Maëlle Gavet is not what you would call an anti-technology activist. At 42 years old, the French woman has already directed three of the world’s leading e-commerce companies in Europe and North America: Ozon, Priceline, and Compass. And yet her first book, published in the United States last fall, is an emphatic essay on the downward spiral of “unicorns.” These companies in the new technology sector, valued at more than one billion dollars, market themselves as wanting to change the world, but sometimes do more harm than good.
Entitled Trampled by Unicorns, the work has arrived at a turning point in the history of technological capitalism. After being praised to the skies, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Uber – among many others – are now being accused of all evils, including disinformation, hate speech, selling personal data, unfair trading, and tax evasion. On both sides of the Atlantic, there are increasingly loud calls to regulate Big Tech.
After fifteen years at the helm of technology companies, Maëlle Gavet wanted to contribute to the debate and attempt to find what she calls “a middle ground.” “The tech sector has developed unprecedented innovations and improvements in living standards for many people across the world,” she says on a video call from her sprawling Manhattan apartment. “But there are also aspects that are frankly bad and even inacceptable.”
The Excuse of a Better World
She believes these problems are caused by the lack of empathy displayed by start-up founders such as Travis Kalanick (Uber), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), and Elon Musk (Tesla). One chapter in her book even lists their character traits, which tend towards a diagnosis of psychopathy! “People in tech think that their job is to resolve problems with inefficiency, and behind that there is the idea that software and robots are more efficient than humans.” This is combined with the widely accepted delusion that “any disruption is worthwhile because we are building a better world.”
Maëlle Gavet started working in tech “kind of by accident,” and her background is a million miles from those of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. While they were in computer science labs at Stanford or MIT, she was studying for a degree in Russian language and literature at the Sorbonne, before spending a short time at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint-Cloud, one of the French temples to literature and social sciences. “French education has served me enormously,” she says. “Its greatest advantage is providing critical baggage, the well-known rational mindset. This is associated with the fact that the French complain all the time – which they do – but above all it is an ability to see when something is wrong, whereas many Americans think that everything is super awesome.”
After switching to Sciences Po Paris, Maëlle Gavet began her career at the Boston Consulting Group, where she specialized in trade and telecoms. This job, combined with her passion for Russia, led her to Ozon.ru, the leading national e-commerce site, where she was appointed CEO at just 34. After six years in Moscow, she moved to Amsterdam in 2015 to work at the European headquarters of the Priceline group (Booking.com) as executive vice-president of global operations.
Two years later, she arrived in New York to work as chief operating officer of Compass, a real estate unicorn. She left in September 2019 following a dispute over strategy. “I also wanted to finish my book, which required a considerable amount of research, and I was supposed to acquire a company with a venture capital fund, which fell through due to the pandemic.” The businesswoman is still based in New York and presides the local branch of La French Tech, a network of French entrepreneurs. She is hoping to stay in the United States, “a country I adore and with which I have so much professional affinity.”
A Third Way
Her dual experience in Europe and America explains her drive to find a “third way” between unbridled liberalism and the demonization of businesses. “I believe entrepreneurial capitalism is a good thing, but it is important for democratically elected governments to retain or introduce a certain number of values and a vision of society.” Maëlle Gavet claims she is “optimistic by nature” and wanted to devote the second half of her book to solutions for putting unicorns back on the right track. She thinks the answers are to be found both within government and among the tech overlords. “First of all, everything depends on how companies will become aware of problems. I hear a lot of business leaders say they are working towards solutions, but how many of them would agree to profoundly change their economic model?”
As for harsher regulations, which she is calling for, she believes this shift will come from Europe following the General Data Protection Regulation that came into force in May 2018. Things are less likely to change in the United States, despite the numerous Congressional hearings held with tech bosses. “Americans are far more neoliberal, some of them are even libertarian. Introducing restrictive safeguards for their companies, especially the most successful, will be difficult. And it will be even harder in the context of an economic crisis.”
Article published in the January 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.