Women Entrepreneurs Inspiring HEC WIL members
In homage to International Women’s Day, we publish an article on HEC Women in Leadership club, WIL, and their decision to organize a “mini-trek” to Station F, which harbors the school’s expanding Incubateur. The February 17 visit featured a three-kilometer ‘hike’ around the world’s biggest startup campus, meetings with some of the school’s incubees and a rich exchange with HEC Paris in Qatar Associate Professor Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj.
(©Ciprian Olteanu / Unpose)
“The club has rarely had such a deluge of applications for an outing!” Newly-elected WIL president, Tejal Pradhan describes the enthusiastic response to the WIL “mini-trek” to Station F, which saw over 70 members apply for the dozen spots available. “There is so much interest in what budding women entrepreneurs are developing here that we’ve already scheduled a second batch of WIL members for another visit in March.” The MBA candidate (2023) has co-organized the visit as part of the club’s “Women Who Inspire” series. This trip, she notes, aims at motivating women “to take up entrepreneurship and hear it firsthand from the women leaders and founders who have been through this grind.”
A former Deloitte consultant and software developer in Mumbai, Pradhan also admits to being a tech fanatic, yoga lover and, especially, art enthusiast. Which makes it all the more appropriate that the three-hour Station F visit sets off below L’Arc, the 11-meter-high artwork by Swiss sculptor Urs Fischer towering in front of main entrance. Like much on this tech campus, this freshly-inaugurated artwork reflects the drive to think large, combine creativity and entrepreneurship and make bold, out-of-the-box statements. “These are elements which have very much driven HEC’s involvement at Station F,” says Anna Schwarz, program manager for HEC Incubateur. Schwarz takes the WIL group up two flights of stairs to a vast open space dominating the campus. People there are talking loudly into phones, typing furiously on laptops or gesturing cinematically on the colorful settees specked around a bar. “Here is the zone reserved for our 150 startups, the biggest in a Station F which hosts around 1,000 of these nascent companies.” Schwarz outlines the history of the school’s incubating adventure, stretching back exactly 15 years. “In 2007, HEC was operating from a cramped location on the Jouy-en-Josas campus, so we decided in 2015 to move to a small coworking space in the northeast of Paris. When the opportunity to be part of the opening team at Station F presented itself in 2017, we seized it.”
Challenge Facing Women Entrepreneurs
At present, HEC Incubateur boasts a network of mentors and advisers of 500+ people, all devoted to boosting the startuppers’ drive to succeed. “Station F is a huge asset to the school,” pursues Schwarz, “and we provide a huge input to Station F.” “The energy here is amazing,” picks up Dr. Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj. Addressing the roundtable of WIL members after the tour, the academic insists on the ability of the startups in HEC’s incubator to maintain and expand their activities: “The easy part is creating your startup, the hard one is to make sure it is solid enough to survive in a cut-throat environment. It’s fantastic that 85% of HEC’s incubees are still growing after they leave here.” Janjuha-Jivraj hopes the Station F dynamism can help address a major challenge in entrepreneurship: “The big problem we’re facing in Europe is that only 5% of entrepreneurs are women. That goes up to 11% in the world, still far from the parity that should be there.”
Part of the problem is funding. A student raises her hand: “It’s a tough market out there and women need to ask for more. It’s something men do better, they have less qualms. We have to be more assertive and ask for greater resources.” Clemence Demerliac is one of two invited entrepreneurs working at Station F. Demerliac is the dynamic founder of Adalong, a platform using AI to automate the diffusion and curation of visual content created by the fans, employees and consumers of brands. The HEC MBA graduate 2018 shares her experience with the students: “You should be under no illusion, it’s tough to raise money as a woman and a sole founder of a company – I should know. On the upside, the current level of funding for female founders is still relatively low, which creates great opportunity for change in the right direction."
Goldmine at Station F
The entrepreneur, who also graduated with a Trium Executive MBA, is joined by Juliette Lailler. She is the co-founder of Krème, a highly-successful cosmetic brand which is expanding at a remarkable pace throughout France. Lailler focuses on the positive experience she’s enjoying at Station F: “Working here in the HEC Incubateur helped us gain in confidence. It’s a way to get mentoring and coaching in a very hands-on approach. Even now, whenever we are confronted with a very technical question on legal matters, accounting issues or book-keeping we can turn to the business angels and experts working with HEC. It’s been transformative to collaborate with them.”
The Station F tour comes to an end at the impressive La Felicità restaurant, another invention by HEC entrepreneur graduates. “This trek has been a memorable one,” says Ana, a Mexican hailing from London who just entered the MBA program in January. “It’s the first since the COVID-19 restrictions have been lightened here and it couldn’t have been richer in terms of content.” Fellow-student Ashley, who is a corporate lawyer by trade, is equally impressed: “This visit confirms my desire to explore the startup scene in Paris with a view of converting professions and settling here.” For WIL president, Tejal Pradhan, the trek’s combination of talks, testimonies and multiple informal meetings was ideal: “What an experience! The whole point of this visit was to discover the entrepreneurial world for women here - but it was so much more than that. We’ve really discovered a goldmine at Station F and enjoyed some memorable trajectories by women entrepreneurs. We’ll be back.”