When entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist Mark Bivens first moved to Paris in 2001, he regularly introduced himself as someone who had started three software companies in the U.S., two of which had flopped. That’s a badge of honor in Silicon Valley, where failure is viewed as a rite of passage. Not in France. One day, a French colleague took Bivens aside and gave him some friendly advice: if you want to reassure people, stop talking about the companies that didn’t work out. “I soon realized that failure carries a stigma,” Bivens says.
The French word “échec” is indeed loaded with negative connotations. It starts at school, where pupils who get bad marks can be quickly branded “in a situation of failure” early in their education, and often drop out before graduating. In the business world, failure has long been fatal: bankruptcy in France is a lengthy and complicated process, and can scar entrepreneurs for life. And in addition to the logistical hurdles of starting a new business after bankruptcy, second-chance entrepreneurs must contend with the social stigma associated with failure, which makes raising funds or even opening a new bank account difficult.
But at a time when France, and Europe more broadly, need a burst of entrepreneurial dynamism to jump-start their economies, an intriguing shift in mentality is starting to take place. It’s partly coming from the top. The French government is now wondering aloud whether this deeply ingrained aversion to failure is actually holding back the nation’s entrepreneurs, preventing them from attaining the sort of scale and greatness that startups in Silicon Valley have been able to achieve. The private sector, led by people with firsthand experience of failure, is also playing a role, by advocating changes that would lessen or remove the stigma and help entrepreneurs get back up on their feet.
Inspiration has come, in part, from the U.S. When Fleur Pellerin, the French minister in charge of innovation and small business, was attending the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas earlier this month, she met entrepreneurs and consultants who impressed on her the idea that failure can be beneficial. “I want to change the French cultural software about risk-taking and the vision of failure,” she said in an interview on her return. “Valuing failure is one of the major elements of economic dynamism.”
Public opinion seems to be on her side: a December poll showed that 83 percent of the French think people who fail in business are overly stigmatized. Seventy-one percent agree that in order to succeed professionally people need to take risks, even if that means failing from time to time.