As I walked away from my father at San Francisco airport that early September day in 1988 to board my flight to Paris, I overheard him turn to my stepmother and say, “Don’t worry — she’ll be back soon, she doesn’t have that much money.” I spun around and said, “Ha! I think I’ll just stay over there all my life!” And so my love affair with Paris began… staying seven years through an INSEAD MBA and from a pre-Maastricht France to one that was hurtling towards the euro.
Despite what I said about Paris in my recent article about Poland, the French are tremendously entrepreneurial. Their industrial strengths and achievements are vast: the TGV, Eurostar, Airbus. They rule luxury and manage to maintain the appearance of wealth despite their mismanaged economy. And, as many women know, they attract attention. Sometimes people tell me that I look and act French, and I smile for days.
It’s more difficult to be a renegade in France, but they are home-growing those now, too. Telecoms titan Xavier Niel is the country’s first self-made billionaire. And entrepreneurs are taking an interest in the way the country is run. Denis Payre, the founder of Business Objects and Kiala, a logistics firm, is a key example. His political movement — We Citizens — is based on the belief that the political class is incapable of reforming France.
My EntrepreneurCountry Global network is just now setting up in France. We work with Robin Lent, the PDG of AC3, a consultancy focused on luxury brands. Robin introduced me to Jean-Christophe Tortora, the president of La Tribune, an online newspaper that has innovated around events and digital technology.
I go regularly to Paris for meetings of the INSEAD board of directors, on which I sit. I graduated from INSEAD with my MBA in December 1997. It was founded three months after the signing of the Treaty of Rome to be Europe’s own business school. The feeling was that Europe’s best and brightest ought not to be running to America to go to Stanford or Harvard to be schooled in ‘American thinking’. As an American, I can say that it’s vastly different to a US MBA programme.
France has a strong sense of itself and goes head to head with America in terms of promoting its view of the world. If America’s business is business, I believe that France’s is wellbeing. It believes that it has the secret of living well. In France, you’re not supposed to care too much about anything… even though you do.
Paris taught me so much. The French treat everything as a negotiation. I remember returning to the place on the outskirts of Paris where you tried to get a student work permit, having been told the day before what to say and do by the civil servant. So I came back with my hair different, glasses on, and purposefully went to a different person in order to get the right to work. Triumph! Equally, I remember passing through Charles de Gaulle airport from some connecting flight, and the man at passport control, who could see I was anxious about missing my flight, was in a power play mode, while I was impatient. In typical French style, he just sat on my passport and made me miss my flight. Paris is the only European city I know where I can get into a taxi, say in perfect French where I’m going, and ask very politely if the driver can turn down the radio as I’m on the phone, and get a: “Mais non! C’est ma voiture!”
So why in the world do I go there? In three words: Île Saint-Louis. It speaks to my soul. It knows my name. I have a house there that I’ll live in some day.
France is human, and humans are not simple. It creates great entrepreneurs such as Pierre Chappaz, who has founded two major European tech homeruns. And simultaneously it wants to squash the entrepreneurial fire in their bellies by taxing them all the way to London.
For me, I went to Paris to find myself, to put a lot of distance between my past and my future. I could have stayed in California and lived what was a very comfortable life. Instead, I fought to be me. I had to find myself first, create myself, and then I had to realise why I was here. Paris gave me a key to walk through a door. I learnt how to dress as well as learning how to learn. It was tough, and it ought to be tough to figure out who you are, why you are here and what life is about. Nothing in life that is worth having is easy. The tough stuff is the precious stuff.
And that’s why I forgive those taxi drivers and those passport control guys. They speak to my soul, too.