Hidden Tales Of 19th-Century French Women Entrepreneurs

Voltaire said he never saw female inventors. A study on female entrepreneurs in 19th-century France reveals a very different reality.

French inventor and Champagne entrepreneur Barbe-Nicole Cliquot
French inventor and Champagne entrepreneur Barbe-Nicole Cliquot
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS â€" Steve, Larry and Sergei, Jack, Elon, Brian and Joe, Travis too. And also from here in France: Frederic, Alain, Jean-Baptiste, Eric ... Only men. The pioneers of Apple, Google, Alibaba, Tesla, Airbnb, Uber, and French startups Blablacar, Carmat, Criteo and Withings are all male. This fact seems to echo, through the centuries, the words of that old misogynist Voltaire, in his Philosophical Dictionary: “Very learned women are to be found, in the same manner as female warriors; but they are seldom or ever inventors.”

The reality, however, was different, according to a recent discovery by economic history professor Zorina Khan of Bowdoin College, who scrutinized what happened in 19th-century France. In this piece of the past, there is great value for our future.

At first glance, it’s all very simple. In an article published in 1900 on Le génie de l'invention chez les femmes, or, “The genius of female invention,” doctor Antoine de Neuville explains that French women invent nothing, unlike American women. And if they register patents when they run a company, it’s only to take hold of their employees’ discoveries. Only the production of corsets wasn’t covered by this iron law!

This sweeping judgment however reveals that, in Dr. Neuville’s eyes, it was normal for women to manage businesses and patent inventions. Zorina Khan took an inventory of all the patents registered in France during the first half of the 19th century. Women registered 2.4% of the total. A tiny proportion, but two times higher than in the U.S. over the same period. And the law, at the time, hindered female initiatives by placing wives under the legal supervision of their husbands.

Closer examination reveals that the number of patents registered by women included processes that were indeed developed by women, such as the feeding bottle, patented by a midwife, Marie Breton, in 1824 and 1826. There were many female inventors for the corset â€" here, Neuville was right. They were also very active in almost every aspect of printing. Eugénie Niboyet, a feminist writer, obtained a patent in 1838 for a type of indelible ink. Eulalie Lebel, the daughter and wife of printers, soon to be abandoned by her husband, registered four patents with her son Henri for printing methods that were distinguished with medals during the Paris and London industrial fairs.

French author, journalist and early feminist Eugénie Niboyet â€" Photo: Nadar/Wikimedia Commons

But the most impressive, at the time, was the “rise of the widows.” The death of a husband was of course an emotional and often financial challenge, but it was also the opportunity to release energies and reveal potentials. According to Khan’s calculations, more than 40% of women distinguished by rewards during industrial exhibitions were widows.

A brand still testifies of this dynamism today: the Veuve Cliquot champagne. In 1805, when she was 27 years old, Barbe-Nicole Cliquot took the helm of a small champagne business after her husband’s death. This came with a technological innovation: She invented riddling, which allows more limpid wines. And a commercial innovation as well: She sent her representatives throughout Europe, whatever the difficulties. In 1814, her ship arrived first in Saint Petersburg to sell to the Russians the champagne that they would crack open in honor of Napoleon’s defeat...

Upsides of "heir capitalism"

During the 19th century, many other widows achieved economic success through innovation. After the death of her husband in 1806, Dietrich’s widow reoriented the Alsace steel company towards mechanical construction, leading to many innovative patents. She would later also be a pioneer in industrial design.

As for the widow Gévelot, she perfected her late husband’s cartridges, registering a lot more patents than he'd ever done. Sensitive Armfield was the daughter of a English industrialist who emigrated to the French Indre-et-Loire department in 1806, where he funded the creation of a spinning mill. She married her father’s partner, who died in 1828. She then took the helm of the business, introduced new technologies, brought over two entrepreneur brothers at her side, and received medals for her work. The company still exists today: It’s called Toiles de Mayenne.

These stories are the proof that women knew how to innovate in an industrializing France. It’s possible to learn two lessons from this for the future. First, the role played by family businesses. Most female successes of the early 19th century happened within family businesses, taken over by widows or daughters.

“Heir capitalism,” as dubbed by the economist Thomas Philippon in 2007, can admittedly limit profitability, raise risks of bankruptcy, and foster general conservatism. But it can also let talents blossom that wouldn’t have otherwise. Capitalism will find its future not only in major listed companies, but also in the diversity of models, where private equity, family businesses, cooperative groups, companies with social objectives will come into action.

The second lesson is simpler: When humanity will have found a way to truly give a voice to the Lauras, Yasminas, and Ninas, it will be on the right path towards true growth.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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