Roxanne Varza (Station F, Sequoia Capital)
Roxanne Varza is the director of Station F, the world’s largest startup campus, which gathers more than 30 incubators in one campus in Paris. Based in the 13th arrondissement of the city, it opened its doors in 2017. One of her core goals with Station F is to make the startup world a more inclusive space. We talked to her about Station F’s Fighters Program for underprivileged founders and were lucky enough to include two of the Fighters—Dinal Kurukulasooriya (founder of Autochatic) and Brian Thielly (founder of LinesDude)—in the conversation.
Interviewed November 2020
The Origins of Station F
Johannes Lenhard (JL): We really want to talk about how you make space for underprivileged founders at Station F with the Fighters Program. What is this program? Why did you start it? What are the features of it?
Roxanne Varza (RV): The Fighters Program is our program for underprivileged entrepreneurs. At Station F, to be completely inclusive, we do not specify what it means to be underprivileged. Our assumption is that we cannot even begin to imagine all of the different situations that people may have found themselves in. We provide some examples for guidance, but we are open to people from all contexts and walks of life.
Fighters could be refugees, or anyone who has lived through a difficult situation. Examples of people who have previously gone through the program include a former prisoner and somebody who has been homeless. We have also worked with entrepreneurs without formal higher education who are from particularly difficult regions and ecosystems where they couldn’t implement their project locally for political or other reasons. We are open to everyone who has faced adversity.
Once someone has been taken onto the Fighters Program, we provide them access to the formal Station F program free of charge for one year. This means they are integrated into our Founders Program—our main program that welcomes 200+ early-stage companies—and ensures that the bar and expectations for our Fighters is the same as for other entrepreneurs, but we support Fighters with additional resources and an extended time frame to reach their entrepreneurial goals if they need it. That is essentially the mindset behind the program.
You asked, why are we doing this? The answer is simple, diversity is incredibly important to Station F for a number of reasons. What is interesting about the Fighters Program is that it was actually one of the core reasons that our founder, Xavier Niel, wanted to create Station F. Besides filling a big building with entrepreneurs and creating an ecosystem, he also really wanted to prove that anyone can be an entrepreneur. This is a very important message, especially in France, where there is an elitist entrepreneurial mindset, built upon an elitist educational system. Often, even in the Station F ecosystem, we see that there are subsets of people who are on a path to succeed: those with a specific educational background or who are from a higher socioeconomic background. Our founder really wanted to prove that this is not the only background with which entrepreneurs can be successful. Hopefully, we’re contributing positively to that narrative with the Fighters Program.
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How The Fighters Program Supports Founders
RV: Firstly, I must put this into context and comparison with the other programs on the Station F campus, which are very hands off. Entrepreneurs are usually provided with workshops and access to support and it is largely up to them to make use of the provisions, or not. A lot of the startups on campus—because they are part of a dedicated partner program with a dedicated team—won’t necessarily have contact with the Station F team, unless in a specific context of specific groups, events, or meetings. For the Fighters, we have a very different approach; we started small, because we thought we really needed to get to know each of the Fighters, see them regularly, work with them very closely. It’s a much more hands-on approach. Our first batch was three years ago, and we are, for the first time, increasing the number of startups we take this year from 15 to 30.
The real challenge is often just getting them up to speed on the basics, things like how to incorporate a company and how to find and file all the paperwork. They have all heard the jargon, “I need to fundraise.” And we’re like, no, we need to build a product and to get a team first. We have to walk them through the steps. To do this effectively, we see them on a monthly basis. We also organize additional workshops for Fighters that we wouldn’t necessarily host for the rest of the campus, because lots of our entrepreneurs come to us with an entity already created, an existing team and a product. The Fighters tend to be one step earlier. And then to your question about stipend, we’re looking at reinforcing some of the financial elements in the next edition of the program. The Fighters Program is free for all entrepreneurs for one year. Meaning there is no cost to be at Station F and participate. Then there is the housing we offer. Our housing is very low cost at €400 per month per room. We don’t provide any additional discount for Fighters at this stage, because we would lose money. But we are looking at how we can provide a stipend in the future.
Erika Brodnock (EB): I am intrigued. How does someone who has previously been imprisoned or homeless afford to do the program? Do you allow mixed teams—can there be just one Fighter in a team if it’s a team of two, or do both team members have to be Fighters?
RV: Yes, we do have mixed teams. I think what we are looking for is a mixed team that is somewhat balanced. We don’t want somebody who has a big-name MBA and has built their business and then they find a Fighter to add to their team as an easy way to get a free year at Station F.
However, we don’t usually see that. What we do see is Fighters doing the searching. One of our Fighters had to search long and hard to find a CTO for his business. It has been very challenging for him, but he’s done an excellent job.
We have only ever had one team that couldn’t stay in the program for financial reasons. This was before we had housing available, and they really struggled to pay rent in Paris and to find a place that they could live in. As a result of this, when we launched our housing units, we did so ensuring that a lot of the criteria needed for an apartment in Paris don’t apply to our housing. Rent is affordable and entrepreneurs do not need a guarantor. As a result, a lot of our Fighters live in our housing units. Other than that, the program doesn’t require full-time attendance on campus. Entrepreneurs can therefore do consulting, and other things to make ends meet outside of launching their business. We also have people who have saved some money or who are scraping by while bootstrapping, crowdfunding, and finding different ways to make it work financially. Because the program is free, they are not actually paying to be at Station F, so all the money generated goes back into their businesses.
How Station F Builds a Cohort
EB: How do you find the right people to support? How do you encourage them to apply? And how do you look beyond your existing network that may indeed be privileged, in some respects, to find the right people for the program?
RV: There are two things. One is we have actually changed the application criteria for Fighters who are applying. For all of the other Station F programs on campus, we use a lot of startup lingo, we require that you apply in English, we say you need to show us a working MVP, and that you need to have traction. These are things that I think people who are less familiar with the startup ecosystem would not be able to provide. So, for the Fighters Program, we opened up the criteria by saying applicants just need to show us that they have an idea and have done something with it. Some entrepreneurs applied with a Facebook page and a multitude of subscribers, while others had launched a series of YouTube videos they were struggling to monetize. We take the fact our Fighters had an idea but didn’t just sit there with it as a proxy for having the hustle they need to succeed. The second element is that it is the only program on campus that can be applied for in French. Both English and French applications are accepted to enable Fighters to apply in the language that is most comfortable to them.
In terms of how we find Fighters, that is a really good question. In France we have a very solid network of partners that help us. We work with a number of different networks and organizations doing outreach in primarily suburban and rural areas in France. On a global level, I think we could do more to generate greater visibility for the program. We don’t have any global partners, so all of the incoming applications have been organic. We have noticed that global applicants have a very similar profile to the Fighters we get in France: we have received applications from people who have been persecuted for political reasons and people from very difficult educational backgrounds.
Translating Life Experience to Entrepreneurial Success
JL: Perhaps one more question before we move to questions for the Fighters: from your perspective, what is the biggest success story you have seen from the Fighter Program so far?
RV: It takes longer for the Fighters to mature their companies for two reasons. One is they’re coming to us at a much earlier stage, a lot of them are coming pre-product, pre-team, pre-everything, and in a lot of our other programs, they already have some kind of metrics and traction and revenue when they come. The second reason is simply because Fighters face a lot more barriers and challenges. The biggest success we’ve seen so far is Tally. He is a former prisoner and the founder of DigiTall Paris. His story is incredible. He was initially arrested for car theft and went on to create an anti-theft device for cars.
He brought this prototype. And there were so many wires. And I was like, “Tally, what are you showing me?” But he knows exactly what he is doing, and it is fantastic. Yet, he had a very difficult time finding co-founders, he had a very difficult time getting funding, because obviously all the investors didn’t want to fund him given the fact that he had a prison sentence that was pending. Despite all this, he didn’t give up. He was just like, “I’m going to build this and we’re going to see what happens.” But now that’s all behind him, he actually managed to sign a partnership with Sigfox, which is a French unicorn company. They are helping him with the industrialization of his prototypes. They are co-building them together. He has also managed to secure a couple of investors. He also managed to finally secure a CTO after two years.
Two Fighters Tell Their Stories
JL: Let’s also hear from two of your current Fighters—welcome Dinal and Brian. You are both Fighters from Season 2, so are still at Station F as we speak. How has the program helped you so far?
Dinal Kurukulasooriya (DK): As a foreigner coming from a low-income country, Sri Lanka, it gave me time to settle in since I had no office space cost. I have made a few friends at Station F, too. But a big part of the benefits are financial: I was able to get perks for cloud space and for technologies such as Stripe, which we wouldn’t have had access to in Sri Lanka. What Station F also really helped us with is to see the market we are in with Autochatic from a European or Western perspective; the viewpoint helped us to understand aspects such as pricing, product development, value propositions, and especially sales, better.
Brian Thielly: For me, the Fighters Program helped me so much with visibility for LinesDude in the press. I’m frequently contacted by journalists who heard of me thanks to the Fighters Program and it enables me to grow my business network, which is really powerful in this early phase.
EB: What advice would you give to others in your previous situation wanting to start a business?
DK: First, you need a kind of emergency checklist: always make sure you have enough money in hand. Ask yourself: are you ready to go through a stressful and an anxious period with a lot of ups and downs? Also, make sure there is someone to start the business with—being a solo founder is really hard. To find the right person: make sure the business idea you’re willing to pursue is in your (or co-founders) core competencies. Once you are on it: move fast, validate fast, iterate fast, and fail fast (something we took time to learn). And back to my first point: money. Ideally, you can make sure the business can stay alive on its own for a long enough period of time without external funding.
What’s Next for Station F
EB: To wrap us up, Roxanne, I am keen to hear about the next steps you are taking to help overlooked founders at Station F. You mentioned before that you may be able to offer stipends, is there anything else? And what other aspects of the ecosystem are you working on?
RV: Today the Fighters Program has been largely the Station F team meeting with the Fighters companies, organizing workshops, and offering support. We think that we can do more. Everyone is talking about diversity, but people aren’t actually doing so much. We’re looking at strengthening the program one step at a time. We have doubled the program in size. Next year, we also want to find a number of partners and financial supporters so we can provide Fighters with financial aid, but also, we’re realizing that many of the big companies, the Googles, the Facebooks, and Microsofts, they all want to make a difference, but they are not currently doing very much. We are looking at how we can work with them to better support the Fighters Program. Can they mentor the Fighters? Can they provide more tools for free? Do they have content they are not making as available as it should be? We are speaking to a number of different potential partners right now to really reinforce this.
We have also asked all of the Station F partners who are on campus to somehow contribute to the Fighters Program. They are on campus, so they are accessible, but the Fighters probably don’t dare to go and speak to them unless they really see an opportunity that they want to take advantage of. We want to reinforce the whole experience and offering by ensuring the Fighters have greater access to all of our partners. In terms of a stipend, we have a deal in place for the upcoming year with La French Tech for all of our Fighters to access a grant of up to €12K.