Unicorn companies, privately-held startups with a valuation of $1 billion or more, are celebrated for their rarity and unique status, and the systematic funding challenges Black founders face make these companies even more notable. In Black Tech Effect 2023, The Plug’s latest report analyzing 100 high-growth, Black-led technology companies, we highlighted three companies that have reached unicorn status: Calendly, Chipper Cash and Esusu Financial.
“These founders have broken barriers,” Tayler James, Director of Research at The Plug, said. “They have introduced us to different systems and solutions that we weren’t privy to years prior. They’re setting the standard and the stage to really move the needle for our Black community.”
2021 was a standout year for unicorn company growth with an average of about 10 new companies per week and 145 new companies reaching the status in the fourth quarter of the year alone. Black-led startups felt the residual effects of this meteoric rise: funding to Black entrepreneurs in the U.S. reached nearly $1.8 billion through the first half of 2021. Led by funding to early-stage startups, this surpassed the funding Black founders received in all of 2020.
But this exponential growth was short-lived, with 2022 seeing a slight drop in funding compared to the previous year. U.S. Black founders raised about one percent of the total VC funding in America last year, an estimated $2.254 billion out of the $215.9 billion allocated. Funding disparity stems from a lack of diversity among venture investors and racial bias in assessing risk for Black-led companies.
Still, Black-led tech startups have persevered despite funding challenges. Some have embraced alternative business models to reshape the tech ecosystem. Rather than seeking the elusive unicorn status, several companies are pivoting to the zebra movement where they strive for profit and purpose, to make an impact beyond their shareholders, and for sustainable prosperity.
The Plug celebrates the success of the three featured unicorn companies that are paving the way for other Black founders.
Atlanta-based Calendly was founded in 2013 by Tope Awotona. The platform is the leading scheduling automation software developed to eliminate back-and-forth messaging and coordination. The company, which over 10 million people use to arrange meetings and events, is the latest Black-owned startup to reach unicorn status in January 2021.
Now at a $3 billion+ valuation, Awotona built Calendly after three failed startups. In September 2022 the company grew its reach by acquiring its first company, Prelude, a platform that automates the recruitment process.
Chipper Cash was founded by Ham Serunjogi and Masjid Moujaled in 2018 and is based in San Francisco. The platform allows people to send and receive money across borders with low cross-border rates. Chipper Cash hosts several products including their secure money transfer app.
The Chipper Card, in partnership with Visa, allows global online shopping users to convert local currency from countries on the African continent into bitcoin investments. Employees hail from remote offices in Accra, Cape Town, Lagos, London and San Francisco.
In just four years, the company stands at a $2.2 billion valuation after raising a total of $300 million, with backing from notable investors including Jeff Bezos.
Esusu Financial was founded by Wemimo Abbey in 2016 and is based in New York. The platform reports rent payments to major credit bureaus, allowing tenants to boost and establish credit scores. Additionally, the software helps property owners improve collections, reduce turnover and increase their operating income.
Esusu Financial reached unicorn status in January 2022 after announcing a $130 million Series B led by SoftBank Vision. The fintech company was built to create equitable financial access for everyone, and through a partnership with Fannie Mae, is working to build renter’s credit by incorporating on-time rent payments into credit scores.
The Black Tech Effect also highlights companies in other categories: HBCU Founder, Woman Founder, Veteran Founder, Social Impact, International, Legacy, and Up and Coming. Unicorn Chipper Cash is also identified as up-and-coming and international.