Incubator women who are changing face of enterprise
“It's just a start.” That is how Roxanne Varza, the director of Paris’s massive start-up incubator Station F, describes the news that 40% of new businesses now operating within its walls are run by women.
Station F was inaugurated in June by founder Xavier Niel, the internet tycoon who created Free, in the presence of friend President Emmanuel Macron. It is said to be the largest business ‘incubator’ in the world.
It aims to attract the brightest young entrepreneurs to the ‘campus’, where they can rent cheap desk space (around €200 a month) and get support to help them develop their ideas.
Places are open to anyone from anywhere in the world, and their ‘Fighters Program’ is aimed at people from difficult and under-privileged backgrounds. Bosses say they are also aiming at gender parity. Here we speak to two of the first women selected for the ‘Founders Program’.
Louisa Mesnard, along with two colleagues, has developed a chatbot called Citron, which makes personalised recommendations for bars and restaurants via chat on Facebook messenger.
“It feels just like asking a friend for a suggestion, you can ask for names of rooftop bars and Citron knows what you’re looking for,” she said.
“We’ve just expanded to include London and we’re opening up the whole world soon which will be exciting and fun.”
Eventually, Citron will also offer booking, delivery and payments and receive commission for driving traffic to sites offering these services.
Franco/Irish, Ms Mesnard was part of the HEC Paris business school incubator, which moved to Station F when it opened.
“Being here is really exciting; you learn things every day, you meet fascinating people and you never know how the day is going to end. All the facilities you need are on campus: post office, catering, everything.
“I feel I’m making business contacts that I’ll keep throughout my career. Station F has done a great a job on getting women into the ‘campus’, and Roxanne is also the founder of Women in Tech so she understands the importance of female solidarity and knows that diversity yields results.”
Maâde Guettouche and Saliha Chekroun are the co-founders of copelican.fr, a platform for people to arrange to transport items for each other.
The idea is that if you have left your keys behind, or want to send a jar of honey to a friend, you use copelican to find someone who is already making the trip by car, coach, train or ferry. Anyone who wants to offset the cost of travel can use the site to see if anyone wants anything transporting. “We came up with the idea because as students we were always travelling and either leaving things behind or wanting to send things home,” said Ms Guettouche.
Both founders are French but have family in Algeria, meaning there is a constant to-and-fro of treats and gifts. “So we thought of this way of transporting fragile things like a guitar or a pot of honey, without breaking the bank.
“It’s greener because it doesn’t require a special journey to deliver something, it’s cheaper to send things, and allows people to offset the cost of travel, so everyone wins,” said Ms Guettouche.
“We read about Station F in the press and entered the selection process; winning a place for a year. The venue is wonderful. There are hundreds of other entrepreneurs here so it’s easy to meet people which helps you see your own business more clearly.”
She says it is very positive that there are lots of women at Station F. “We need more women entrepreneurs but it doesn’t change our individual business, and we can’t compare this to anywhere else.
“That’s just how it is here, although it’s true that normally you don’t often meet other women running tech startups.”
Connexion spoke to Station F’s director Roxanne Varza in January. Subscribers can read the interview on our website