Skip to Content

Aileen Lee ’92

Helping startups become unicorns and women become VCs
February 26, 2020

Venture capitalist Aileen Lee ’92 is a seed-stage investor legendary for her success in bringing tech-driven companies to life. She famously coined the term “unicorn” to convey just how rare startups valued at more than $1 billion are. Then her track record landed her on the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women in 2018, and she made Time magazine’s Most Influential People list in 2019.

Lee began her career at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which invested in big names such as Amazon and Google at their earliest stages. She struck out on her own in 2012, founding Cowboy Ventures in Palo Alto, California. There she backed companies such as Dollar Shave Club, which delivers grooming products by mail. Dollar Shave founder Michael Dubin “had such a clear brand voice,” she says. “He demonstrated—with very little money—that he had vision and creativity.”

But Lee, who’s one of just a handful of female VC founders, is less interested in talking about her success than about how successful women may inspire girls and young women—especially underrepresented minorities. In 2017 she cofounded All Raise, a nonprofit devoted to closing the gender gap for aspiring female founders and investors. Its workshops, mentorship programs, and networking events provide a sense of belonging.

“Generally, the tech industry had posed as a meritocracy, but women, minorities, and people from nontraditional backgrounds haven’t had a fair shake, and that’s not the spirit of what we hope for in tech. There’s also a lot of cost and pain involved when people are treated badly,” she says.

As a Course 15 (management) major at MIT, Lee recalls, she could have used the kind of support All Raise offers. “My freshman roommate at MIT took AP physics in, like, eighth grade. I called my mom and said, ‘Houston, we have a problem!’” she remembers, explaining that in high school she had not been encouraged to pursue STEM fields. She arrived on campus in “awe” of the talented students and researchers, despite the fact that she, too, had earned her place at MIT.

This experience of feeling like an outsider molded her professional agenda and influences her investment focus. For example, Cowboy Ventures is a backer of Denver-based Guild Education, which offers education as an employer benefit, helping employees who don’t yet have high school or college degrees. The belief that she could improve the lives of others through work, she says, was fostered at the Institute.

“MIT tries to solve problems that can positively impact the world,” she says. “I try to carry that inspiration with me.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Death and Jeff Bezos
Death and Jeff Bezos

Meet Altos Labs, Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever

Funders of a deep-pocketed new "rejuvenation" startup are said to include Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.

ai learning to multitask concept
ai learning to multitask concept

Meta’s new learning algorithm can teach AI to multi-task

The single technique for teaching neural networks multiple skills is a step towards general-purpose AI.

Professor Gang Chen of MIT
Professor Gang Chen of MIT

All charges against China Initiative defendant Gang Chen have been dismissed

MIT professor Gang Chen was one of the most prominent scientists charged under the China Initiative, a Justice Department effort meant to counter economic espionage and national security threats.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.