By Melissa Jun Rowley of Forbes.com
When former French civil servant turned venture capitalist Fleur Pellerin was in business school in France during the ‘90s, the dream career of her fellow graduates was to be a consultant at one of the top firms or work for a major corporation like Unilever or L’Oréal. But today she says students want to create their own businesses.
“The entrepreneurial mindset and spirit is much more present in the younger generation in France,” Pellerin shares.
This is part and parcel of the French Tech movement Pellerin architected when she worked in Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s government as Minister of SMEs, Innovation and the Digital Economy in 2012. Since then, French Tech has been breaking new ground for French entrepreneurs in France and abroad. The initiative brought 320 startups to CES 2018 and has built 32 entrepreneurial communities around the world.
After 15 years working for the government, Pellerin transitioned into the tech startup world and founded the VC firm Korelya Capital, the primary manager of the K-Fund 1, which is investing €100 million in the high-tech industry in France and other European countries. To date, Korelya Capital has invested in six companies, including Devialet, the French speaker company, which has also been invested in by Jay Z.
What A Difference A Movement Makes
“All the ingredients and the talent to have a great innovation ecosystem in 2012 were already there,” shares Pellerin. “But this initiative [French Tech], taxation of federal gains, and creating crowdfunding helped the development of some businesses. The main outcome is that now French startups know they belong to a movement called French Tech.”
If President Emmanuel Macron has anything to say about France’s place in the global startup landscape, the best is yet to come. He has proposed slashing wealth tax in a further bid to attract investors and boost tech business. And that’s not all he’s setting forth. For the next five years, the French government is poised to spend €1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) to support research and development in artificial intelligence with the goal of catching up to the current AI leaders, China and the US.
Catching up seems to be a key incentive for French Tech, and not by just a few years.
“What struck me most when I was minister in charge of digital and innovation was that whenever I traveled around the world France was famous for its wine, Chanel bags and foie gras, but not for its tech,” says Pellerin. “And you know, whenever people mentioned French high-tech things it was always the high-speed train or the rockets, as if the innovation drive in France stopped in the 18th century.”
Five years ago, Pellerin says nobody thought of France as an innovative country. But now she ’s seeing interest in Asia to invest in French tech startups. She attributes this to France’s strong engineers converging with the country’s creative industry, including cinema, design and 3D animation.
Nurturing Women Founders
Korelya has been investing in startups for one year and has met with more than 250 companies however, less than 10% are founded by women.
“I’d love to invest in companies founded by women, but the problem is there are so few,” says Pellerin. “I might have a bias because my focus is on technology companies, and most of the founders are people with engineering backgrounds. The proportion of women in top engineering schools is low. This probably explains why you have fewer women founders in the digital tech ecosystem. Out of the six companies in my portfolio, one is founded by a woman.”
Fortunately, there are many groups bringing more women into the French Tech ecosystem, such as StartHer, Girls in Tech Paris and Paris Pionnières.
With a membership comprised of 50% women and 50% men, Paris Pionnières is the most inclusive incubator in Paris. They’ve come a long way. When the organization launched in 2005, there were only three incubators in Paris at the time.
Paris Pionnières currently runs three startup programs. One that’s exclusively for women is a bootcamp designed to help women “release their entrepreneurial spirit,” as well as test and pitch their startup ideas.
“We’re having great impact in Paris, but in other parts of France the situation is not so good,” says Paris Pionnières managing director Caroline Ramade. “In other parts of the country, 10% of startups are founded by a woman. We also need to scale the ambition internationally.”
With Community Comes Confidence
Audrey-Laure Bergentha is the president of French Tech in her region in the south of Lyon. Her startup Euveka created the first robot able to instantly produce any human being’s size and shape to support the fashion industry, sports, security, and film in the mass customization revolution. The technology is so intelligent it’s able to replicate the body’s aging process, as well as how a woman’s body changes during pregnancy.
“We [startups] have strong support by the government,” says Bergentha.”
If we are small we can feel big and strong because we have a lot of help, mentoring and advising. The French Embassy brought us to the American market. They’ve also helped us find funding.”
Bergentha and her team mentor young women entrepreneurs. When asked what she shares with these aspiring female founders she said: “I tell them not to be afraid as I’ve been. It took me too many years to have confidence in myself. I don’t want them to be as slow as I have been. I was my worst enemy because I had no images to refer to, and the way a woman builds a business is totally different than the way men build businesses. I am lucky now that I have two women mentors that have helped me build my vision and have trust in myself. Our [women’s] main problem is lack of confidence.”
Viva La French Tech Visa
As part of French Tech’s mission to lure talent into the ecosystem, the initiative created the French Tech visa to encourage foreigners to develop their startups in France. The visa is good for a year and places recipients in the incubators of French Tech partners.
France’s Station F, the largest startup campus in the world, is one of them. Home to 1,000 startups and several incubators including its own, the Founder Program, the organization’s management team is 60% women. Additionally, 40% of Founder Program startups are run by women.
As for the inclusion of women in industries outside of the tech sector, Pellerin is hopeful.
In 2011, France’s parliament gave final approval on a law forcing large companies to reserve at least 40% of their boardroom positions for women within six years.
“The law was criticized when passed, but now proving to be very efficient,” says Pellerin. “These sort of initiatives create an environment and mindset that will impact all the other sectors.”
All the French wine, Chanel bags, and foie gras in the world can’t top that.
How do you feel about the steps thses women have taken to close the Gender Gap in France? Sound off in the comments below!!