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Economy 2 July 2018

Future Thinking: Roxanne Varza on the Internet Economy

In 2017, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In June 2018, we interviewed two stakeholders –Biddemu Bazil Mwotta, who introduced an agribusiness app, and Roxanne Varza, the director of  a startup incubator  – to hear their different perspectives on the forces shaping the Internet.

Roxanne Varza is the director of Station F, a large and popular startup incubator in Paris which recently celebrated its first full year of operation and is already reported to be the largest startup campus in the world. Situated in a former railway shed, Station F provides a vibrant hub for more than 3,000 entrepreneurs and businesses, including upcoming as well as established organizations like Facebook, L’Oréal, and Microsoft. Born in California to Iranian parents, Roxanne moved to Paris in 2009 where she led Microsoft’s startup activities in France before joining Station F, which was created by the French billionaire Xavier Niel. (You can read Biddemu Bazil Mwotta’s interview here).

The Internet Society: With more than 1,000 startups in its halls, Station F is now the largest startup incubator in the world. How do you help startups to compete in a tech landscape seemingly dominated by a few tech giants, like Google, Facebook, and Amazon?

Roxanne Varza: The goal is different for every single startup. All the startups at Station F work in a massive, open space, which tends to mainly be appealing to younger companies. These include young companies with under 15 employees, without massive amounts of funding yet. But their goals will shift: they might one day aim to have private offices with more opportunity for strategic cooperation and the need for brand cohesion and so forth. For now, however, Station F provides a place for entrepreneurs who want to be surrounded by other entrepreneurs, with a space to collaborate and share resources in a cost-effective manner.

Essentially, Station F helps to get these startups off the ground: if they want to be acquired once they’re off the ground, that’s up to them. That said, when startups join Station F, they also join specific programmes. Participants of the Medtech programme, for instance, have very specific objectives and collaborate with hospitals, laboratories, and research institutions, for example. They are much less likely to want to be acquired. But if you look at Microsoft’s AI programme at Station F, for example, many of the participants might want to be in touch with big corporations.

Since opening its doors last June, Station F has welcomed entrepreneurs from various regions, including Britain, China, France, India, and the United States. Do you think Station F could offer a viable alternative to Silicon Valley for budding tech entrepreneurs?

We have a huge international demand. We had startups from over 50 different countries apply to join Station F before we started, and today over a third of our campus is international. And this even though we weren’t a referenced French visa partner at the time. I think if we were to invite more applications today, the fact that we can now assist with visa application processes should further increase foreign demand.

Station F has professed an interest in promoting meaningful technology as opposed to merely prioritizing tech which can be profitable. Why?

It’s always been really important to us to have strong values. And our belief in this value-driven approach has been reinforced through recent public challenges faced by various companies in the technology sector. Many tech companies have tended to prioritise growth over values as has been illustrated in the case of the #MeToo movement and Uber’s challenges, for example.

We feel particularly strong about diversity as a value, as we believe it is what powers innovation. Having people with similar profiles working on similar projects won’t lead to interesting innovations. For that reason, we’ve really emphasized diversity in our value system: we want men and women coming from all countries, underprivileged entrepreneurs, etc. We have a programme specifically for people who self-identify as being underprivileged, for example. To us, this kind of diversity is really where the most interesting innovation is coming from. 

You’ve also been involved in a number of projects aimed at promoting women in the tech industry (e.g., StartHer). Do you think women are as likely to progress in tech fields as their male counterparts?

Every woman has an anecdote about the difficulties of participating in the technology field today. On the other hand, sometimes being a woman can also be an advantage: you’re a minority so you stand out and people tend to remember you more. Having a different view or experience is also often beneficial to most startups and in the tech sector more broadly – and people are starting to recognize that. Today there are also many programmes and resources for women. In some ways, therefore, there has been no better time for women than now.

What is the role you envision for governments within three to five years to ensure the policy environment favours competition and nurtures new SMEs?

A lot of governments struggle to control newcomers that disrupt traditional systems, like Uber did to the transport system. Often governments take quite an extreme reaction when they don’t know how to react or what to do. While entrepreneurs would love zero regulation, we now have examples like the Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal that show we need some regulation and safeguards. And we as the tech sector need to be much more aware of what we’re doing – especially with the massive quantities of data that are now out there.

I therefore support regulation, but I think that oftentimes, and unfortunately, the people designing the regulations are not tech experts themselves. When we look at GDPR, for example, many people have said that if you understand technology today, GDPR was relevant to technology five years ago, not today. And that’s my only real criticism of regulation and government interference – not that we don’t need regulation, but that we need smart regulation done by people from the industry that is also more future-proof than current legislation.

Some have voiced concerns about the future of work due to technological changes. Do you think these concerns are founded?

I think the future of work is going to change whether we like it or not. People are working in different locations, different hours. It’s beneficial in many ways. Especially for women. We need to find a model that fits. Work will be disrupted, so we need to adapt.

Some governments’ responses to concerns about the future of work have often been to prescribe coding as part of school curricula. Is this all we need, or do we need to reinforce some other skills too?

A lot of countries have reverted to teaching children code. I think, in the future, we will all need a basic or minimum understanding of code, just like a basic understanding of the English language is useful today. But not everyone will be programmers. More importantly than code, I believe, is the need to teach future generations responsibility and humanity.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet?

I see how horrible people can be to each other over the Internet. I cannot fathom what it must be like for a child to be exposed to so much bullying today. The Internet has become the place where people openly hate each other. So I fear that online abuse will remain unresolved and will be allowed to overshadow the good the Internet also offers.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

How will I know what is going to happen tomorrow? That’s what I love about it, actually. There’s so many new things we can do – everything is becoming more personalized; everything is changing. I have no idea where we’ll be tomorrow or the next year. And that’s what’s so great about the Internet.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how the Internet might transform our lives across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.

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