Roxanne Varza fell in love with the tech industry and startups through France – the country more commonly known as difficult for business let alone a place for innovation. But Varza saw opportunity. She moved to France in 2009, started a blog called TechBaguette, got picked up by TechCrunch, founded two chapters of Girls in Tech, has been a researcher for Microsoft and now is working on building the world’s largest startup campus in Paris. That’s not even an exhaustive list of her projects. In 2013, she was listed as one of Business Insider’s 30 important women in tech under the age of 30. Here is Varza, in her own words for #UpCloseVaPersonal. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You are a Silicon Valley native trying to forge a start-up culture in France. Was this the dream?
Everyone always asks me this question. I grew up in Silicon Valley but I didn't really fall in love with tech and startups until later in life. Actually, I had always been in love with France and one of my first jobs was for the French government's foreign direct investment agency – my job was to meet with Silicon Valley startups and talk to them about European and French expansion. At this point that I discovered that I loved startups and entrepreneurs. I loved the passion, the intelligence, the optimism of the people I would meet.
But while I was trying to convince US companies to open offices in France, I kept hearing things like "Business in France is impossible, France is always on strike, there is a 35 hour work week, it's impossible to fire people, everyone is always on holiday, etc." Moreover, all the French expatriates would also bash France, saying there were no startups, no investors, etcetera.
I decided to move to France in 2009 for my master's degree and when I arrived I discovered a local ecosystem that was just beginning to come to life. I felt there was a lot of opportunity to do so many things - things that already existed in Silicon Valley; events, networks, programs, etc. I found it fascinating.
Over the years I have seen France's ecosystem come a long way. I think the development here has been so fast, it is for me far more impressive than what I experienced in Silicon Valley.
What inflections points throughout your career do you consider to be particularly significant?
I think my decision to move to France was obviously a key one. I studied French as an undergrad and my parents couldn't understand how it would benefit me in life. They thought I was destined to be a French teacher, and probably not a very good one. Moving to France seemed like a huge risk to everyone around me - but for me it felt like an obvious move. I often say that I have had a lot of opportunities here that I don't think I would have had in the US.
When I moved to France, I launched a blog called TechBaguette to talk about the local startup scene in English. I remember my Dad didn't think anyone would take it seriously. But two weeks later, TechCrunch asked me to join their team and we ended up relaunching the French TechCrunch site shortly thereafter. It was a killer opportunity but also very hard at the time, I was a full time student with another part time job, but I knew I had to make TechCrunch work.
Since then I have launched other projects as well. I do also think my current job is perhaps something of a dream come true. I could not have imagined a better job that combines all my interests and passions and allows me to work with such incredible people.
Here's what happens when you fast-forward inside our construction site ⏭⏭ (who wants to see the inside?) pic.twitter.com/x8XjEE5jxb
— StationF (@joinstationf) July 13, 2016
Tell me a little about what you are doing. Exciting new projects? I read a lot about the changing tides for startups in Europe, but mostly about Berlin. What should we understand about start up tech culture in France?
We are building the world's largest startup campus, called Station F. It's in a historical monument in the center of Paris - a former railway station that is over 34,000 square meters. We are planning to house 1,000 startups beginning next year with a number of on-site services. We also will be offering housing for 600 entrepreneurs the following year.
This is by far one of the most ambitious projects in France - if not in the world - and it's an initiative of someone who I have an enormous amount of respect for, Xavier Niel. He is a well-known French entrepreneur who is the founder of Free Telecom and also a number of other ambitious startup projects including Kima Ventures – they do 100 investments per year – and the Ecole 42 that teaches 1000 students to code for free each year and has just launched in the US.
What’s the experience of an Iranian-American female entrepreneur in the tech world in France?
Loads of benefits. People here often refer to my profile as "atypical" - I am a foreigner, I studied French literature and then I did a masters degree in Political Economics. You wouldn't expect me to be doing what I do, I guess. But this is a huge advantage and has opened a lot of doors for me. Then again, that is only the case because I work with startups. In France all other industries require that you go to a specific university and have a specific degree. With startups, I'm lucky that an international profile is very valued and you don't need to have a specific degree.
Any words of wisdom for the next generation of professional Iranian-American women?
People are always asking me for career advice, so I always tell people this: One, start a project. Not everyone needs to start a startup (I launched a blog, started a non profit, a media, a conference - but never a startup per say). These projects allowed me to gain exposure, they gave me a great excuse to meet amazing people and learn loads of things. So I often tell people to start a project.
Two, go international. You don't need to move to another country like I did - but I had the opportunity to attend a lot of conferences all over the place – Denmark, Portugal, Iran, Bulgaria. These experiences helped me expand my network and my understanding of different topics. I highly encourage people to consider international experiences whenever they can - and even when on holiday, reach out to people locally.
Three, learn to code. Because it's tomorrow's business language, like English is today. You don't need to become a programmer, but understanding the basics will really go a long way - whether you want to be marketing director at Chanel or you want to be an entrepreneur.
In an interview with Huffington Post you said you would describe yourself as weird. What's the beauty in being weird?
I'm totally weird. I've always been weird or different, I guess. I like going against the grain, I'm not sure I like fitting in, which a lot of people find weird. I also love things that are unexpected, risky, or perhaps make no sense. Weirdness, for me, is an expression of honesty and originality. I guess the weirder, the better.
Roxanne Varza: Entrepreneur. Microsoft France startup lead. Adoptive Parisian.
Roxanne Varza - Shaking Up Women in Tech in Europe
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