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When Alisée de Tonnac graduated with a masters in management in 2010, she believed that what would make her happiest would be to work for a business whose products she loved.
She headed to L’Oréal, the French cosmetics company, where she landed a job as a product manager. At Bocconi School of Management in Milan, de Tonnac had learnt about autonomy and resilience, and she thought she would thrive in corporate life.
For a while, she did. Then after a couple of years, an idle comment from a co-worker jolted her into a radical reappraisal, not only of her career, but also of her entire approach to working life.
“A colleague was calculating the number of years she had left until she could retire,” says de Tonnac, now 30. “Like me, she was young, of my generation and she was in a marketing job. But a plan like that didn’t speak to me. It just made me sad.”
De Tonnac says that her colleague’s joyless approach to working life forced her to recognise her own tendency to avoid professional risk. “I realised how little I had put myself in danger,” she says. “So I quit.”
In summer 2012 she met Pierre-Alain Masson, a St Gallen business school graduate with experience in mergers and acquisitions. He had just launched an impact investment start-up, Seedstars, with co-founder Michael Weber. The idea was simple: a global entrepreneurship competition selecting the best entrepreneurial ideas and start-ups in emerging market countries, with a grand final event held in Switzerland every year. Last year, Seedstars World competition winner was Acudeen Technologies, a fintech start-up from the Philippines.
The global winner would receive up to $500,000 — and Seedstars would invest in and help to incubate the most promising ventures. The organisation would also act as a consultancy and educator, creating entrepreneurship courses for public and private groups. Today, the founders say, Seedstars is the biggest start-up competition in emerging markets.
De Tonnac had never been involved in entrepreneurship, and in early meetings was struck by the founders’ autonomy and how they were able to act on any idea they had. She joined in 2013 at the age of 24, becoming chief executive a year later. Today, there are four partners including her. She leads an organisation active in 60 cities around the world and raising, they say, close to $100m in investments. In the past five years, she has travelled to more than 50 countries.
Impact investing — financing and developing scalable businesses with the aim of delivering both financial and quantifiable social returns — is increasingly on the curricula at business schools. A growing number are teaching the principles, including Bocconi (though de Tonnac did not study the subject: “I took the more traditional classes. I didn’t think I would be an entrepreneur,” she says).
Classes are increasing because the impact investing industry is growing and students are demanding to learn more about it. According to data from the Annual Impact Investor Survey 2018, more than half of respondents were new investors. The survey, by the Global Impact Investing Network, examined data from 225 global organisations which had invested $35.5bn into 11,136 deals in 2017.
At Seedstars, Masson thought it was important for the partners to tour the world before they scaled up. “And that was the hook for me,” says de Tonnac. “I embarked on an adventure, where we built the concept that would be our vehicle to build a quality network.”
By January 2013, she was in Geneva and getting ready to take a flight to Moscow. “There was so much to do,” she recalls. “One thing became clear, if we were impact investing we also had to participate in the capacity building. Impact investing is not like traditional venture capital — in many ways it takes much longer.”
At first, Seedstars raised funds from friends and families. “We had no money and we had to find sponsors and build value,” says de Tonnac. “People were really interested that Swiss entrepreneurs were knocking on doors in cities like Moscow and Buenos Aires. Some places we went had had nothing the week before.
“We had a no-hotels rule, so we would stay at people’s homes instead, couch-surfing,” she says. “It was cheaper, more efficient and we wanted to understand the local rules in every country. There is nothing to beat living with someone to learn about how to negotiate, how to interact.”
The Seedstars team chose Moscow as the destination for their first competition and while it was a success, their lack of experience in event management was obvious. “A couple of hours before the event we realised we hadn’t devised a scoring system and we had to quickly write a metric,” she recalls. “We had forgotten to tell a key member we had changed location and some participants hadn’t understood that it was English-language only.”
It was clear they had to work out how to build credibility if they were to attract and retain investors. De Tonnac says they adopted “Keep it Swiss” as a motto. “That means, no matter what, everything has to be well done. It’s all about preparation and presentation,” she says.
That was in 2013. To date, they have supported 236 new ventures. Ninety per cent of them are still operating. Together they support 2,100 jobs and generate more than $70m revenue a year, they say. A typical Seedstars investment is about $500,000, and they give talent as well as money.
Apart from Acudeen Technologies, the Filipino start-up, which turns SMEs’ invoices into cash by taking over debts, and providing them with working capital that means they can bypass banks, other Seedstars ventures that won backing in 2017 include a Peruvian start-up that monitors air quality, and a Jordanian business offering technologies to assist deaf people using avatars to deliver instant translations.
Next, Seedstars plans to launch a network of co-working spaces in Africa — in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa and Tanzania. In Ivory Coast, the organisation is working with the government’s youth ministry to train 100 entrepreneurs, they say.
Looking back to her time at business school, de Tonnac says her one regret was not joining a student organisation or a business. “At that time, I was just being a student. I did not understand the value or importance of building an HR strategy and defining values to help scale.
This would be my biggest recommendation to anyone. Find ways to apply what you learn and understand the pitfalls and hacks. “I had quickly got into a market where I had to have the perfect CV, work at a big corporate,” she says. “The idea of me building something? I just didn’t feel capable.”
1988 Born in France, Alisée de Tonnac has spent most of her life abroad, growing up in Singapore and the US, and living in Brazil, Cambodia and Nigeria. She is now based in Switzerland
2005-08 HEC Lausanne, BSc in Management 2008-10 Bocconi, MSc in International Management
2011-12 L’Oréal — product manager
2013 Joined Seedstars
2014 Seedstars CEO