Frédérique Clavel

Paris - 19 novembre 2015


Frederique Clavel is a French entrepreneur who has dedicated her career to women entrepreneurship.
Not only has she developed a network of incubators especially dedicated to women entrepreneurs with now branches in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Morocco but she also addressed the need for a better access to capital by creating an investment fund mixing a business angel approach.
I had the pleasure to meet her when I organised a panel on women entrepreneurship in Brussels in 2012 and now again, with this interview, where she talks about her career and the city of Paris.

Frédérique Clavel, could you explain your experiences which resulted in your making entrepreneurship your main professional activity and your passion? What are you currently engaged in at the moment?

I began my career conventionally for a member of my generation, working for a bank first of all which is an excellent vantage point. I then worked in distribution where I experienced and participated actively in successful operations, mergers, opening up of capital, IT outsourcing, financial and operational process reorganization… When I was about 40 years old at that age when I was meant to approach the apex of my career, I began to feel that it was reaching an asymptote and that it was probably going to be difficult for me to break the “glass ceiling”. At that time, being a parent of young children, I felt it would be preferable to choose another path which would not involve sacrificing my professional ambition or my family life.

For 15 years already I have been an entrepreneur and also a manager of my company Fincoach, the President of Mix for Value, an investment company and founding President of the network known as « Les Pionnières » (“The Pioneers”).

 Fincoach is a financial and strategic advisory organisation for young entrepreneurs. Since the end of the summer break, Fincoach has been in charge of an area consisting of about fifteen work stations, “Fincoach the Hub”, close to the Place de l’Etoile right at the heart of Paris’ economic and financial centre. The theme of the organisation is “delight for a thriving business” with experts in various areas relating to the subject, monthly debate workshops, for the organisation’s and administration’s decision makers. Business events are also held regularly.

 The Pioneers is an incubatory network for business dedicated solely to female entrepreneurs involved in innovation. Innovation may occasionally be technical (connected objects…) or otherwise, social, societal and managerial (change management within an organization).

 Why have you focused on entrepreneurship for women?

Because having come close to the glass ceiling, I felt that the economic sector was solely the domain of men who neither desired to let go of the hold they had on it or share it with women. Whether it was intentional or not was of little consequence. As a fan of the game go which encourages the player to circumvent obstacles rather than face them, I decided it would be best for women to create an economic sector for themselves in which there would be a more equitable distribution of power.

That was how the inspiration for Paris Pioneers was born, a place where women would be encouraged to set up their businesses without any restrictions relating to power, risks, ambition and innovation.

It was while conducting market analysis that I realised how necessary such an initiative was.

Incubators at the time did not contain more than 5% of businesses led by women. Our project met a real need instantly noticed by the OECD and the Ministry of Small and Medium Sized Businesses which has requested for us to implement our model throughout the region.

At present, there are ten Pioneer incubators which have been developed by the Pioneers Federation with the support of local teams which are fully committed to the issue!

The investment company Mix for VALUE also invests in companies owned by mixed teams. Very few businesses financed by venture capitalists are owned by women or by both genders even today!

Do women have a different approach compared to men? What are the main problems that you have noticed and which you address? Do they have specific needs in order to encourage their willingness to start?

When women start out, they experience all the same difficulties that men do. They occasionally have to face an old fashioned representation of women who do not have any ambition, who have a fear of risks, and do not possess a great vision. These are the specific issues which we address. How can such prejudices be addressed?

These are prejudices which have come down to us from history in books, which occasionally also affect the mind-set of future female entrepreneurs. Our role involves raising barriers and increasing confidence. Women in France enjoy a favourable state of health and have a level of education which is generally comparable to men’s.

Risk taking by an apriori more cautious individual is more effectively managed in principle.

Our method is carefully laid out before and after the creation of the business.

What are the benefits that your Pioneer incubators provide for women? How do they function? Do you have acceleration programmes? Do you also function based on the co-working space model?

Our Pioneers provide women first of all with structured support throughout the entrepreneurship lifecycle. Before, during and after the creation of the business.

Each of the regional Pioneers has enhanced the starting process and the common base is currently highly elaborate. In a nutshell, we are convinced that individual support in the form of entrepreneur coaching is essential with the alternative of collective workshops to share certain problems.

We provide them with a workspace from the outset in a world which is just like them!

By gathering them in a single place, the incubators also bring about a daily exchange between creators. The best accountant, webmaster. etc.

We presently also possess a number of co-working spaces and are actively considering a support position (mentorship, acceleration…) on which we are working in connection with excellent partners such as the Startup network or certain selected investment funds.

How many projects have been worked on in your centres? How do your centres improve these projects’ chances of success?

Over 1 500 projects have been handled by The Pioneers and more than 600 businesses have been created.

We currently support a rate of approximately 250 businesses per annum.

The rate of longevity is 85% at 5 years for 50% on average for businesses.

The fact that there are certain sectors which are typically “feminine” has been observed. Apart from the fact that fewer women engage in science based studies, are there objective factors which “discourage” women from engaging in sectors which lean more towards technology? Is Silicon Valley’s Start-Up model suitable for women? How can women be encouraged to engage in fields which are more technology focused?

It is currently more common for women to engage in service innovation aimed at improving the existence (personally or professionally). Women presently remain leaders in multitasking and their professional survival depends on their ability to organize their time.

“Feminine innovations” are beneficial to everyone and are a driving force for professional equality.

I do not believe at all that there is a particular model which suits women better.

They are capable of achieving anything and will pre-empt every issue with time.

If only we continue to be aware of these realities together.

Prejudices persist even at school. As soon as we become aware of them we must engage in a struggle against them with determination and goodwill and encourage our daughters to consider a carrier in the field of science as soon as they are able to.

Can you tell us about Paris-Saclay’s project, the French “Silicon Valley”? Will it be different from the American model? What would its distinguishing features be?

This project is important because this platform shapes great minds which are promptly seized by international careers which are occasionally quite far from our country.

It is important to promote our nation’s expertise and bring cultures which would otherwise not necessarily encounter each other even on the same platform, together.

I had the opportunity to experience the HEC[1] entrepreneurs’ programme of which I was the sponsor in 2014, for a year. The programme already includes a session on the platform’s laboratories as a source of inspiration for the creation of businesses in a very pragmatic manner!

Let us speak about access to funding for a moment. According to recent study carried out by Babson College on venture capital and female entrepreneurship, projects supported by women, in Silicon Valley which are already quite rare, to begin with, meet more difficulties than those promoted by men in obtaining funding. Hence even if we start out in a more promising sector and network and pitch, in the appropriate manner, our projects are less likely to get past the venture capitalist stage. Is that also the case in Europe and in France/ Belgium, in particular? How can it be resolved?

Certainly! It is also the case in Europe. A heritage of the past where the profession of development capital and/ or venture capital is 98% male!

It is typically a profession which very few women enter but which they would excel in if they did! There is in France a Female Business Angel network where the acceptance rate of cases is slightly reversed.

We would benefit significantly from more balanced investor committees!

An American study in 2013 concluded that entrepreneurship made women happy. What is your opinion?

I always treat such results cautiously. What does happiness mean?

What is certain, is that instances of sexism affect female entrepreneurs a lot less than women who are isolated within a traditional hierarchical structure.

A client selects the best value for money without any cultural or gender bias.

And then I heard a phrase which I rather liked, recently: to be the boss, it’s more flexible!

With flexibility, it is possible to integrate several projects and plenty of ambition in your schedule.

Do women have a different idea of the meaning of “success”? Is the belief that women can have it all, only a dream?

Everyone has their own individual idea of what success means. Everyone must learn to know themselves and express their dreams. No one else can do it for you.

What is certain is that anyone who limits themselves a priori will not fully realise themselves and that is a means of wasting their talent.

Dreams provide the strength to surmount life’s inevitable obstacles!

Creativity and hindsight are key factors which are essential for anyone to be able to manage a business successfully, even though there are also other important factors as well. What are your techniques for looking back in hindsight and creating new ideas? How do you nurture your creativity?

My family, my husband, my children as well as my pets and my friends with whom I have already spent a large part of my life are very important to me. They provide me with the strength I need.

Nature is also a key source of energy, respiration and meditation.

When preparing for a difficult negotiation I allow energy to come and surround myself with a positive intent.

Ideas often occur to me while walking or swimming.

What does the concept of the Flâneur mean to you?

Strolling makes it possible to clear your mind and become available to new informative sensations.

Immediately after a stroll comes discovery, a change of direction.

Strolling is essential, it is the window to a new world.

You are a Parisian by adoption. What history/relationship do you have with Paris? What is the best way of handling Paris? What advice do you have for anyone who does not have a lot of time but would like to experience the city?

Paris, especially strolling in it, since the city is not that large. It is a privilege. The Quais de la Seine (The docks of the Seine) are veritable open air museums, with the second-hand book sellers. Especially the “quai de la mégisserie”. And wandering among the various museums which is an excellent opportunity to visit the most beautiful districts. The Orsay, Rodin Museums, the Branly dock, The Louis VUITTON Foundation in the Woods of Boulogne. The shops in Le Marais (The Marsh), the Place des Victoires (Victory Square ) or the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré (Saint-Honoré’s District Street) and the Rue de la Paix (Street of Peace) for large budgets.

My relationship with Paris is rather a business one. I have always worked there even when I moved to Dusseldorf and Brussels at certain points in my life. My offices open out onto the « Défense » which captures the sunlight brilliantly due to its numerous window panes. The Place de l’Etoile is a quarter where you can easily come across several people working in finance, decision makers and influential individuals in our country.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well done for the effort you have made, I would like to recommend to anyone who would like to adopt the nomad-chic Parisian style that they visit the boutique of Ines de la Fressange and buy themselves a bag from the site!!



[1] HEC stands for « Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciale de Paris ». HEC is the business school of Paris Tech (Paris institute of Technology) and is considered one of the most prominent business schools in the world.