Paris’s Answer to Silicon Valley Is Inside a Refurbished Train Depot

Walking into Station F, the gargantuan new space in Paris devoted to startups and innovation, feels a little bit like entering a tech office in Silicon Valley. All of the requisite props for “fun” are in place, including vintage-style video game consoles, pool tables, bright couches, and neon signs. There are even potted palm trees for a touch of California.

Station F’s founder Xavier Niel deemed his project France’s “mini-Silicon Valley,” and the new space, located in the city’s thirteenth arrondissement, hopes to exceed and improve upon the success of California’s startup environment. Roxanne Varza, the 33-year-old director of Station F, was herself a Silicon Valley native before coming to Paris and being recruited by Niel to run Station F. Open since last summer, the refurbished train depot is now full to capacity, home to over 3,000 desks and 26 international startup programs. “We have so many requests it feels small,” Varza said of the 366,000- square foot space.

The success of Station F is indicative of what Niel, Varza, and even President Emmanuel Macron hope is a new future for France. Macron has made it a priority to support innovation and entrepreneurship, including projects from overseas. At the opening of Station F last June, Macron gave a speech lauding the entrepreneurial future of France and filmed a selfie urging foreigners to come: “We are here today in Paris in Station F. So if you want to invent, invest and develop your startup, you’ll have to come here,” he said.

According to Varza, a confluence of recent world events—including Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and skyrocketing real estate prices in Silicon Valley—have paved the way for France’s startup future. “The way people view doing business and entrepreneurship in France has really changed. That’s in part with Station F but also with the official government that is in place and the messages they carry. A lot has coincided very nicely at the same time,” she said.

Niel, Station F’s founder, is a tech billionaire already well known in France not just for his fortune but for his visionary coding school, “42,” located in the north of Paris. Open 24 hours a day, the school is entirely free to admitted students, relying not on textbooks and teachers but on peer-to-peer learning. As the school’s mission describes, “We do not want money to be a reason students cannot attend 42, so we do not charge tuition and students don’t need to purchase devices or books to complete the 42 program.” Open in Paris since 2013, Niel helped launch a sister “42” campus in Fremont, California, in 2016.

This same emphasis on diversity and inclusion is at the heart of Station F, said Varza. “It is not about being Franco-French, it is about being international.” Station F is also trying to foster entrepreneurship and innovation from people with unique trajectories, including those from diverse or under-privileged backgrounds. One of Station F’s most notable efforts on this front is the Fighters Program, which gives a year of free office space, mentorship and support to a select few atypical startups.

A group photo of participants in the Fighters Program inside Station F (Patrick Tourneboeuf)

The program, announced last summer, received over 200 applications from 27 countries. “We wanted people who maybe even struggled somehow, because those are the people who make the best entrepreneurs,” said Varza. “They’re people who have had to figure their way out, and that’s what being an entrepreneur is about, too.”

Among the thirteen startups selected for the Fighters program are Digitall, an anti-auto theft company founded by Tally Fofana. Before launching his company and joining Station F, Fofana spent time in prison for stealing cars. “This is exactly the type of person we want, someone who is reconverting his life through entrepreneurship,” said Varza. “And who better to build this but him?”

Another one of the startups chosen for the Fighters program is LeadBees, founded by Kevin Besson, a native of French Polynesia. Besson plans to develop his project of building connected beehives in France before taking it back to his country, where he hopes to start a new generation of agricultural products.

Konexio, a startup offering technical training to refugees, is another project among the first cohort of Fighters. The startup is led by Jean Guo and Binta Jammeh, two Americans who first met as students in Paris. “Something that really drew us together and helped spur why Konexio is so important to us is that both of us grew up in immigrant families and so for us, on some level, we understand how difficult it is to leave the only country that you’ve ever known,” said Jammeh. “We saw in our own families some of the struggles they had to go through in terms of mastering the language, of figuring out how the cultural differences work and how to integrate into a new society. Being here in France and working with the populations we work with we understand on some level what it means to give up everything you’ve ever known to start a new life and do something new for yourself.”

(Patrick Tourneboeuf)

Being in the diverse ecosystem of the Fighters program has been instrumental to the growth of Konexio, Jammeh said, both in terms of practical mentoring and networking as well as general encouragement and solidarity among the Fighters. “We’re all from so many different backgrounds and all have incredibly diverse stories. Even the startups we’re working on are from such different domains, but it’s been incredible to be part of the program and see that even though we may be working on projects that are so different there are issues that we all face that tie us together.”

For Varza, the Fighters program is just one example of how Station F is trying to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the increasingly prominent world of startups and innovation in France. She considers backlash to the Silicon Valley work culture and the #MeToo movement as lessons to be learned from. “We really saw the perverse effect [of people abusing their power] and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen here,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is something we want to be able to take advantage of, but we want the right people to take advantage of it.”