Long ago I gave up trying to break through the so-called “glass ceiling” that has kept women like me out of higher management. Instead I decided to create new enterprises in which management could be reinvented by women. On 8 March 2005, I launched a business incubator devoted exclusively to projects by female entrepreneurs.
Why create a business incubator for women? Women have been attending France’s top universities in large numbers for over 30 years. Moreover, women now account for nearly half the labour force. Despite this, only 6% of the board members and 5% of the CEOs of major French companies are women.
Yet, some 30% of entrepreneurs are women. However, because their companies start up with fewer resources and less aid, they hire fewer people and generate less turnover. It was because of the active role played by women that a record number of 320,000 new enterprises were created in 2007. Many women receive microcredit, and their repayment rate is considered better than average.
Too often, women are associated with social and community entrepreneurship, or at best very small businesses–a view that we found to be very simplistic. After conducting a survey, we discovered that only 5% of the projects accepted by incubators in France were being carried out by women entrepreneurs.
This figure convinced our first sponsor to help us address this challenge, for Paris Pionnières is financed through a public-private partnership that includes the city of Paris, the Regional Directorate for Industry, Research and the Environment (DRIRE), the Caisse des Dépôts, the Accor group, Grant Thornton, Barclays PE, HSBC and several others.
By creating Paris Pionnières, we wanted to show that women are ready to create enterprises that can generate jobs and revenue if only they are given the opportunity and the resources to do so. Women can be key drivers in terms of new occupations, new services and new jobs promoting the growth of our country.
We have invented an innovative model of incubator better adapted to women entrepreneurs. Its distinctive feature is its pre-incubation module, which makes it possible to start with an idea and develop a project at an earlier stage than normal incubators.
Three years on, some 27 companies (out of 600 applicants) have been accepted by the Paris Pionnières selection committee, creating 100 jobs. These companies have received support from the all-round enterprise-creation team–with their legal, human resource and financial expertise–all of whom are also business leaders in their own right.
We offer a variety of services tailored to each individual, ranging from consultancy to more practical aspects such as an office on our premises and personal services (shoe repair, shopping, etc.) to give them the time they need to develop their projects. All these benefits are specified in an incubation agreement costing between €500 and €1,200.
Take Valérie Chevrier and Stéphane Vigand. After two years of “pre-incubation”, they have just launched their website BonsplansDeco.com, which makes the services of a wide network of interior designers available online. Paris Pionnières attracted the OECD’s attention from the very start.
Thanks to our participation in OECD seminars, we have been able to meet women entrepreneurs from abroad who share our vision. In Morocco, the women entrepreneurs of AFEM have created an incubator in Casablanca, based on the same model, Casa Pionnières. We are in contact with Serbia, Saudi Arabia and Canada to explore the possibility of setting up Pionnières programmes in those countries. In France, the model has been launched in Normandy and the Riviera, with the goal of helping about ten projects per year.
The women entrepreneurs that we have assisted remain very loyal to the support team and they network almost continuously, sending each other high-quality customers and suppliers. They all have talent, and want nothing more than a chance to prove themselves!
©OECD Observer No 267 May-June 2008
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