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FrancoFiles S02E03: STATION F – Based in Paris, the world's largest startup campus

FrancoFiles S02E03: STATION F – Based in Paris, the world’s largest startup campus

Published on February 9, 2021
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Episode S02E03 – February 9, 2021

STATION F – Based in Paris, the world’s largest startup campus

The world’s largest startup campus is a Franco-American marvel. In the heart of Paris in a renovated train station, STATION F is captained by Roxanne Varza, an Iranian-American who is passionate about getting young businesses the resources they need to thrive. She works hard to create an environment where unicorns can brush elbows with the world’s top leaders—all this while leading nonprofits that get female entrepreneurs the equal recognition and representation they deserve. Listen as we speak with Roxanne about what it’s like to be the builder of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and the "room where it happens."


[00:10] Andrea - From the Embassy of France in United States, this is Francophiles, a podcast where we explore the unique relationship between France and the US. My name is Andrea, and I will be your host. Francophiles we have the incredible opportunity to hear from Roxanne Varza, Director of Station F in Paris, the world’s biggest startup campus. Welcome, Roxanne. It’s a pleasure to have you.

[00:48] Roxanne - Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

[00:50] Andrea - So we heard about la French Tech, which operates from Station F’s campus. As the director there, could you explain to our Francophiles our audience, the history and purpose of Station F?

[01:06] Roxanne - Sure. So Station F is actually a relatively recent project, as you mentioned, we are the biggest startup campus in the world. We opened in 2017, it has been three years going strong. We call ourselves a campus because in many ways, we are like a university campus for startups. We have a massive building 34,000 square meters, it’s actually a historical monument that we’ve converted into a startup space. And we actually also launched a housing extension last year. So, now the entire project is over 50,000 square meters. We house every year I say house, but actually our community is 1000 companies at any given time; early stage companies that come to partake in one of our 30 different programs on campus. And we have a number of different services and different types of support that we provide to these young businesses to get started in their adventure and the development of their businesses. Our community is incredibly international. So we have roughly one third of our community coming from abroad, we have a lot of females that are founders actually kind of coincidentally, because we actually haven’t gone out of our way to really do something to bring more women to Station F. But it’s been a great surprise. And we also have a program for underprivileged entrepreneurs. So diversity is really part of who we are. And then just to come back to the French Tech, because often people get us confused. They think we’re related. So station F is actually completely private initiative that’s backed by Xavier Niel, famous French entrepreneur, probably don’t need to introduce him to a French audience. But for people who don’t know him outside of France, he has a big telecoms company, and he has been incredibly active in the local startup ecosystem has a free coding school hyperactive venture fund. And now Station F.

[02:53] Andrea - Wow. And how did both of you get in touch? Did Xavier reached out to you? I mean, you are the director today. So how did that happen?

[03:01] Roxanne - It’s kind of a weird story. I was a journalist at TechCrunch. And we had been in touch through a crazy event in Paris where Steve Ballmer came and some someone introduced us, and we stayed in touch. And when he started thinking about this project, he reached out and after just kind of bouncing some ideas around, he’s like, well, would you like to run this project? And I totally thought he was pulling my leg, but turns out he wasn’t. And so here I am today.

[03:25] Andrea - And I’ve heard so there’s something that I’ve read that I thought was really interesting. I’ve heard that the F in Station F stands for French. But I’ve also heard that it has other meanings. One of them being femme, so woman. As the head of the company now, what does that name mean to you?

[03:43] Roxanne - Yeah, it’s a funny story, because the name actually was like, there’s a huge backstory behind the name. Obviously, the building is a historical monument. And so the name of the building Halle Freyssinet people were very attached to that name, and didn’t want us to change it. However, the first event that I ever went to, as someone working on this project, we didn’t have the name Station F at the time. And people just looked at that name. And for English speaking audience, they had no idea how to pronounce it, they didn’t know what it is. And so that was like the first clue that if we’re going to do anything that’s going to have any kind of international cachet, we have to fix this. And so we wanted to pick a name that would remind us of the origin of the building, so kind of not lose that. But also you know, kind of do something where people could also interpret it as a kind of in the way that they want to add an element of creativity to it. So Station F. A lot of people think it’s station France and we have a lot of countries that want to kind of imitate the model and they have like station B and station T for the different countries. But the f can be founder can be femme can be a lot of different things. And so what I really love about this is that it’s really just up to anyone what they want station F to mean.

[04:53] Andrea - That seems like the right approach. And Roxanne I have to say you have a really intriguing background. You’re a young Iranian American entrepeneur working in France. And I know that you’re also a Francophile, which is really special for us. We are the Francophile podcast. Tell us a little bit more about that journey and your special attachment to France.

[05:16] Roxanne - It’s a good question, because it’s something I totally don’t know how to explain. I don’t know how to explain where it comes from. I guess that’s how it is with something you’ve love. So my parents, yeah, they immigrated from Iran. And actually, I guess I could consider my mom to a certain extent, also a bit of a Francophile. So she had kind of French books in the house. And she she speaks a little bit of French. But I think I was always just like, I just didn’t want to follow the curve. I didn’t want to speak Spanish, like a lot of people do in California. So when we had our options at school, I was like, No, I’m doing something totally different. And over time, I discovered that actually, it was just a culture with a lot of values that just really, I felt much more in sync. And so I’ve moved out here, it’s been about 10 years, 10 or 11 years now it went by really fast. And I really feel like this place has kind of become home to me. And so what’s really funny about it is actually, I did not fall in love with tech, and then fall in love with friends, I fell in love with France. And thanks to France, I discovered tech, which is kind of very odd. But it was through one of my first jobs in San Francisco, kind of helping U.S. startups open offices in France. So that’s kind of some backstory that not a lot of people know. And then more recently, I actually became a French citizen, which is just kind of like, it’s a very emotional thing for me, because it’s kind of part of your identity, and you just kind of feel like, well, it solidifies something that I’ve felt and something that I believed, but now it’s official. So it’s just like getting married or something.

[06:46] Andrea - I can already sense our audience. Some of them are gushing, because I think a lot of us feel that way. And so you know, with that multicultural background, and you’re newly French citizen, I believe also where you’re working now, it’s the culture is different, the workplace culture. I mean, you were working in San Francisco, and now you’re in Paris, what’s that like?

[07:06] Roxanne - You know, I’ve spent probably a majority of my work life in France. So I almost feel like I don’t have a basis for comparison anymore. Like what I know is really very french. But what’s very funny to me is, I was reading this book recently, Culture Map by Aaron Mayer, she recently wrote a book with the founder of Netflix, and she talks about some of the cultural differences. And actually, in reading this book, I was like, Oh, yeah, I do actually still have some American kind of reflexes. But there are some things that, you know, I just think I’ve just kind of grown accustomed to working in this environment. So I think a lot of times, we compare a lot with the U.S. maybe not on a cultural level, but more on like, you know, we’ll look at the, you know, legal and HR and administrative things, and we’ll compare them. But I really have come to believe that there’s no perfect ecosystem. And so whenever someone says, like, Oh, you know, this is impossible in France, and you know, this, this ecosystem is, you know, has this toxicity or whatever. I totally don’t agree with that. Because I really think that, you know, had somebody spent time in another ecosystem, they would see that there are different elements, but in the same respect, nothing is perfect. And so I really have come to love even the work environment in France as well.

[08:20] Andrea - And how is Station F, creating opportunities for talented individuals who have not had access or tools to launch a business, or perhaps for those who have been in some way or another turned away?

[08:34] Roxanne - This was huge for us from the beginning, like, we knew we’re not going to fill a space like Station F, if everybody looks the same, and comes from the same place, we’re not going to fill a building like Station F, with 1000, super impressive innovations and startups. So that was our first kind of, you know, hint that diversity really matters. But I think also just on kind of like a philosophical level, like it’s just something we believe in diversity creates better innovations. And it’s actually something we’re seeing on the ground. So as I mentioned earlier, we’ve been international from day one, our name has had to change to kind of accommodate for that, but we’ve done a lot of other things as well. And so we have one third of our community coming from abroad, roughly 600 people at Station F don’t even speak French. So it’s actually totally possible to live and work in France and not speak French. So people who think that’s not possible, that’s actually something of like 10 years ago. We also have, as I mentioned, a lot of female founders. Not just female founders, but females working at S tation F in a number of different companies and capacities. And so actually what we’ve done to support the women, we do a female founders fellowship every year where we pick kind of the 10 rising stars, the 10 female founders that we think are really need to be watched and pay attention to, and we provide them extra support and visibility. And then the last program that I think is really kind of close to our heart, because it’s also it was what Xavier, wanted to do, besides just building a big building and filling it with tons of companies, he wanted to show that anyone can be an entrepreneur, and is legitimate to become an entrepreneur. So the Fighters Program is for people from underprivileged backgrounds. And we actually don’t specify what that means, because we can’t imagine all the situations that people could have been through in their lives. And so we’ve actually had people go through this program, currently building companies that have been former prisoners, former homeless people, some people coming from very difficult locations and backgrounds. We don’t go into all the details, obviously, of their lives. But also watching how these people innovate, it’s incredibly impressive, because they don’t have necessarily the same codes as a lot of, you know, stuff that we see in the startup ecosystem traditionally, and it’s fascinating to watch them kind of really hack their way into success. It’s remarkable,

[10:59] Andrea - That is remarkable. And taking into account all the diversity and the diversity in representation at Station F. What is the campus culture like? And also, can you also highlight, you know, how has it changed since the pandemic?

[11:12] Roxanne - It’s so hard for me to describe campus culture, because I really feel like, you know, when people come to station, the one thing that like everybody says is just: I don’t feel like I’m in France. People speak tons of different languages on campus, you see all kinds of discussions and collaborations going on. I think people like spontaneously speak to each other, much more easily than a lot of other places, in Paris and in France. And so I think the culture is really very different. And in many ways, it probably just mirrors an entrepreneurial culture that you could find in other locations around the world. So I kind of think that entrepreneurs have this kind of similar vibe about them wherever you go. And then with regards to the pandemic, I think it’s been fascinating to watch. And it’s been mind blowing, because actually, the pandemic really brought our community together in a way that I didn’t expect, like, in initial, we had our first lockdown in France in March, and in the first hours that we announced, like we have to close our building, like, people were just reaching out to each other, and just, you know, offering help offering, you know, do you want me to go on campus and do this for you? Can I offer my solution to you for free? Do you need someone from my team to help you solve this problem? And just like things that we had never seen, we’ve seen people obviously collaborate, but this was like, on a totally different level. And so we realized that actually, there is something really special about this community, and especially in a time of need, people really come together even more. And so I thought, you know, that’s something that we want to, I don’t want to say we want to keep the pandemic going. But we want to keep that mindset going long term.

[12:52] Andrea - And for the individuals and startups today, how can they apply to be part of the Station F? How does that work? How does that integration work?

[13:00] Roxanne - So Station F applications, all of them are done online. So we don’t require anybody to get up and come to Station F, if they want to apply, they can do it all online, station We have our 30 programs that are listed there. They take startups at different times in the year their programs cater to different needs different sectors. So really entrepreneurs that are potentially interested should go look, pick the programs that are right for them, apply to them. And if they’re selected, and they’re not French, obviously, we work very closely with la French Tech to get them the visas. And we also, as I mentioned earlier, we have a housing extension, so we can also provide very easy accommodation for them when they arrive in Paris.

[13:39] Andrea - I’ve heard about this unique housing situation. I’ve heard something about flatmates, which is a kind of a entrepreneurial way, actually, to match roommates. So can you tell us a little bit more about the flatmates?

[13:54] Roxanne - Yeah, so flatmates is essentially our housing offer. It’s about 10 minutes away from Station F, it’s three huge buildings that house 600 people. So it’s not in any respect to small, small little apartments. It’s a very big complex. And so all of the flats, each one of them will house six people and each person gets their own individual room. It’s, you know, really meant to respond to an entrepreneurs pain point. So entrepreneurs a lot of the time, they don’t make you know, three times their rent a salary, they don’t have a guarantor. They can’t pay certain things upfront. So a lot of these things you would need to get housing in France. I don’t know that everybody who’s listening this necessarily aware of, of that. So a lot of especially non Paris based entrepreneurs have a lot of difficulty and we actually in the early days of station have had people sleeping on campus, bringing air mattresses into meeting rooms, like all kinds of stuff that we just didn’t expect. So we realized that was a huge pain point. And so the whole point is, we will match people also based on kind of their lifestyle criterias: Are you a smoker? Do you like to work really late? Are you vegetarian? You know, like we take all these criterias into account and we work with one of our startups on campus called roomies, who actually does a matching algorithm and has done all of our roommate matching for us. And so yeah, it’s meant to be very affordable, flexible, and entrepreneur friendly.

[15:19] Andrea - Yeah, I really like that it feels like a college dorm experience. And, you know, what’s actually interesting about that is that it continues with that notion of that campus culture that we were talking about, you know, you go to work, you go to station, if you go, you know, meet your colleagues. But after work, the ideas don’t stop, right. And setting can allow for some more brainstorming. Right? So that’s very unique.

[15:43] Roxanne - Yes, I think we were worried initially that people might see it as kind of overkill, and you know, working too much, but actually, what we’ve discovered is people don’t live with their teams, they’re actually living with completely new people, they have actually been able to, you know, discover things about Paris and France that we have a lot of, especially foreigners that live in flatmates. And so a lot of things that they would not necessarily have known because on campus, you just talk about your startup and work life. And so that’s really created a totally different experience and bonding experience, I think, for people who share those, those apartments.

[16:18] Andrea - Absolutely. So you know, just to round off this interview with you, I want to know, to the future community intrapreneurs, or perhaps those wanting to create their own startup campus, or co working space, what would you suggest?

[16:34] Roxanne - Oh, my gosh, that’s like, I could go on for hours about all the things I’ve learned and all the mistakes that we’ve made and all the things not to do. You know, we have one value that’s kind of been part of Station F DNA from day one. And it’s startups first. And it’s just, it’s a kind of a no brainer, but I feel like it deserves to be said, if the startups are not happy, nothing else works. So literally everything that we’ve put into place we thought about it from: Does this make sense for startups? Does our you know the way that we’ve organized our building? Does it make sense for startups the way that we bring in different partners? What do the startups actually need? What kind of partners are they looking for? And so we really just everything that we think about, we always try to put startups first in our way of thinking and our reflections.

[17:21] Andrea - That’s brilliant. Well, thank you, Roxanne. It’s been a pleasure to hear from you and know everything there is to know about Station F. Thank you.

[17:29] Roxanne - Thank you.

[17:31] Andrea - As always, thank you for listening to FrancoFiles. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, subscribe and review us and make sure to drop us a comment about what makes you a Francophile. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at FrancoFilesPod and visit our website for more information and for more stories about French American culture, check out our partner France Amerique magazine. Stay tuned Francophiles, and until next time, à bientôt.

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