An Interview with Roxanne Varza, Microsoft Ventures & Girls in Tech. This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models from around the world.
Roxanne Varza is currently the startup lead for Microsoft in France, running both Bizspark and Microsoft Ventures programs. Prior to joining Microsoft she was the Editor of TechCrunch France and also ran content and communications for 2 European startups. She is also the cofounder of Tech.eu and Girls in Tech in Paris and London, and has been a co-organizer of the Failcon France conference since 2011.
In April 2013, Business Insider listed her as "one of the top 30 women under 30 in tech". She is trilingual, an epilepsy advocate, and holds degrees from UCLA, Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics.
Who is your role model as an entrepreneur?
People always ask me that question and obviously I have examples that a lot of people would quote. One person that inspires me a lot is actually my grandmother. She is a poet in Iran. At 84 she is still actively writing, speaking and innovating and I find that so impressive. I hope I can maintain that kind of energy and passion throughout my life! She has inspired me a lot.
From the business space, I have some role models that are women and some that are men. One person people quote a lot is Marissa Meyer. I liked her a lot when she was at Google and I have a lot more respect for her since she joined Yahoo. When she joined Yahoo, she was essentially joining a sinking ship and I think she has done a tremendous job. She is one person I look up to a lot. I have had the chance to work with a lot of entrepreneurs in the community that inspire me a lot, people that are younger than me or my age (28), who give it a shot. I think that's incredible and have some friends doing that.
Mounia RKHA who co-founded Girls in Tech Paris with me, worked for 2 different venture funds. She went to Morocco for several years ago and founded a MyDeal.ma, a Moroccan Groupon and had an acquisition offer from Groupon (that she didn't accept!). I find that incredibly impressive and we have the exact same age! I am totally impressed by the people around me as well. Innovators are getting younger and younger and I'm starting to think that I'm getting old in this area.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
I'm not French. I always wanted to be living and working in France. Back in the day I had no idea what I would be doing and how I would get here, so I'm actually proud of the fact that I got here and am doing something that I love. I think there is a really special place in the French ecosystem for foreigners and maybe as an American, I get additional credit coming from the US. I lived in London for 2.5 years and have been officially based in France since April 2013.
What has been your biggest challenge as a Women Entrepreneur?
I always like to think that being a minority is always a benefit, but one thing that I have definitely been put off by, are a couple of situations that I think are gender related. 1) On my personal blog, 'techbaguette', I had somebody who was consistently making really graphic comments on all my blogs, to the point that I had to actually close the comments section. I had comments from others saying that this was somebody who knew me, and it felt like digital harassment. That's obviously gender-related. 2) When I was at TechCrunch (France).
People have these stereotypes in their head, that when you present something to women, maybe they are not as quick to 'get it', or that unless you present it with shoes, they won't like it! I would often meet with a company and they would say to me 'I want to demo my product for you' and then they would say, 'oh what should we use? Shoes, or dresses?'
It happened to me a couple of times a week! I thought to myself, 'I'm not a huge shopping person, so you have a much better chance of getting me if you talk about sushi or art!'
I think now is a really good time to be a Woman in Tech. Right now we have a voice.
I got very different reactions from France and the UK when I launched the exact same initiative - Girls in Tech. UK seemed much less receptive to the idea - part of it could be the name girls vs ladies, and the logo was in pink at the time (not my choice). I felt like they were in this 'we don't need that' mindset, and there were women in the industry who decided they weren't going to support the initiative. I thought that was a shame, because we make women who work in tech more visible and accessible to the community, and that's not hurting anybody.
I was surprised the UK reacted the way they did. France has been very different, maybe because it's a latin, male culture, with some issues of women not having access to science education, so it's been really well received here. I notice that France's female entrepreneur community has really developed over the last few years that I have been involved in it. When we launched Girls in Tech in France, I noticed that there are tons of women's networks and I actually think there is a place for all of them. That way we are not in competition, we can all work together - the more the better.
What in your opinion, is the key to your success?
Probably a big key has been being a foreigner. When I first joined TechCrunch, Mike Butcher told me, 'what's going to work to your advantage and make you stand out, is that you are going to listen really well'. I think that really stuck with me. I'm not French, so I have to go the extra mile to really pay attention to how people respond to certain things, and do things in a way that's well received, so that I don't look like an American speaking top down. Actually, I think that has probably been a strength across all the things I have done. In the UK, I launched Girls in Tech kind of blindly, thinking 'it's an English-speaking country, I've launched in France'. I didn't pay attention to the local sentiment about the issue and I think that had I listened better, that would have made Girls in Tech more successful in the UK. It has been successful regardless.
If you could do one thing differently, what would that be?
When I was growing up, my Dad used to tell me, 'come, I want to show you how to build a computer' and I though 'ow, who want's to do that?' I totally should have done it!
I always say that I wouldn't have done my Masters Degree, but that is how I got a visa to live in Europe! My Masters Degree itself was pointless and I didn't go to class very much! The other thing I would have done, is that to this day, I don't have the technical experience that I would like. This is something I'm hoping to make time for. I would have liked to look into getting technical educational training sooner and with all the coding trends, you can see that it is going to be big in the future.
What would you say to others to encourage them to become entrepreneurs?
In the Tech space, you have a feeling that it's so evident. I don't know that I would encourage everyone to start their own companies. There are roles for people to play without launching a company per se.
I would definitely encourage people to look into the entrepreneur space and the tech industry because it's such an optimistic industry. You are working with people who think that anything is possible.
You are not touched by economic crises. Even though there is a credit crunch, that almost makes the challenge more exciting! You are with people that are creative and passionate, who are incredibly brilliant.
I fell into this space because I was working in a French development agency, because I was a Francophile, not because I was working in tech. I thought these tech people are awesome!
People always say 'you are from Tech and you came from Silicon Valley to France - you must be out of your mind!'.
My parents even say it too!
How would you describe your leadership style?
I don't like to think of myself as a leader. For example, at TechCrunch, I actually saw myself as one of the entire team, even though I was the only official employee and the only non-native French speaker. So I had to surround myself with people who could provide support and I could not have survived without them! I would just say - surround yourself with incredible people!
What advice would you give your younger self?
The 2 things I would tell myself to work on are:
1) Learn how to code
2) Prioritisation. When you are doing so many different things, it's hard to balance. It has been a bit of a juggling act for me the past few years. When I was a student it was easier - Techcrunch was a full time job, but I was also a full time student and had flexibility. The organisation and balancing everything is something I wanted to get better at, from a younger age.
I would still do the degree, but I hesitate with that one as well!
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
I definitely want to start a startup! I have been saying that for the past 5 years - when do you think that will happen? I love any type of digital content (music, text), but it's very hard to monetise - I'd like to do something in that space, but I don't know what.
I definitely want to stay in Europe and expand my boundaries outside France and UK ecosystems. I have started to do that through Tech.eu and some of my other involvements. For example, we are developing throughout Europe. I'd really like to see some of the things I'm involved in take off on a bigger scale.
3 key words to describe yourself:
- Weird (I don't follow the trend).
- Intuitive (I listen to my gut feeling)
- International view
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