What Paris Taught Me
je suis charlie
As I walked away from my father at San Francisco airport that early September day in 1988 to board my flight to Paris, I overheard him turn to my stepmother and say, 'Don't worry – she'll be back soon; she doesn't have that much money'. I spun around and said, 'Ha! I think I'll just stay over there all my life!' And so my love affair with Paris began...... staying 7 years through an INSEAD MBA and from a pre-Maastricht France to one that was hurtling towards the Euro.
Despite what I have written about Paris in my article about Poland, the French are tremendously entrepreneurial. Their industrial strengths and achievements are vast: the TGV, the Eurostar, and Airbus. They rule luxury, enjoy vast diversity of beauty in the hexagon, manage to maintain the appearance of wealth despite their mis-managed economy, and as many women know, they attract attention. Sometimes people tell me that I look and act French, and I smile for days.
It's more difficult to be a renegade in France, but they are home-growing those now too. Xavier Niel is the first self-made billionaire: Iliad, Kima Ventures, Le Monde, Monaco Telecom, And Orange Switzerland.
In fact, French entrepreneurs have the same zeal to redefine the economy around economic not political principles; Denis Payre, the founder of Business Objects and Kiala, a logistics firm, is a key example. His political movement – We Citizens – is raising awareness that the political class is incapable of reforming France.
EntrepreneurCountry Global is just now setting up in France. I hope to work with Francoise Thomas, a friend of mine from 1989 when I was teaching English and she was one of my students at Hewlett Packard. In the same way that you invest in an office to go to China, we will invite French non-technology traditional businesses to invest in 'going to EntrepreneurCountry' by becoming corporate citizens of EC.
I go regularly to Paris for INSEAD Board of Directors meetings on which I sit. I graduated from INSEAD with my MBA in December 1997. INSEAD was founded 3 months after the signing of the Treaty of Rome to be Europe's own business school. The feeling was that Europe's best and brightest ought not to be running to America to go to Stanford or Harvard to be schooled in 'American thinking'. I never thought I would go to business school until I experienced INSEAD students and professors. As an American, I can say, it's vastly different than a US MBA programme.
France has a strong sense of itself. It goes head to head with America in terms of promoting its view of the world. If America's business is business, I believe that France's is well-being. It believes that it has the secret of living well – work + life, and in that, cuisine, fashion, love and the rest. You're not supposed to care too much about anything ... even though you do.
Julie in Paris age 22
As I mentioned earlier, I went to Paris when I was 22. My boyfriend soon after tired of hearing me wonder and worry about how I would break into French business culture. To say that the French were not waiting for me with baited breath when I stepped off the flight from San Francisco is an understatement. I didn't have a Bac C but had studied Humanities so of course I couldn't be smart. I had to B E L I E V E in myself enormously during those years in Paris as no one else did. I found vast reservoirs of self-belief that I was going to turn my Parisian adventures of my 20's into something powerful. I was obsessed with having no money. My father was right. It's difficult to make your way in the world when you decide you're going to do it without your parent's financial support to figure out what you can do as a person. It was incredibly important to me that I know what Julie Meyer could do. At one point, French boyfriend stopped the car as we were on one of our weekend drives to the country and he said, 'Stop! Stop worrying about the money. The money will find you if you're good!' I thought he was nuts, and told him so, but the past 25 years of my life have been one long example of the money finding me the less I focus on it.
Paris taught me so much. The French treat everything as a negotiation: prove to me how badly you want this. I remember returning to the place on the outskirts of Paris where you tried to get a student work permit, learning the day before what to say from the civil servant, and returning the next day with my hair different, glasses on, and purposefully going to a different person in order to get the right to work. Triumph! Equally, I remember passing through Charles de Gaulle airport from some connecting flight, and the man at passport control could see I was anxious about missing my flight, and was in a power play mode as I was impatient. In typical French style, he just sat on my passport and made me miss my flight. Paris is the only European city I know where I can get into a taxi, say in perfect French where I'm going, and ask very politely if the driver can turn down the radio as I'm on the phone, and get a: 'Mais non! C'est ma voiture! Tu te foutre'
So why in the world does anyone go there?
In three words: Île Saint-Louis. It speaks to my soul. It knows my name. I have a house there that I'll live in some day.
France is human. Humans are not simple. It creates great entrepreneurs like Pierre Chappaz who has founded two major European tech homeruns. And simultaneously it wants to squash the entrepreneurial fire in their belly by taxing them all the way to London. It wants to do things its way. Niel has bought the rights to the song, My Way! It is a great actor: It has the hutzpah to act on par with Germany when it might be on par with Spain.
For me, I went to Paris to find myself. To put a lot of distance between my past and my future. I could have stayed in California and lived what was a very comfortable life. Instead I fought to be me. I had to find myself first, create myself, and then I had to realise why I was here. Paris gave me a key to walk through a door. I learned how to dress as well as learning how to learn. It was tough, and it ought to be tough to figure out who you are, why you are here, and what life is about. Nothing in life which is worth having is easy. The tough stuff is the precious stuff.
This is why I forgive those taxi drivers, those passport control guys ... They speak to my soul too.
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