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Strictly speaking: unicorns and zebras

We think of unicorns as imaginary, mythical creatures, so you may be surprised to learn they actually exist. In the world of business, it’s the name given to startup companies valued at more than US$1 billion. Venture capitalist Aileen Lee coined the term in 2013 to represent the rarity of these beasts, but such is the ambition, particularly of tech companies, that there are now decacorns and hectocorns (worth US$10 billion and US$100 billion respectively).

Aside from the etymological liberty of these formations (the uni– originally referring to the number of horns (cornu), now the prefix indicates the number of dollars), some people have objected to the whole get‑rich‑quick ethos that is implicit in the name. One group, called the ‘zebra movement’, suggests that this ethos “rewards quantity over quality, consumption over creation, quick exits over sustainable growth, and shareholder profit over shared prosperity”. They propose the zebra as an appropriate symbol for an alternative business model that promotes social responsibility and the sharing of wealth, partly because of that animal’s inclusive black and white stripes and collective instinct, but mainly because it’s real and represents more widely achievable goals. It’s an interesting choice of animal. There are many others they could have chosen, perhaps even the pig – though not the flying variety of course.

Written by Dr Adam Smith, convenor of the Editing and Electronic Publishing Program at Macquarie University.

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