I rarely comment or (worse) link to websites discussing startup ecosystems as they mostly only report how much money was raised by teams X or Y. Which, in and of itself, as someone working on innovation and not short-term risky investments, bears no interest to me.

But there's always a first time, I guess. And, as a few weeks ago, Sifted, the Financial Times' media monitoring European startups, published an article on French startups and their elitism, I became mildly interested.

Can French startups overcome their elitist image?
French founders are overwhelmingly white, male and previously wealthy. But several wide array of programmes are hoping to change that.

First off, I'm always somehow surprised when I realize that elitism has become a bad word. But in any case, when there are +/- 100 successful Series A funding in France each year, I wouldn't consider "startupping" a non-elitist game to begin with.

In that regard, having French founders overwhelmingly coming from elite engineering schools (the "Grandes Écoles" offer the highest ranking engineering Master's degrees and can only be integrated after a harsh selection exam with very limited seats) should be a surprise to strictly no one in France. To be fair, Sifted does note that:

Likewise in the US, the symbiotic relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley is legendary, with PitchBook ranking it as the single largest source of startup founders in the world followed by the University of California at Berkeley. 

You don't say 🙄

The reason why there is such an overrepresentation of a few "elite" profiles for startup founders is directly coming from the reason why Sifted has been created by the Financial Times: the completely irrational (and, in my not-so-humble opinion, completely unproductive) interest in how much money startups are raising. In this game where "journalists" core skill is paying a subscription to Pitchbook and then commenting on the latest startup PR coming in their mailbox, it should be clear to them they are a large part of the problem. When the only focus is on initial funding rounds and early-stage financial valuation, startup ecosystems get solely organized around raised capital as the KPI. It's relatively easy to assess how much focus and work is done putting forward pitch skills rather than actual/demonstrable business traction within.

So yes, this automatically translates into putting money in « trustworthy » profiles with the highest access to a wealthy network.

Guess who that would be? (Again, roll-eye emoji.)

A few things that I would have rather seen discussed by Sifted would have been:

  • How is this "elitism" that is more prominent in France than in other EU countries reinforced by the narrow focus on public investment targeting deeptech startups?
  • Why standard universities are regular Ph.D. profiles are so poorly represented in this game, while numerous public tech transfer organizations exist, have very large teams on the payroll regarding their effective output, rarely disclose their annual numbers, and, to be frank, are mostly reviled by potential startup founders?
  • How do the incriminated elite engineering schools actually fare in terms of their own entrepreneurship programs?
  • What is the actual performance of French VC funds that, unlike the rest of Europe, work 95% with regional startups and mostly in Paris?

Of course, I'm not sure that digging too much into such questions would be seen very positively by critical sponsors of the online journal. Journalism is a tough business. I guess?

To be fair, the article is also interested in a larger question about diversity.

London and Berlin are more multicultural cities than Paris. When you go there and you meet investors and you meet founders, I feel like these are people from different parts of the world and who have done different things. Whereas in Paris, it’s like people have followed a very typical path.

For sure.

Elitism is not so much the issue as our brand of elitism. I wouldn't blame the Olympics for being elitist. The critical problem is how many non-white-male non-French students manage to shoehorn themselves into the aforementioned elite schools.

Do you know where there is way more diversity, though?

French universities. And the big unlock for all this would seem rather obvious. It even fits in one word: Erasmus.

The key obstacle with this simple solution, though?

It would require (a) a complete reboot of the way public tech transfer is done in France (including being done with the famously inefficient SATT program) and (b) building up entrepreneurship networks and ecosystems outside of the 20 boroughs of Paris with.... wait for it...


English-speaking operators.

Oh, the horror.

The link has been copied!