At a time when America’s female entrepreneurs and working women face dwindling healthcare provisions and basic coverage and only a minuscule portion of VC funding, their French counterparts are enjoying more support–both from the government and female-led incubators–than ever before.
The young, business-friendly administration of French president Emanuel Macron’s commitment to gender equality and entrepreneurship, institutionalized public funding for entrepreneurs, and the increasing number of success stories involving female founders over the last few years have created a nurturing environment for female-led startups in France.
As a result, more French women are turning to entrepreneurship as a way to further their careers, balance family life, and disrupt male-dominated industries, according to data compiled by starther.org. StartHer, formerly known as the French chapter of Girls In Tech, is hosting Europe’s biggest startup competition for female founders on October 19. “We had a record number of applications this year–363 applications from 30 countries (vs. 300 from 28 countries previously), which is very encouraging,” co-director Joanna Kirk tells Fast Company.
— StartHer (@starther_org) October 19, 2017
“It may seem typical to find a woman at the head of a cosmetics concept, but international brands are all operated by male CEOs,” says Aurore Humez-Leray, founder of L’Armoire à Beauté, a curation service that help pharmacies discover new brands and organic products. “Women have the legitimacy to genuinely understand the customers they are serving.”
Humez-Leray left her job in 2013 as the international marketing director at KIBIO, an organic skincare line at Clarins Group, and launched her startup in January 2016.
In France, unemployment law and the wider startup ecosystem fill the gaps between a successful corporate career and the plunge into the startup world. After leaving Clarins Group, Humez-Leray was able to take a two-year leave, give birth to her third child, and launch her startup.
After that, L’Armoire à Beauté was supported by Paris Pionnières, the oldest incubator in Europe for female founders, which was established 12 years ago with the help of regional government (Île-de-France).
Paris Pionnières, a buzzing incubator and co-working space in central Paris that is strikingly gender-balanced, has incubated dozens of startups over the last decade and is now looking to expand internationally for the first time.
“It is a good time to be an entrepreneur; there are a lot of entities helping startups,” says Caroline Ramade, managing director of Paris Pionnières. “For women it’s great because when you have kids and you receive this support or a grant from a bank, launching a startup is less risky.”
Commitment To Diversity
Other incubators and VC funds are also making a commitment to diversity.
Kima Ventures, one of the most active French funds with two investments per week, says about 20% of its current portfolio is in female-led startups. But this figure is set to increase to 25% this year, according to Jean de La Rochebrochard, a partner at Kima Ventures.
Station F, a giant startup campus backed by telecom billionaire Xavier Niel, made a decision to commit to diversity from the start. Roxanne Varza, the 32-year-old American director of the space, says 40% of startups that joined its inaugural Founder Program in July were women. The founder Niel recently told President Macron that the F in Station F stands for France, Founders, and Femmes (women).
Varza also serves as a cofounder of StartHer.
“Women still make a minority of founders, there is still much more work to do,” she admits. “But there is a much more positive vibe here in France, which is not something I’m getting when I look at the U.S.”
The increase in female-led incubators, which take gender diversity seriously, is one contributing factor to the rise of female founders; another one is public funding and unemployment support.
French entrepreneurs are eligible to apply for a zero-percent loan from public banks and there are also unemployment benefits for the first two years for entrepreneurs, which they can withdraw on a monthly basis or a lump sum. If Macron succeeds in his labor reforms, it will be even easier to quit a job and launch your own business in France, while relying on state funds.
A rising number of success stories from female-led startups are further fueling the buzz. There is Oh My Cream, a beauty discovery e-platform and retail store that offers customized advice, and My Little Paris, a newsletter and cosmetics subscription service that has disrupted France’s email advertising industry.
Female-led startups are not limited to beauty and advertising: Clustree, an AI-driven recruitment service, raised $7.9 million earlier this year.
Building A Startup Nation
The percentage of female founders has been on the rise in Paris and is at 10 percent according to Global Startup Ecosystem report. It’s ahead of Tel Aviv and other major startup hubs, but still below global average of 16 percent according to Global Startup Ecosystem report.
Macron’s government says it is working to change that dynamic, talking up the development of a startup nation and encouraging gender diversity in business, with women filling half of the ministerial posts. The president’s rhetoric is supported by his base and seems to resonate with many women.
While Macron still has to deliver on his promises, he’s already inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs.
“French women are already pros at being working moms; it only makes sense for female entrepreneurship to democratize,” says Aurore Humez-Leray. “The new generation will indeed have many more role models and examples.”