Five French Figures in American Tech

As CES, the world’s biggest technology expo, was hosted in Las Vegas earlier this month, we took a closer look at five French names who have changed – and continue to influence – American tech.

Yann LeCun: The Researcher

If artificial intelligence (AI) is so popular today, it is partly thanks to this man. The vice-president and chief AI scientist at Meta (formerly Facebook) and a professor at New York University, Yann LeCun is a pioneer in machine learning, a field of computer science that enables machines to learn using data. After completing his PhD in France, he began his career in the United States in the late 1980s as a researcher at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. This is where he first found success with the creation of a handwriting recognition system used for reading checks. But his approach, based on artificial neural networks – software trained by analyzing massive quantities of data – took almost two decades to come to the fore. With two other researchers, Geoffrey Hinton (University of Toronto) and Yoshua Bengio (University of Montreal), LeCun revolutionized this technique in 2004, renaming it “deep learning.” The method quickly proved itself in the field of speech and image recognition, sparking interest from Internet giants. In late 2013, Facebook asked LeCun to direct its AI research laboratory while continuing to teach at NYU. The researchers were finally rewarded for their work in March 2019, when they received the Turing Award, the computing equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Fidji Simo

Fidji Simo: The Manager

What a career! Born 36 years ago into a fishing family in Sète in Southern France, Fidji Simo was named CEO of one of Silicon Valley’s hottest start-ups last July. The company, Instacart, is the leader in the grocery delivery market and has been valued at almost 39 billion dollars. Before that, the HEC graduate spent ten years at Facebook, climbing the corporate ladder with relentless determination. After starting in the marketing department, she became director of mobile advertising, then of Facebook Live. Her big break came in 2019 when she was appointed as head of the Facebook app. At the time, Mark Zuckerberg congratulated her as “one of our most talented product and organizational leaders.” In this hyper-masculine world, Simo has successfully imposed both her accent and her femininity, boldly sporting colorful dresses, high heels, and make-up instead of the jeans and hoodies that make up the usual Silicon Valley uniform. She is also proud of her modest beginnings. “I was the first one in my family to graduate from high school, let alone college,” she said in an interview with Fortune magazine last November. After leaving Facebook when the group was being attacked on all sides, Simo was handed the difficult task of directing another controversial business. Instacart, whose 500,000 independent contractors shop for groceries and deliver them to customers, is often described as “the Uber of grocery delivery.”


Jeff Clavier: The Investor

American tech would not exist without venture capital, which is indispensable for funding high-growth companies. In this field, Jean-François “Jeff” Clavier s one of the leading figures in Silicon Valley, where he arrived “quite by chance” in summer 2000 during the dot-com bubble. After working for the Reuters venture capital fund in California, Jeff Clavier decided to go it alone in 2004 and set up his own company, Soft-Tech VC, since renamed Uncork Capital – a nod to his taste for fine wine. He specializes in seed funding, providing support to start-ups during their first months before they grow and attract bigger investors. “We find entrepreneurs who have great ideas on a daily basis,” he says. “We write them a check and work as hard as possible to help them grow.” Some of the best-known successes among the 240 companies he has financed (for an average of 1.5 million dollars each) include Fitbit (connected watches), Eventbrite (online ticketing), and Postmates (meal delivery), along with many B2B start-ups. “I’m lucky enough to be one of the venture-capital investors who appeals the most to entrepreneurs, as I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s our responsibility to choose the people we think have the right vision for the future. I’ve got the best job in the world!”


Luc Julia: The Inventor

Engineer and computer scientist Luc Julia is part of the two-man team who invented Siri, the iPhone virtual assistant launched by Apple in 2011. At the time, the Toulouse native was already a pioneer in the field of connected objects and artificial intelligence. He arrived in Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s after completing a PhD in computing in Paris and a spell at MIT. Julia started his career at SRI, a prestigious research institute with close ties to Stanford, where his work led to the creation of Nuance, the world leader in speech recognition, and The Assistant, Siri’s forerunner, which he patented in 1997 with his coworker Adam Cheyer. In 2010, after the pair sold Siri to Steve Jobs, Cheyer asked Julia to join him at Apple. Known for his outspokenness and his Hawaiian shirts, the French researcher struggled with the company’s corporate culture. He left after a year to work at Samsung’s innovation department. Having written the provocatively titled book There Is No Such Thing as Artificial Intelligence (First Editions, 2020), Julia is quick to point out “the fantasies and false ideas” we are fed about AI. In April 2021, for the first time in his career, he was hired by a French group, Renault, as chief scientific officer.


Bertrand Diard: The Entrepreneur

Bertrand Diard is one of the only people in France to have led a French company to Wall Street. On July 29, 2016, his company, Talend, joined the Nasdaq tech index on the New York stock market. This was the culmination of a ten-year journey, most of which had taken place in California. Despite being launched in the suburbs of Paris in late 2005, the big data software company’s directors soon set their sights on America. “We had a global vision from the very start,” he says. “And the beating heart of our sector was in Silicon Valley.” Diard arrived in San Francisco in late 2006 to open Talend’s American subsidiary, which then became its headquarters. “It was both a natural and pragmatic decision. If we worked in biotech, I would have gone to Boston; but for software, California was the place to be.” This presence in the United States also helped the company prepare for its Nasdaq IPO, following in the footsteps of two other French software success stories, BusinessObjects and Criteo. Diard left his position as chairman of Talend a few months after the launch. He then moved to Brussels, where he became an investor in a fund specialized in data start-ups, enabling him to keep close ties with Silicon Valley. “Almost every company I invest in will spread out to the United States!”

Article published in the January 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.