Entrepreneurship in France: A tough and testing context that just might bring out the best

Entrepreneurship in France: A tough and testing context that just might bring out the best. This week, a two-part interview with Anglo-French entrepreneur Emile Elie, CEO and Co-founder at Business Class, a training company located in the Paris area

This week, a two-part interview with Anglo-French entrepreneur Emile Elie, CEO and Co-founder at Business Class, a training company located in the Paris area

Entrepreneurship in France: A tough and testing context that just might bring out the best by Tom Gamble from an interview with Emile Elie.

Emile Elie, born of Franco-British parents, is CEO of the successful SME Business Class located in the western suburbs of Paris. After studying economics at UCP and a mind-opening Erasmus study period in Oslo, Elie completed a Master’s in Entrepreneurship in Bordeaux (INSEEC). He then emigrated to South Korea for several years where he started up his first company, BSE Consulting with an aim to create a Microsoft ERP integrator for foreign companies based in Korea.

Returning to France in 2013 saw him join the family company he had co-founded in 2003. Specialised in training solutions in soft skills and language and communication strategies, Business Class operates mainly in Paris and the greater Paris region and has recently developed reach on a national level.

A successful organisation, having moved from a one-employee outfit to a team of 40 full-time employees and associate  trainers, Business Class is the epitome of French small business operations: the going is tough – very tough – but the obstacle course provides a challenge from which only the best, and fittest, may remain. Emile Elie answers, at times with no punches pulled, to the Council’s questions on the entrepreneurial environment in France today.

Sweet ingredients for success

Our guiding principle remains the same as when we first began – and we’re quite proud of this, states Emile Elie. What still drives us today is the leitmotif to be considered as partners rather than simply suppliers for our clients. We are committed to helping companies develop their communication skills which in turn will have an impact on their growth and success.

Our approach, he continues, is holistic by which we mean that we take into account not only the skills levels but also the short and long term objectives, the learning styles, and the business contexts of our trainees.  It’s always been important for us to provide quality, he insists, and this means recruiting the right people and providing support and training for the trainers. We want trainers to be happy working for Business Class and to feel valued.

Communication and language training is about helping people communicate and understand each other, suggests Elie and affirms that it helps their clients to improve their relationship with their customers abroad and also with their suppliers. For Elie, it’s not just about learning a language or communication strategy – its’ also about understanding other cultures. As a matter of fact, he continues, we also need this skill because our team is multicultural, including Irish, American, British, Chinese, French, Korean, Colombian, Swedish, Russian, and Polish members.

Entrepreneurship in France: Unhelpful partners?

Asked if the system in France tended to help or hinder new business start-ups, Elie does not mince his words.  The French State is by nature bureaucratic, he states, and the banks constrained by a low-risk culture. When you start your business you need to focus on building business and with the banks reluctant to lend funds, it’s frustrating to waste time managing paperwork and looking for a bank to finance you. But the biggest problem, according to Emile Elie, is pessimism and the general atmosphere in France today. Entrepreneurship is not viewed well in French culture. If you become successful, people will think it suspicious: they start to wonder who you exploited to become successful.

Added to this, expresses Elie, is an underlying “fear of failure”. In France you aren’t allowed to: only recently the French government stopped the “cotation 040”, which means that if your venture goes under once, you can’t borrow money to start another business. Life is about trial and error though, isn’t it? he adds, with a hint of irony.

The French entrepreneur: Only the toughest

Stand at (un)ease
Stand at (un)ease

One of the positive results of the challenges encountered is that you learn, says Elie. Even in a system that isn’t designed to encourage entrepreneurship, with determination and perseverance, you can succeed. The obstacles you face make or break you. There are a lot of entrepreneurs who give up and go back to being an employee, he maintains, supporting the idea that France desperately needs to overhaul its attitude towards those who dare to venture into business. Even when you do succeed – creating jobs, making wealth for the country, paying into the system – the State never commends you. This is disappointing. Everyone needs positive feedback, even entrepreneurs!

French DIY – creating four-star business leaders

France’s sometimes hostile environment for entrepreneurship has fostered several, highly effective networks that aim for the mutual sharing of experiences and skills-building. One such network is the highly regarded CJD (Centre des Jeunes Dirigents) created in 1938 and boasting more than 4,500 small company owners and managing directors as well as having sister organisations throughout the overseas French-speaking countries.

The CJD, enthuses Elie, is an association for managers and company owners who want to share and improve. At the CJD we practice co-development and encourage the development of new skills through training. Every business is different, but in the CJD we realise that we all have the same issues. If you sell Lamborghinis or loo paper you still have to manage people, the relationship with the bankers, relationships with your shareholders, manage legal issues, and manage investments and innovation. The input of your peers is very important to progress and give you guidance.

The key qualities for entrepreneurship in France

When asked what key attributes the entrepreneur in France requires, Emile Elie’s first reaction is to cite the ability to manage different things you haven’t been trained for. When you start a company you don’t have an HR department or legal department, he states, but you have the same obligations as a big company. So you need to learn to manage everything. The most important thing is being able to hire the best team possible: because a company is a group of people, and without people you don’t have a company.

Business for the common good: Almost there

Social entrepreneurship is the relatively new concept of ploughing back profits and expertise into the wider community. We asked Emile Elie for his view on the “common good” approach and whether it was feasible in France.

It’s feasible everywhere, replies Elie, but to really succeed, those companies who desire to follow this approach have a huge challenge – the need to find a business model where they don’t require government subsidies to survive. At the CJD we talk about the concept of PG (“Performance Global”), he adds. Companies need to be aware that they are in an eco-system and they need to treat all the stakeholders well so that the ecosystem will grow in a beneficial way. I can see a change happening on some levels, he concludes. People are collaborating and sharing of their own accord without the intervention of the state.

Young lion, wise words

We asked Emile Elie if he had three pieces of advice to offer a graduate or senior employee wishing to create their own business in France. After a moment’s reflection, followed by the trace of a smile, he concludes:

  • Don’t create a company if your only goal is to get rich.
  • Everybody can do it, you just need to work hard and learn from your mistakes – because you will make mistakes – it’s part of the journey.
  • Dream big – everything is possible.
Emile Elie 2
Emile Elie

Learn more about the Council on Business & Society

The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.

The Council on Business & Society member schools:
- Asia-Pacific: Keio Business School, Japan; School of Management Fudan University; China; ESSEC Business School Asia-Pacific, Singapore.
- Europe: ESSEC Business School, France; IE Business School, Spain; Trinity Business School, Ireland; Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.
- Africa: Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa; ESSEC Africa, Morocco. 
- South America: FGV-EAESP, Brazil.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.