes the world’s most talented entrepreneurs tick and how they rose to incredible heights – changing the game within their industry.
Role: Founder and President
Being educated at some of the best schools in France may have opened up countless opportunities for Frédéric Mazzella but make no mistake, this French entrepreneur has the pioneer’s mindset.
In December 2003, a year before the concept of BlaBlaCar took shape, Mazzella stumbled upon the issue of how to travel from Paris to the French countryside when public transport is at full capacity. Noticing that cars without passengers were passing him by led to the birth of a carpooling concept that would undergo significant changes over the years.
For Mazzella, it was an idea that was fueled with enough passion to last the distance.
Today, BlaBlaCar is the world’s largest long-distance carpooling community with an online marketplace that connects passengers with drivers willing to travel together between cities. As such, it is a service that builds trust in online communities while changing the mobility landscape. In 2015, the company became France’s first unicorn with recent funding from investors resulting in a US$2 billion valuation.
“You make your own mix of the good things you’ve seen that you want to reproduce.” – Frédéric Mazzella
Mazzella, who is a classically trained pianist and who worked as a scientific researcher at NASA and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, credits his time at Stanford as the gateway into entrepreneurship. In 1999, he enrolled at Stanford in a master’s program in computer science and also had a job as a consultant for Blue Pumpkin.
“The seed was planted probably when I was at Stanford. I could see lots of my classmates not even finishing their masters or PhD and then dropping out and going to startups or creating companies. It created a lot of questions in my head,” he told Egon Zehnder consultants Dom Loehnis and Helene Reltgen in 2016.
Apart from setting your ego aside in an effort not to reproduce mistakes, Mazzella also mentioned that he’s had between 50 and 80 people who have shaped him to be the entrepreneur he is today – hanging on to the golden nuggets of truth that have helped him the most.
“You make your own mix of the good things you’ve seen that you want to reproduce,” he said.
Falguni Sanjay Nayar
Role: Founder and CEO
With an estimated net worth of US$2.5 billion as of August 2023, Falguni Sanjay Nayar is one of two self-made female billionaires in India.
The former investment banker commenced her career as a consultant before dipping her toes into the financial services sector. In the early 1990s, she joined Kotak Mahindra Group, eventually becoming the Managing Director of Kotak Mahindra Capital.
“The biggest challenge was raising capital.” – Falguni Sanjay Nayar
In 2012 at age 50 Nayar decided to leave her corporate job with US$2 million of her own money ready to get her beauty and lifestyle retail company Nykaa off the ground. Since launching in 2012, the beauty retailer sells more than 4,500 brands online and has 100 stores across India.
“The biggest challenge was raising capital,” she shared in a recent interview with Spire Founders. “At that time, ecommerce was a relatively new concept in India, and investors were wary of investing in online startups. Additionally, we had to build our supply chain from scratch, which was a daunting task.”
Now that the startup has established itself as a leading player in the Indian beauty market, Naya is keen to develop the brand’s relationship with its customers through loyalty programs and personalized services.
Role: Founder and CEO
HiBob is one of those inventions that entered the market at just the right time. As companies turn to fresh new ways to engage the modern hybrid workforce, HiBob – the Instagram of HR – has created an unrivaled user experience since its inception in 2015.
Serial entrepreneur Ronni Zehavi, the brainchild behind this cutting-edge HR solution, is former Co-Founder of Team8 Cybersecurity and Cotendo, a content delivery network acquired by Akamai for approximately US$268 million in 2012.
Zehavi swapped his plans of becoming a psychologist with accepting his first job at Commtouch Software prior to launching Cotendo. However, by the time he reached his third venture, hard-earned wisdom acquired along the way prompted him to do things somewhat differently.
“My advice is don’t be too upset when things go bad and don’t think that you are creating miracles when everything goes well.” – Ronni Zehavi
“Usually Israeli entrepreneurs, when they build companies they go to the United States, and that’s what I did with my previous companies. With HiBob I was in London and I said to myself, ‘Well it’s cool, so if I build something it will be in the United Kingdom. But I think it was a smart move because it’s an amazing market to work in. When we got to a point that we felt the platform was mature enough then we expanded from Europe,” Zehavi stated in an interview with Eight Roads.
While Zehavi might call himself an ‘accidental techie’, he’s been able to weather unpredictable storms on the path to success. Guided by the vision of becoming a global player from day one has served HiBob well. In 2021, the company entered the unicorn club with a US$1.65 billion valuation.
“My advice is don’t be too upset when things go bad and don’t think that you are creating miracles when everything goes well. Try to balance yourself between the two of them,” he told Eight Roads.
Company: Careem (acquired for US$3.1 billion by Uber in 2019)
For some self-starters, like Magnus Olsson, it took a drastic life event to veer him away from the corporate path. “I was pretty happily working as a consultant, helping big companies with strategic decisions and projects,” he revealed during an interview on The Strategic Tech Coaching podcast.
The former McKinsey & Company Engagement Manager unexpectedly had to undergo brain surgery – a time in his life that gave him the chance to re-evaluate his values and future direction.
What eventuated from this was Careem, a ride-sharing app that got off the ground in 2012, designed to be “big and meaningful”. The chosen name for the car booking service demonstrates how a business can become meaningful through the values and intentions that underpin it – Careem translates to ‘being generous’ in Arabic.
“You have to be completely crazy about customer experience and customer service.” – Magnus Olsson
In the early days, it was solving the problems for the local business traveler, which took precedence over building an app that could outdo its competitors. Engaging in a learn-as-you-go approach meant that the team would test an idea and then refine it based on customer feedback. “I think the important thing is that we had no idea where this was going to go when we started,” he explained.
Olsson and Co-Founder Mudassir Sheikha quickly learned that listening intently to your customers and learning from problems as they arose could drive a culture of continual improvement.
“You have to be completely crazy about customer experience and customer service. We followed up on every single feedback we got,” Olsson affirmed.
Lorna Jane Clarkson
Company: Lorna Jane
Role: Founder and Chief Creative Officer
Having a knack for spotting a gap in the market appears to be one of Lorna Jane Clarkson’s special talents. More than three decades ago, the Australian fitness instructor literally took matters into her own hands with a pair of scissors in an effort to create more flattering workout clothes.
“In my mind, what I was doing was entirely different, so competing with these powerhouse brands wasn’t something I thought about. I was focused on building a new category – and that was activewear,” she explains to The CEO Magazine.
While those around her couldn’t see the potential in her vision, Clarkson focused on developing this new fashion category and doing her own thing. It encapsulates what the Chief Creative Officer values most: authenticity.
“If you don’t believe in yourself, your idea and your ability to make it happen, then you can be sure that nobody else will!” – Lorna Jane Clarkson
“Back in the late 80s, I had everyone in my life trying to talk me out of pursuing my vision – and it was tough!” she says. “This experience taught me that when you have a new concept or a unique idea it takes time for other people to see and appreciate it.”
But sticking to her plan delivered dividends, as did her commitment to sticking to her original idea.
“It is tempting to follow the crowd and lose authenticity,” she admits. “However, I believe this is also the thing that can bring businesses and people undone, when they start to look or act the same.”
As a key player in the normalization of activewear on a global scale and empowering women to reach their full potential, Clarkson believes that self-belief and focus are vital ingredients for entrepreneurs.
“It takes a lot of things to be an entrepreneur, but I think the most important thing is a strong and powerful belief in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, your idea and your ability to make it happen, then you can be sure that nobody else will!”
Whitney Wolfe Herd
Role: Founder and CEO
Whitney Wolfe Herd’s foray into business started at the age of 20, selling bamboo tote bags to help areas affected by a major oil spill.
By her early 20s, Wolfe Herd joined the development team for the dating app Tinder and later became Vice President of Marketing. However, tensions with company executives prompted her to resign in 2014 and instead create her own female-focused dating app.
“Never take no for an answer, believe in yourselves, and turn your pain into purpose.” – Whitney Wolfe Herd
Subsequently, Bumble was born and in 2021 and Wolfe Herd became the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Within just one month of launching, Bumble had been downloaded 100,000 times. Few founders can claim that they were able to start over after going through a sexual-harassment lawsuit.
“Bumble is the outcome of a fiercely dedicated team who’ve worked tremendously hard to show that women can, should, and will make the first move,” Wolfe Herd posted on Instagram. “To all the first movers, whether on our platforms, in business, or in life: you’re what today is about. Never take no for an answer, believe in yourselves, and turn your pain into purpose.”
Role: Co-Founder and CEO
Not many people can claim to have a job title that reads ‘Cheap Everything Officer’. However, for Steven Lam, the Co-Founder of Hong Kong’s first tech unicorn, this title is a reflection of what it was like growing up in a low-income family.
With a valuation of more than US$1 billion, GoGoX has been a game-changer for the logistics industry in Asia. It ultimately began as a simple idea in an Asian restaurant in San Francisco by Lam and fellow Co-Founders Nick Tang and Reeve Kwan, who were working in food delivery at the time.
After returning to Hong Kong and faced with the harsh reality of unemployment in their home country, the trio turned to their original idea. Meeting the nation’s delivery needs with a high level of service has been no easy feat and for Lam, the future focus will be on robotics and autonomous delivery.
“Just start building what you believe in. Don’t wait.” – Steven Lam
“I love that GoGoX gets to help millions of people in South-East Asia every day,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “We were lucky enough to be able to help solve a huge logistics problem.”
Lam’s advice for entrepreneurs is to firstly only control what you can and, as the Nike slogan states, ‘Just Do It’.
“Just start building what you believe in. Don’t wait,” Lam told Prestige Magazine in 2021. “You don’t need money or experience to start. Build your experience along the way, and then just keep adjusting. Stay agile.”
Company: MONDAY Haircare
How do you create a salon-quality hair care range that doesn’t cost the earth? This was the challenge that New Zealand-based entrepreneur Jaimee Lupton felt called to pursue.
It was against the backdrop of working for a leading luxury communications agency in Sydney that Lupton returned to her native city of Auckland, ready to create something of her own.
This year she celebrates the third anniversary of launching MONDAY Haircare – a global premium beauty label that prides itself on being affordable and accessible. Lupton, whose business and life partner is ZURU Co-Founder Nick Mowbray, credits much of the brand’s success to him.
“You never work harder than when you’re working for yourself.” – Jaimee Lupton
“Nick believed in my vision from day one, and every day since he has been my business partner, mentor and greatest supporter,” she says. “I really think he’s why MONDAY has had such the lift-off that it’s had. He is very business-oriented. My weaknesses are definitely his strengths, and together we make a pretty awesome pair.”
However, even with the brightest minds by your side, hard work is somewhat of an understatement when it comes to the investment of time and energy when starting any new business venture, let alone one driven by big ambitions.
“You never work harder than when you’re working for yourself,” Lupton says. “And that has definitely been true with MONDAY. I think when I first started, it was really hard for me to switch off, but now it’s something that I’ve harnessed, because it’s really important.”
In addition to self-care, Lupton’s advice as an entrepreneur is to find a balance between focusing on the small details and big picture thinking. “If you look after the micro every single day, the macro looks after itself.”