Lots of women, few failures… Station F’s successful bet

“In the beginning, nothing worked, remembers Roxanne Varza, director of Estação F, neither the wifi nor the coffee machines. “It was in June 2017 that one of the largest incubators in the world had just opened in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. Since then, all amenities are working and the place is always full. In five years, this emblematic place has seen 5,015 start-ups (27,200 entrepreneurs), of which 92.4% are still active. There are no official figures, but several organizations estimate the failure rate of a start-up to be between 80 and 90%.

Station F has only one unicorn: Hugging Face, an open source platform offering machine learning models, whose headquarters are now in the United States. “It takes an average of six or seven years to become a unicorn, so we should have more later on,” replies Roxanne Varza.

almost respected parity

Another surprising fact: the participation of women. More than 41% of start-ups were founded or co-founded by women. That’s much more than the national average of 16%, according to the latest study by the Sista collective.

“We are very surprised by the number. Since the beginning of Post F, we noticed that women did not apply spontaneously. That’s why we implement measures and include them in partner program contracts [les incubateurs de grands groupes et écoles, NDLR] the obligation to make efforts in the candidatures of women. We are very happy that it was worth it”, celebrates Roxanne Varza.

Station F also worked to promote diversity. About 35% of entrepreneurs are foreigners, with a strong representation of Americans, English and Moroccans. The Fighters Program, aimed at entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds, gave rise to Fighters Day in 2021, an event dedicated to diversity in entrepreneurship. The way is still long. According to a study carried out by the Diversidays association with the companies Occurrence and PwC, 39% of start-up employees say they have already been victims of discrimination during their integration.

A complete ecosystem

About 77% of the founders indicate that, thanks to Estação F, they met a personality that was not very accessible (recognized businessmen, investors, politicians, etc.). “There was clearly a before and after of Station F for my business. It allowed me to create a big network,” says Justine Ba, co-founder of Roombâ, a sort of Airbnb for public places.

The young woman joined the HEC incubator, which is one of about thirty Station F partners (compared to 24 in 2017) alongside Facebook, Ubisoft and Microsoft. “We were able to bring together large groups in direct competition under one roof, it’s crazy”, says Roxanne Varza.

Station F also hosted La Felicità, a 1,000-seat restaurant from the Big Mama chain, and built Flatmates, a place for socializing. Start-ups such as Qonto and Payfit have opened offices on the site to support entrepreneurs in their administrative and banking procedures. You also regularly meet investors and political figures from around the world for inspiration on the spot.

a lot of controversy

The Parisian incubator had its share of difficulties, starting with Covid. Initially conceived in person, the Station F model was faced with canceled events and empty offices. It is only in October 2021 that it launches a fully online program for those who want to “start a business but don’t know how to do it”.

The Fellowship program, aimed at those who were punctually in Paris and thus giving access to an office 5 days a month, was not a great success. “All the start-ups rejected from our programs used to come, that was not the goal”, confides Roxanne Varza.

The mega restaurant did not please everyone. Two months after its opening, local residents complained about the noise and therefore launched a petition accompanied by the creation of a ‘Coletivo Chevaleret Nuisance’. The restaurant manager installed a ‘sound limiter’ and called a security service.

Some partners are viewed with suspicion by some, such as American Palantir, which moved to Station F in late 2021 to offer its services to start-ups. The data analytics company cultivates a strong culture of secrecy and has already made headlines for being involved in privacy breaches.

And in five years?

A few weeks ago, it was the arrival of Total that made some residents jump. The French giant launched a program there for start-ups specializing in renewable energies. The reason for the controversy? The EACOP project, a giant pipeline that Total wants to build in Uganda. A petition signed by more than 500 people was published.

“There is just a misunderstanding about our positioning. The partnership has nothing to do with EACOP. I understand the petition and using every possible lever to stop this project. But stopping the program today will penalize start-ups already hosted by Total”, defends Roxanne Varza.

And Station F in five years? “Hybrid work. In the beginning, we focused on filling”, says the manager. And an investment fund? “We didn’t want to do one at first because we didn’t want to be seen as a ‘space versus heritage’ formula. We started watching. There’s no doubt the files will flow.

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