Diversity in French startups: a really (un)touchy subject

Nov 1, 2011
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It comes as no surprise that the US media is pointing fingers at Michael Arrington and that the TechCrunch star is once again under fire. After all, he’s been spit on, gotten into a “friendly” fight with Loic Le Meur, called out prominent Silicon Valley investors and given them a bit of a scare – and he even caused a bit of a commotion on his way out of TechCrunch not too long ago. So what could the Silicon Valley problem child possibly be up to now?

Oh, racism.

Or not. But that’s besides the point. I’m not really here to argue about whether or not Mike’s comment was racist or not. But the situation did make me think about the situation in France…

Le Pen…who?

I remember when Jean-Marie Le Pen made the final cut for the French presidential election in 2002. The fact that the ultra right-wing nationalist politician scored just under 20% of the vote was beyond worrisome. That, combined with the not-so-flattering French stereotypes of being less than friendly with tourists, made France look like it wasn’t a place that really welcomed foreigners in the workplace.

Yes, everyone knows about President Sarkozy’s Hungarian ancestry.

Since, there have been numerous debates over whether France could ever see a black president à la Obama (not likely for 2012) – and any leaders with a hint of a foreign nationality in them (like Rachida Dati, the Minister of Justice) get put under the microscope. But worse, there are questions about whether or not people of a foreign nationality are overlooked in favor of the French when it comes to jobs. I remember having discussions with people who told me that even a foreign-looking name could flag their job application as “no thank you.” Sad, but potentially true.

The diversity solution: entrepreneurship.

People outside of the French entrepreneurial scene may not know this – but I actually think it’s incredibly diverse. I’ve met people from all kinds of backgrounds, French and non-French, that are able to set-up shop and do business in France. In fact, part of me actually believes that becoming an entrepreneur is an attractive solution to anyone that has difficulty breaking into the French rather traditional and elitist job market. You don’t have to be a graduate of the Haute Ecole de Blah blah blah and the son of I don’t know who (although it probably helps). Obviously, it’s preferable if you speak the local language but I’ve come across numerous entrepreneurs that don’t and are still getting by.

A meritocracy?

Entrepreneurship, by nature, operates as a meritocracy. Or does it? I got into this debate last night with a few entrepreneurs who felt that Arrington was not to blame even if he had never met a black entrepreneur. Well, here’s what one African American entrepreneur has to say about his experience. I find it rather strange that in a place like the United States – a country of entrepreneurs, essentially – that the racial divide would be visible in entrepreneurship. Despite the large number of foreign entrepreneurs, there is an invisible pre-process in many ways. Now I’m wondering, do non-French entrepreneurs feel the same in France?  Potentially. Although I have to argue that the tech entrepreneurial crowd is perhaps the most diverse and least elitist of any “industry” in France.