The next businessmen

Education projects aim to improve entrepreneurship skills among young professionals in France

Text and photos: Vívian Soares

Jean-David Lacombe is learning how to be an entrepreneur and is already working on 4 start-up projects

Jean-David Lacombe is an entrepreneurship student and is already working on 4 start-up projects


Marseille, France – Jean-David Lacombe is working on the creation of his first company. The 21-year-old BA in international marketing never thought about becoming an entrepreneur until he missed the deadlines for applying for trainee programs in large French companies.

– Since I missed this opportunity, I thought that a course about entrepreneurship would be a good complement to my education and I decided to do it, says.

Jean-David Lacombe is a student of the first class of the “Devenir Entrepreneur” course, promoted by the Aix Marseille University, in France. Launched last year by a group of teachers and entrepreneurs who wanted to give an innovative approach to the traditional business education, it is a 4 month program focused on developing the entrepreneurship skills among the young participants.

– I was afraid that I could not find a job after the graduation, but now I feel more confident. Even if I decide to work for a company in the future, I feel they will value my experience as an entrepreneur, since I will have a generalist profile – says Lacombe.

He is now working on four varied entrepreneurship ventures, from an environmental consulting company with two more partners to an elderly accessibility project in the Provence region.

Non-traditional education

Apart from the theoretical classes about law, accounting, business plans and marketing, the Devenir Entrepreneur course has a different approach from the traditional business schools. During the last two months of the course, the participants have work group activities to discuss, criticize and develop each other projects and have coaching sessions which help them with their leadership skills. Marc Pavageau, a psychotherapist who is one of the teachers and coach of the program, explains that its purpose is to help them to transform an idea that normally looks like a dream into an attainable project.

Marc Pavageau is a psychotherapist who gives leadership coaching to the students

Marc Pavageau is a psychotherapist who gives leadership coaching to the students

– We work with the experience-based teaching, which is a tool for developing their projects not only intellectually but also emotionally and spiritually. It is interesting to see the ideas changing and they becoming more confident and focused on their projects with the coaching work, says Marc Pavageau.

Another initiative of Aix Marseille University in partnership with IRCE, a regional institute for promotion of entrepreneurship, the “Les entrepreneuriales” program has a similar method. Focused on bachelor students, it is a one semester specialization which intends to give coaching sessions and provide network meetings with possible business partners and entrepreneurs. At the end of the course, the participant develops his own business plan and is evaluated by a jury before receiving the diploma. Launched in 2004, the program is in its first year in Provence region and gathered 57 students from different backgrounds.

Entrepreneurship education increases

Despite sounding like unique courses, the Devenir Entrepreneur and Les Entrepreneuriats are not the only training alternatives focused on start-ups that young students and professionals have in France. Since the economic crisis affected the unemployment rates in the country, especially among the young people, the interest in self-employment has increased and as well as the related education programs and supporting projects.

One of the government-funded biggest initiatives in France is Pôle Emploi, an organization which helps unemployed people to find jobs but in the last few years has also focused on recognizing and stimulating potential entrepreneurs. According to Jean-Pierre Jouberjean, Pôle Emploi councilor of entrepreneurship, the organisation visits business and vocational schools in order to motivate young students to consider the possibility of launching their own company. They also provide short courses about the subject, orientation and coaching in business plans and even funding.

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A few years ago, Pôle Emploi started to support potential entrepreneurs in France

– It is very important that the young people are informed about the alternative of creating their own business. The unemployment has grown regularly in France and in Europe and many of them will have difficulties to start their professional lives if they only consider a traditional job in a company – says Jouberjean.

An alternative, but not for everyone

However, promoting entrepreneurship as a solution for youth unemployment is only part of the objectives of the institutions. Initiatives as Aix Marseille University and Pôle Emploi ones are trying to discover talents rather than convincing people. According to Lucia Cusmano and Matthias Buerker, both from SME and entrepreneurship division on OECD, start-ups are not a ‘panacea’ for solving the problem.

– Appropriately designed government programs can have significant impacts on increasing the exit rate of young people from unemployment. However, to successfully tap the full potential, the youth entrepreneurship policy landscape still needs to evolve on its coverage and comprehensiveness and the quality of the approaches used, say the OECD spokesperson.

Money prizes for good projects

Understanding the entrepreneur spirit is part of the job of Accede, a student organisation which is part of Euromed, one of the most prestigious business schools from Marseille, in southern France. Founded in 1996, the organization has been supporting potential business creators in the region through events, trainings and even funding. Less than a month ago, Accede organized a contest that gave a prize of 35,000 euros to a best start-up project. The prize exists since 1998 and this year was focused on youth entrepreneurship initiatives.

– We are always very surprised with the innovative aspect of the projects. Particularly the young students companies are strongly focused on social entrepreneurship – says Agathe Leprun, general secretary of Accede.

The contest includes not only French participants, but also Mediterranean French-speaking countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. According to her, another aspect of the contest is that it is not only about giving money to good projects. All candidates receive a feedback on their projects and advices about how to improve it.

– It is important to us not sending an email saying that they did not pass but give recommendations. We want them to keep working on their dream and improve to become successful – says Agathe Leprun.

The 6 final candidates are invited to present their business case to a selected audience – successful entrepreneurs, teachers and specialists are there to evaluate their projects, talk about their own experiences and give advices. The final event, which includes the prizing of the winner, is open to the general audience.

– On this information day, we give lectures about many subjects related to successful entrepreneurship like how to find financial help and how to conciliate with studies – says Agathe.

Filling an educational gap

Initiatives like that are filling a gap that the education system still has in France – according to students and specialists, it does not prepare the students to open their own businesses, only for traditional careers like being an employee of a big company. It is not enough for young professionals like the 25-year-old David Marn, who has a BA in Business but has never had a deeper training about entrepreneurship.

– I worked for a few months for a very entrepreneurial British company. This experience made me feel that I could innovate too and I realized that I could be an entrepreneur. All I got from my former education, though, was some theory and some books to read. Entrepreneurship is about doing, and unfortunately we do not have it at school and neither at the university – says.

He is also one of the students of the Devenir Entrepreneur course. He already has some experience as a business man, from when he and a partner created a new company a few years ago. The partnership did not work but the dream of developing his own business plan was kept. David Marn is now creating a new company, DAMOtech, which will launch an applicative to help restaurants to take orders more efficiently. It might be the first step for his career as a successful entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship in France

Being one of the priorities of public policies in France, the youth entrepreneurship seems to be growing in the country. According to an OECD report from last year , the number of startups in France has grown more than 50% since 2009, when the government launched auto-entrepreneur, an official program which simplified the process to open a company and changed the taxation system to the self-employed professionals.

It is a very controversial initiative, though. Yahn Alès, project manager of “Business Launchng” in IRCE considers it as a political tool to decrease rapidly the number of new small entreprises.

– It does not work in the long term because you only have the benefits if your company’s income stays below a very small level. It is only interesting if you want to test an activity or have another source of money, says.

The maximum level of income to access the auto-entrepreneur benefits is € 32,600 a year for service or commerce companies and € 81,500 a year for industries.

– It is nothing, criticizes Yahn Alès.

Despite the evaluation of the program is not always optimistic, OECD report considers France as one of the good examples of public policies of small business support. The scheme that creates a legal framework to the self-employed people is mentioned in their report as a tool to help companies to survive, especially in their first year of activity.

Willing to entrepreneur

The increasing motivation to entrepreneur among young people is a trend not only in France, but all over Europe. According to the Eurobarometer survey made in 2012, 45% of the European between 15 and 24 years old would prefer to be self-employed to be employed, if they could choose. It is the highest rate among all group ages.