Paris: the City of Light; the City of Love; and, well on its way to becoming the City of Entrepreneurship. This should come as no surprise, though. France has a long history of applied innovation and many of the world’s largest businesses are French. From Total to Sanofi, L’Oreal to Michelin, France quietly serves as a major resource for the world’s economy. What is unique about France’s emergence as a global tech and innovation center today is the front and center role women are increasingly taking in it.
At one point, the digital age outpaced France, pushing American and Chinese technologies to the forefront. This did not go unnoticed by French political leadership who, over the past decade, invested resources, often with private partners, to establish a tech ecosystem. Those investments are beginning to bear fruit. One example, illustrating the French model is Station F: a public-private startup hub in an old Paris railroad depot that can house and incubate 1000 tech companies. It’s Director, Roxanne Varza, is a woman .
Do not underestimate the significance of a woman in this position. It represents overcoming Paris’ deep historical biases in politics, technology and gender. The #metoo movement has highlighted the depth of the global gender gap in a range of economic sectors. That division is deepest in technology and associated venture capital. This entrepreneurial space, remains an incredibly difficult one for women to navigate. France has been making a concerted effort to change those dynamics.
For over a decade public and private initiatives have focused on diversifying the country’s entrepreneurial skill base. Tangential efforts include the Young Enterprise Initiative — Start in France, accelerator organized in 2005 by the French Ministry for Europe & Foreign Affairs, Business France, Paris & Co, and Hello Tomorrow, for foreign science-based companies that want to start in France (2005). More direct support is found at Paris Pionneres, an incubator also created in 2005 to attract innovative startups with a woman in management. Supported by these, and additional similar initiatives, the face of French tech is slowly becoming more female. In the past two years, news headlines shifted from “Why Are There So Few Women in French Tech” (ZDNet) in 2016 to “How Women of the French Tech Movement Are Turning France Into a Startup Nation” (Forbes) in 2018. A 2017 study by Stripe found that one out of four French startups since 2015 have a female founder, three times more than overall statistics for French listed companies and substantially higher than the United States where a study by Crunchbase found in 2014 that only 17% of US startups (albeit up from the 9.5% in 2009) have female founders.
Reflecting these investments, many of the most well-known experts in French tech are female.
After playing a key role in the architecture framing the French digital economy, Fleur Pellerin is leading venture investment. As previously noted, Roxanne Varza, who formerly ran Microsoft’s Ventures and startup programs in France, and is the face of Station F. Gender inroads in France may be moving faster and more efficiently than elsewhere in the world but women need to continue to expand inroads in promising and cutting edge fields such as artificial intelligence to maintain the momentum.
As with tech in general, the low number of women in artificial intelligence is not new. Some feel the problem is training and the need for more women trained in STEM topics (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Some argue it is the lack of mentors for women. Others argue it is due to a particularly hostile environment for women in the venue. Veronique Ventos, recognized in publications as one of the leading artificial intelligence researchers in France and founder of Nukkai, a private artificial intelligence lab based in Paris, sees it as a combination of all of the above and more.
Veronique’s story is interesting. A serious woman, she is quiet and reflective. She speaks with a clear thirst for knowledge and an understanding of the need for collaboration. Our initial conversations centered on Nukkai but how she got to be a leading mind in the heavily male dominated world of French artificial intelligence was a natural case study for exploration. Her answers to probes are straightforward and to the point. She had no axe to grind and feels no need to compensate for either her background or gender. These traits, combined with a passion and vision for her work, are at the core of her achievements.
Veronique, like many tech women, overcame significant barriers. Born into a family where no one had previously obtained a French baccalaureat, she was not expected to receive one. Early schooling, showed a talent for mathematics. At the age of 12 she had the good luck to have a teacher ask her to teach a mathematics class for a week as the result of her refusal to pay attention and wanting to do things her way. “That”, she notes with a smile “gave me the opportunity, and indeed it was an opportunity, to be put in my place.”
Realizing her talents in the STEM field, she explored academic possibilities at the Universite Paris Descartes-Institut Universtaire de Technologie (IUT). It was here that she met Daniel Keyser, another teacher who changed her life. The late Daniel Keyser was a visionary in the French information technology sector who recognized early the value, in training and approach, of an interdisciplinary dialogue with mathematics, linguistics, and cognitive science. Though a technical institution in nature, Keyser encouraged Veronique to pursue an academic career in artificial intelligence.
“Artificial intelligence” she notes “allows us to develop original methods out of the classical ways while using formal frameworks.” Put more simply, it allows the creation of new and original solutions to fundamental problems by using archetypal principals. It is a nice match for someone who wants to do things her own way.
After receiving her PhD with a focus in Artificial Intelligence, she went on to the prestigious Universite Paris Sud, Orsay where she worked with Marie-Christine Rousset, another AI figure in France. During this time that she discovered the game of Bridge and developed a deep passion for it. It brought her the same feeling that diving into artificial intelligence did, the feeling of “the more progress we make, the weaker we feel.” That feeling sparked potential connections, resulting in a Bridge-based application for solving the dynamics of artificial intelligence.
Colleagues did not welcome her ideas. She persisted, however, focusing on the latent learnings of applying symbolic artificial intelligence to the game of Bridge. In her view, the paradigm (loosely defined as the collection of all methods in artificial intelligence research that are based on high-level “symbolic” (human-readable) representations of problems, logic and search)enables the machine to provide explanations for the decisions made.
Veronique’s 2017 academic publication presents her belief that all AI paradigms should use such a hybrid architecture. That the application of such architecture can help answer some of the most significant questions and problems presented by artificial intelligence.
She may have seen early what many are only now realizing: that we need to understand exactly how decisions are made, not just enable them. Her approach may be the key to incorporating artificial intelligence into daily life with a marketable understanding and reliability. It is this vision and perseverance that drives the team of engineers and Bridge experts at Nukkai. Successful or not, Nukkai illustrates the common attributes and patterns common to many female faces in French tech. Like other women in tech, she builds upon all the training, encouragement, determination, and self confidence that she can find.
They are a strong breed these female French technocrats. A romantic might see them continuing in the path of Marie Curie, the Polish-born French-nationalised innovator who overcame early and frequent obstacles. Beyond the training and professional experiences they share, these women find the confidence deep within to speak up, to be resilient, and to continue to push even in the face of negative feedback. It could be argued that this is ingrained into the French female mentality. Others, however, picturing the American World War II poster showing the image of the muscle flexed female war -factory worker “Rosie the Riveter” saying “We Can Do It.” might see this as a more global female trait.
Whatever the source, the French are harvesting benefits from investments to empower women and may be at the forefront of leveraging female tech talent. A longer-term question is whether this trend will continue. Will the emerging Paris hub and “La French Tech” remain a male dominated or continue to trailblaze gender equality? Does France want to be a leader, not just for technology, but for gender equality? Will the future of French tech be female? That is a question only the coming years will answer. It certainly seems possible and if women like Veronique keep their eyes on their visions, I expect it will.
Ryan Triplette is the Founder of Canary Global Strategic and has over fifteen years of experience working on international policy impacting the technology and disruptive industries, specializing in intellectual property, competition and security concerns.
Originally published at ai-med.io on March 7, 2019.