What does it take to launch and run a successful business in France?

women-entrepreneursOne answer could be “an MBA from Harvard Business School”.

On a more serious note, the four extraordinary women entrepreneurs I met last week share not just the business degree from a top US school. They are driven by a personal mission, determination, an acute sense for business success, love of challenge and adventure. Those women — Margaret Calvet, the co-owner and Chief Financial Officer of the French Bordeaux wine distribution company Aquitaine Wine Company, Sophie Kerob, founder and general director of Direct Medica, Helen Lee Bouygues, founder of Lee Bouygues Partners, a consulting firm specialised in performance improvement and interim management, and Margaret Milan, the founder of Oxybul – Eveil et Jeux – shared their stories of success at the roundtable discussion organized by Harvard Women Club in Paris.

With my clients feeling ready to launch their own business, I work on finding out whether they overcame the mindset of an employee and fully embraced the mindset of an entrepreneur. “What’s the difference?” one might ask. An entrepreneur should be able and willing to take risks – albeit well-calculated ones, and to make mistakes and learn from them. What’s expected from an employee is to play it safe, to play by the rules and not to make too many mistakes. What stood out for me from meeting the 4 entrepreneur women was their readiness to learn from mistakes, embrace risk and challenge, as well as passion, high level of engagement and dedication. Each one has lived through big struggles and had to overcome numerous challenges before seeing tangible results and growth.

Margaret Milan, an engineer from Scotland, began her career in marketing with Procter & Gamble. She left the corporate world to spend some time with her children and then founded Eveil & Jeux in her garage. The company became France’s leading mail order toy business with a turnover of 65 million euros before she sold it to the Pinault Printemps Redoute Group in 2001. Margaret’s advice to women considering starting own business is sound and clear: find a way to test your idea on the cheap. She also mentioned an important fact: when you’re a start-up, every euro counts, so prepare for the fact that it’s your network that will provide you with pro-bono support, be that legal or other kind.

All four entrepreneurs agreed that following one’s gut and trusting your instinct was very important. People will try to talk you out of your idea but if you believe in it, stick to your plan. It’s also important to have what the French call ‘culot’ – a certain daring, when you are launching and managing your own company.

I completely agree with Helen Lee Bouygues who said “If you see a gap in your industry, jump in.” Being able to identify opportunities and a niche within the area you already specialize in, is a big bonus factor. Your business will take off faster since you already have a large network of contacts and the expertise required.

Yet it was interesting to observe that most of these lady entrepreneurs – Sophie Kerob whose pharmaceutical company grew from zero to recruiting over 450 people and is expanding to Europe and Asia, Margaret Milan and Margaret Calvet whose Aquitaine Wine Company is the biggest distributor of Bordeaux wine in the States – had little knowledge of the industry they decided to launch in. But they shared passion, determination and the gut feeling that their idea would work. Over time with the persistent effort and learning from their mistakes, they each became specialists in their chosen domains.

Speaking of contacts, it’s paramount to build them up and use them strategically. “Never under-estimate your network and whom you can rely on” was another tip from Helen.

Expectedly, the panelists – of which only one was French (the other two were Americans and one Scottish) – pointed out that France has both pros and cons for running your own business. Yes, “securite sociale” charges are high and uncertainty over taxes makes running business in France more difficult but despite all that, there are many business successes.

Lastly, if you expect that being an entrepreneur will make you happy, think again. First of all, happiness is not a steady state that we can get from an external activity. It’s about our inner work and perspective. ‘You need to learn to be happy from solving problems” as Margaret Milan said.

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  1. Nadira says:

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