Can Startups Change The World? A French Alternative To Silicon Valley
They call themselves the "Barbarians," ready to challenge both the status quo in France and the prevailing ethos of U.S. startups obsessed with power and money.
PARIS — It was a funny tribe that got together one late March afternoon at the “Archipel.” In the nave of this former convent in the French capital, more than 200 people who previously knew each other only through Facebook messages finally met up IRL, “in real life.”
They call themselves the “Barbarians,” an odd nickname that can make them sound aggressive, even violent. But no weapons or battle plans here beyond the ultra-fast Internet connection and a burning desire to take their destiny into their own hands rather than remaining passive in the face of the changes triggered by the digital revolution.
The room fills with the sound of simultaneous, enthusiastic conversations. Aymeric Poulain Maubant, has arrived from the western city of Brest, hoping to strengthen links with the Parisian Barbarians. Pierre Chevelle, whose passion is innovation around social welfare, is describing his guide to “Change the World in Two Hours” and plans to help 10,000 readers engage in a grassroots movement this year.
A group from Lyon propose a solution, swarming, to be able to truly share without enriching “the monopolies” (Airbnb, Uber …) of the so-called sharing economy. Yves Tuet, the head of Deolan, a start-up that employs 35 people, explains how he “liberated” his company from the hierarchy that was suffocating it. Meanwhile, Duc Ha Duong, founder of Officience, a computer services company that is training a dozen Vietnamese engineers, animates the event with his microphone as Audrey Lebeau reigns over the Disco Soup in a joyful mess.
At the start, the “100barbarians” group was created on Facebook in reaction to an influential ranking of the French Choiseul Institute published in early 2014, listing the 100 under-40 French people who will shape the world of tomorrow. The list was dominated by heirs, daughters and sons of industrial leaders, graduates of the prestigious National School of Administration, bankers… “Not us, not true,” decided a few friends active in France's digital world, founders of startups and associations, freelancers and even young executives of top companies.
Confronted every day with the arrival of new stakeholders that disrupt our habits and models, from Google to Apple, Amazon to Airbnb and Uber, Deezer or Spotify, they are convinced that those who will change France tomorrow won’t be the traditional elites, but the “Barbarians” who you won’t even see coming. To identify them, the Facebook group les100barbares was launched with a survey amongst friends. Each person could provide one name, everyone could vote. Today, the page now counts some 2,400 members.
Not the world they want
To be clear, the goal isn’t to create the French Google, the European Amazon, nor to become millionaires. Their manifesto says something else: “We’re at a breaking point during which the only winners today are those who anticipate the world of tomorrow, and use this acumen to impose their rules and privatize humanity for their exclusive profit. It’s not the world we want.”
People from very different backgrounds have gathered around this project. Who are they? What do they do? To discover it themselves, they pitched: In 30 seconds, on stage, more than 20 of them explained their plans to “change the world.” The keyword of these pitches is “job out”, or that moment when they quit their jobs to devote themselves entirely to a project that seemed to them to have more meaning, more efficiency and more utility than life working for a multinational. Because many Barbarians do indeed work, or used to work, for major companies while dreaming of something else.
Here is a small collection of the pitches and projects discovered that afternoon in the nave of the Archipel:
- Emmanuelle and Fatiha’s connected hair clip
“One of the first barriers to the education of girls is safety on their way to and from school,” explain Emmanuelle Jardat and Fatiha Heim. They have an idea: the connected hair clip. Linked to a smartphone or another network, it will record the scene, triggered by a very simple movement, as soon as a woman or young girl feels threatened. If the attacker insists, an alert will be sent to the police. “Every country, every women’s rights NGO will be able to draw its own hair clip,” says one. They’re both engineers working at France Telecom, which has already agreed to distribute this new connected object.
- Mélanie, founder of SoScience
It’s one of the most lively pitches of the evening. Mélanie Marcel gets straight to the point: She had worked at the research lab of a major group, and says her job was to “transform your brains into cellphones.” Until the day she asked herself: how far are we ready to go? What is science for? Where’s the promise for progress? This engineer-researcher, an expert in wave physics, specialized in neuroscience, worked for the lab of the Japanese telecommunications giant NTT Docomo, near Tokyo. Her research focused on the communication between neurons and machines.
“The basic research was captivating, but the final goal, the one I never signed up for, was to put our cellphones in our brains within 20 or 30 years,” she says. She preferred creating SoScience with Eloïse Szmatula, another researcher in neuroscience. With this startup, they want to make research and innovation more responsible. Their first approach: make science serve social entrepreneurs by helping them through technology to reach goals faster (for example, by developing the micro-encapsulation of essential oils to introduce them in household products and fight against malaria in Burkina Faso; using drones to clean up seabeds). Their second approach: raise awareness among big companies about these issues, as well as with engineer students and future researchers by giving courses and conferences.
- Matthieu, the insider Barbarian
Matthieu Varagnat left Saint-Gobain, where he was an “insider Barbarian”, in charge of open innovation and partnerships with startups. But his "baby" was born three months ago — a company he created with his childhood friend Fabien Akunda, with an evocative name: “the fine wine.” Tell them which meal you’re preparing, they will send you the wine of a small producer that they select with the greatest care. Tonight, with Vinify, another startup, he offers tastings. He calls to two rare Barbarians wearing suits (though their ties are in pocket): “Hey, you two, you need to talk to each other. I’ll introduce you: Corporate hacker BNP Paribas and corporate hacker Safran.” What’s a corporate hacker? An executive who tries to stir the traditional and hierarchical habits inside the major groups to open them to new forms of cooperation and innovation. These two suit-wearing "hackers" had plenty of stories to share.