You Suck! Entrepreneurship and Elite French Education

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry published an article in Silicon Alley Insider today on the negative impact of the hierarchical French education system on entrepreneurship. Let’s take a look at his argument for “Why France fails at start-ups”, shall we?

Is “Grande école” French for “Ivy League”?

For all the Silicon Alley Insider readers that saw the term “grande école” and went searching for their dictionaries, grande école refers to the prestigious schools where acceptance is done via an entrance exam. No, it is not a standardized, one-size-fits-all test like the SAT.  Instead, each grande école has its own, très special entrance exam. For the rest of the (essentially free) public universities, they admit anyone. So we see why it’s quite chic to say you went to a grande école.

You mean La Sorbonne?

So we have quite a few grande écoles and quite a few categories of grande écoles by subject or sector. Most of the ones that date pre-French Revolution have names that a majority of people outside of France have never heard of. But we have several categories of grande écoles, including business schools like HEC – and then Polytechnique, the ParisTech schools, Telecom Paris, etc.

Grande école, no école.

As a current Masters student at Sciences Po (perhaps the farthest thing from entrepreneurship after La Sorbonne), I obviously have to give Gobry a bit of credit for recognizing that, yes, as a whole the education system does not exactly glorify start-ups and entrepreneurship. That is, unless you’re at HEC. Or ESCP. Or Telecom Paris.

That was then. This is now.

But wait, did I mention that even Sciences Po has a start-up incubator now? Contrary to the expat rants I heard in San Francisco, I think France is actually starting to embrace entrepreneurship. As for Sciences Po, they’re slacking on the marketing front so they don’t exactly have a website or anything,  but the essential bit is that there are companies coming out of the Sciences Po incubator. Ever hear of Ykone? Or perhaps Weblib? Considering that the incubator is still in its infancy, I’m going to go ahead and say that this is most definitely not a bad start.

Life after the diploma.

I do agree, however, that there is a lot of value and prestige attached to the name of your university – but this is not unique to France. In fact, it is no different from the way that kids come out of Stanford and Harvard and get hired at the drop of a dime. Google, for example, used to and may still go and recruit masses of Stanford students before they had their diplomas – not exactly sure they did the same for public school UC Berkeley. If people didn’t want job security on the other end with a fancy name to go with it, Stanford,  Harvard and Princeton would not be making $40,000+ per student.

You suck!

At encouragement, that is. I could go on for hours; when it comes down to it, what bothers me the most is the idea that France “fails at start-ups”. Is this even a fair statement? If so, why is failure such a bad thing? You live, you learn. If anything, the problem I see in the French education system is that when a student makes a mistake, a French professor is jusified in making this student feel like an idiot – literally. And the overly ambitious, idealistic or visionary? Well, they’re unrealistic and egocentric – so they’re labeled as idiots, too. Now you tell me French VCs and entrepreneurs are risk averse – well, guess why. Think Steve Jobs would’ve dared to make a comeback in France?

Failure is sexy.

Now, I recognize that Americans are the complete opposite,  high-fiving and slapping each other on the back non-stop to avoid a lawsuit. But please don’t tell me you think that Silicon Valley is void of failure. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are all college drop outs. Let’s not forget, however, that we’re once again talking about Stanford and Harvard. That’s $40k in annual tuition, down the drain.

Darwin, is that you?

At the end of the day, it’s a self-selection process. People who become entrepreneurs have to do it for the right reasons and are not likely to be those seeking a simple cushy job at the end of the grande école tunnel. The proof is that there are elitist schools that produce top entrepreneurs. Like Pierre Chappaz, the founder of Kelkoo – which was bought by Yahoo in 2004 for $475 million.  So, not only is the elitist school system is not unique to France but entrepreneurship is slowly but surely creeping into the elite crowd.

Kind of off topic but not really.

Before I left San Francisco, I heard about an event called FailCon – where top entrepreneurs would get together to talk about their failures. Speakers included: Meebo, Aardvark, Zynga and Slide. Hey France, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea…

5 thoughts on “You Suck! Entrepreneurship and Elite French Education

  1. Hey TechBaguette,

    great post. France doesn’t fail at startups. It fails at nurturing them. Just as overused and meaningless as ‘grande ecole’ is ‘voie royale’. And this is how it goes: you start with a great idea, with a great team and a great product. Then you want to grow fast and head to a VC who strips you of your shares and motivation. I’m generalising a bit, but that’s how I’ve seen 95% of startups rise and fall in France. Bootstraping, asking for a loan aren’t the Voie Royale. This takes too long to get your name visible. So after three years, you’re the CEO of a 100 employee company, and two years later you’re looking for a job because accountants a running your company with their legendary strategic vision.

    OSEO is doing a GREAT job to change this. But there is a long way to go before entrepreneurs are trusted and given appropriate tools to grow.

    May your blog go a long way towards changing this.


  2. My dear Bill, you would be much more credible if you had spelled “generalizing” à l’américaine. 🙂

    Great comments though – and thanks for mentioning OSEO, one of France’s best-kept secrets.

  3. Hi Techbaguette,

    Very interesting article. I do think the situation is becoming better and better in France. As a Stanford alumni (some years ago already unfortunately), i could notice how big the difference between the valley and France was HUGE 20 years ago. Now i do feel France is really moving on. The social status of an entrepreneur is different here in and the valley. People used to tend to prefer working for BCG or McKinsey than being entrepreneur. It was less chic. With the recent crisis, I’ve seen the entrepreneurship boom in many grandes ecoles: Entrepreneurship has become…HOT. The Y Generation has lost faith in firms, so they want to create their own jobs. Incubators are poping up left and right, ESSEC Business School has created its own seed fund capital (500K per year) for their students. 35 startup are in the incubator of ESSEC which is quite amazing considering how small grande ecoles are. Science Po has created its own incubator (which was just unthinkable 10 years ago!), HEC has finally just created one too. There are tons of entrepreneurship contest, students are competing more and more and creating more and more. If you look at the Petit Poucet Fund and contest (the leading one i believe), you need how it has improved among years. Now France has still to improve on the failure part and accepting that you learn almost more when you fail. Americans are amazing about learning from mistakes and create again. I feel France misses some real VCs that take risks like in the valley too. And not only following but leading.


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