Since the early 1980s Danielle Desguees has promoted a culture of entrepreneurship in France; an economy historically dominated by large firms and state enterprises. Through public outreach, programs in schools and universities, and advisory services provided through a nationwide network of Management Shops (Reseau des Boutiques de Gestion), Danielle has assisted over 200,000 entrepreneurs start, sustain, and grow their businesses, while significantly changing the image of the social entrepreneur.
A nova ideia
To break the isolation of entrepreneurs in France, especially those in economically and socially vulnerable groups, Danielle strives to make it possible for all start-up businesses to succeed and last. With peer entrepreneurs, she invented the profession of Entrepreneurship Advisors (EAs) and opened her first Management Shop in Paris in 1979, which she has replicated in over 400 locations across the country. Through this network, Danielle is refining tools and activities for would-be and start-up entrepreneurs to create and strengthen their businesses and overcome obstacles. She has demonstrated that the right level of support allows entrepreneurs to find more seed funding (i.e. 53 percent of Management Shop clients have access to debt financing versus a national average of 29 percent) and succeed over the long-term (i.e. a 70 percent survival rate after five years versus a national average of 50 percent). Danielle’s model has proven so successful that it has convinced the government to subsidize entrepreneurship support services, which will enable Management Shops to serve over 15,000 business creations every year. Danielle also successfully lobbied for the creation of OSEO, a public collateral-free funding scheme for start-up entrepreneurs. Many social and business entrepreneurs have been inspired by Danielle’s work and have replicated her idea. Together these networks support nearly 30,000 businesses a year.
In addition to professionally supporting entrepreneurs, Danielle is successfully eliminating the stigma around the profession of the entrepreneur. Her public outreach campaigns, conducted hand-in-hand with local and national governments and entrepreneurship support organizations, tell the stories of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs to demonstrate that entrepreneurship is a profession within their reach. The campaigns encourage all citizens to question their identities as entrepreneurs: The presence of Management Shop advisors in public venues such as city halls, museums, or even buses in the heart of low-income neighborhoods enables the public to step into the shoes of an entrepreneur and imagine their own entrepreneurial project. Indeed, Danielle sees these steps as crucial strides in the construction of one’s personal project, whether it results in business creation or not. Management Shops conduct activities with nearly 100,000 people every year, of which 15 percent create a company, and another 60 percent find or change jobs, begin training programs, or change their personal project.
A further key aspect of Danielle’s work is her effort to engrain a culture of entrepreneurship into French society, starting with the younger generation. She has planted the seeds of entrepreneurship in school curricula and entrepreneurship education programs which reach 30,000 young people a year. Danielle’s innovative activities and games have proven to leave a lasting impression in the minds of young people, and the desire to be an entrepreneur has dramatically grown over the past few years: In 2008, 29 percent of French people, particularly youth, declared the desire to create a business (versus 19 percent in 2001), a number that reaches 69 percent among the 18 to 24 age group (versus 39 percent in 2001) (Ifop, February 2008).
After World War II, the French government invested heavily in large nationalized companies to drive economic growth, innovation, and employment, at the expense of small and medium-sized businesses. Until the end of the 1970s there was no policy effort to support the burgeoning network of businesses that were providing the population with daily services and products. Banks, most of which were public or cooperative at the time, were largely risk adverse and did not easily invest in new companies. Business schools and training programs were focused on providing skills applicable to large corporations rather than to starting one’s own business. Consequently, levels of business creation were chronically lower in France than in the rest of Europe, and the average lifetime of a business was less than five years. Even today, only 66 percent of businesses survive beyond three years, and 48 percent beyond five years. For entrepreneurs from unemployed and low-income backgrounds, only 50 percent survive three years.
In the process of setting up their businesses, start-up entrepreneurs often found themselves isolated without formal support until the 1980s. Representative bodies for entrepreneurs such as regional chambers of commerce actually hindered the launch of businesses as new entrants built competition for their members. Additionally, large companies were overrepresented in public representative bodies. In the meantime, the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks demonstrated the frailty of the business landscape, as small companies collapsed and public companies were no longer able to absorb the rising unemployment. Between 1973 and 1981 unemployment levels rose from 400,000 to over 2 million people. In 1977, for the first time, the government experimented with the idea of promoting entrepreneurship to break the cycle of unemployment. In 1979 the Minister of the Economy, Raymond Barre, launched a national campaign to encourage entrepreneurship and since then, the government has increased initiatives to encourage entrepreneurs-to-be. Paradoxically, successive governments maintained and increased the barriers for entrepreneurs through complex administrative regulations and a social system that provides heavy burdens on corporations in the form of taxes and benefit contributions.
One does not become an entrepreneur from one day to the next, especially in a society that has never encouraged the profession. Moreover, the negative connotations of failure in French society have built-up a strong aversion to risk in the professional realm; whereas public service and management jobs have always been considered as providing stability and success. This is reflected in the French education system: School programs are designed to teach knowledge and culture rather than initiative and leadership, even in university and higher education institutions. This aversion is also revealed in the general perception toward the profession of entrepreneur, which is often tied to large corporations and seems out of reach to most, despite the fact that 93 percent of businesses have fewer than ten employees.
In 1978, as a journalist and an entrepreneur, Danielle wrote a book telling the stories of entrepreneurs, which led her to discover the hidden landscape and creativity of small businesses across France. She was struck by the commonalities between entrepreneurs’ needs and struggles; a reality which contrasted sharply with their isolation and the absence of programs adapted to their needs. Danielle gathered a group of over 2,500 inspired entrepreneurs to a national event in Lille in 1979 and began to experiment with the practice of entrepreneurship, advising in what she later called Management Shops (RBGs)—open boutiques where entrepreneurs can “shop” for management advice.
From this experiment, Danielle and her peers counseled hundreds of entrepreneurs-to-be and helped start-up entrepreneurs overcome the hurdles during their first few months and years. In a concerted effort, they designed a well-structured program and adjunct tools to equip the new profession with EAs, to assist at every step of the entrepreneur’s lifecycle. The program encompasses individual counseling, design and specification of the entrepreneur’s business idea—from idea, to steps, to creation—through the preparation of a business plan and viability strategy, access to capital, and counseling during the first months of launch. It pairs the expertise of EAs with of the know-how of specialists in other fields. Also opened were the first independent business incubators (i.e. outside of universities and companies R&D departments), which were recognized and subsidized by the government. For entrepreneurs benefitting from such support, it has been proven that failure levels decrease and access to capital increases by 40 percent.
Until 2001, Danielle strived to replicate RBGs across the country and to improve their service offerings. Today, the network includes over 400 RBGs, which welcomes over 70,000 would-be entrepreneurs and supports the creation of 15,000 companies each year. It employs nearly 1,000 professional and 750 volunteer entrepreneurship advisors. Since the mid 1980s, several citizen organizations (COs) and networks were formed under the RBG model. In the early 2000s, after systematized public funding for entrepreneurship support became available, private entrepreneurship advising companies entered the market. Together, these stakeholders support 12 percent of business creations each year.
From early on, Danielle focused on supporting the needs of the most isolated entrepreneurs and those with the lowest levels of training and experience. With the first waves of massive unemployment striking France, she saw entrepreneurship as the best tool for individual empowerment. Danielle took advantage of the 1983 government anti-crisis plan to obtain public funding, which allowed her to support marginalized and at-risk entrepreneurs without charging for services. Today over 75 percent of people supported by RBG were previously unemployed, including beneficiaries (30 percent) of the Revenu Minimum d’Insertion, the minimum income for those completely excluded from the job market.
Danielle is strategically making entrepreneurship support accessible through outreach, and in some areas with free hotlines. These venues offer the initial opportunity to think entrepreneurially about employment opportunities, the individual’s personal strengths, and one’s relationship to work and willingness to take risks. Through group activities, coaching and training programs, Danielle and EA’s lead nearly 100,000 people every year on a path to rethinking their professional identity. At times this results in business creations, while at others, it results in training programs, new professional projects, and employment.
Danielle is indeed breaking the stereotypes surrounding entrepreneurship. She has successfully engaged the government to spread the word through multimedia messages, especially through her annual national competition highlighting the most talented and extraordinary entrepreneurs (Concours Talents), and showing how ordinary people can become entrepreneurs.
Raised in a entrepreneurial and supportive environment, and in many countries around the world, Danielle first experienced entrepreneurship fresh out of high school at the age of 16. During her studies at an economics university, Danielle opened a co-op organic restaurant with a few friends and turned it into a very successful venture. Among many other activities (e.g. she invested in and ran a carpentry cooperative, while also modeling), she became interested in freelance journalism and joined the independent publisher Autrement. In 1977, at the age of 20, Danielle was sent to travel across France to gather the stories of entrepreneurs for a book titled, And if everybody created their own job. This adventure profoundly changed her image of entrepreneurship. She discovered that many people with diverse profiles were founding innovative and creative ventures, but most were isolated and without support to surmount the challenges they faced. The book resulted in a television documentary and was followed by thousands of letters from enthusiastic readers and viewers: Danielle had uncovered the unknown reality of an entrepreneurial country.
Convinced that something should be done to break the isolation of these entrepreneurs, Danielle organized a large event, “The New Entrepreneurs” in Lille in 1979. 2,500 entrepreneurs attended from all over the country. At the same time, they started advisory shops in five locations across France, and in 1983 Danielle channelled their efforts to create a network of advisory shops with similar practices and values. She focused on opening five to six new RBGs a year to ensure continuous innovation and sharing of best practices. In 2000, they adopted a quality certification policy for the 400 shops in the network.
In 2001 Danielle began to focus on new programs from the Parisian hub. She used this role to increase local improvements and innovations that could then be spread through the network. Danielle particularly strived to develop synergies with other local networks and COs to improve the network’s communication strategy. She is now stepping away from this role to focus on the measurement of RBGs overall value creation in order to adjust to the new governmental entrepreneurship policy and to reinforce the international connections of RBG with similar networks in other European countries. A mother of three, Danielle is curious to know if her children will follow her entrepreneurial track.