Roxanne Varza, the Californian Queen of French Start-Ups

The world’s biggest start-up incubator, Station F, is located in France – and a young woman who grew up in the United States is at the helm!
© Anna Higgie

Roxanne Varza, 36, was born in Palo Alto, California, and was chosen by French billionaire Xavier Niel to direct Station F, his huge business incubator opened in Paris in spring 2017. This extraordinary project is in keeping with many others launched by the founder of the Free internet and telecoms provider. The space spans 540,000 square feet, hosts around a thousand fledgling companies, and has some thirty programs supported by leading groups such as L’Oréal, Microsoft, and LVMH. And this is all headed up by a Francophile with a unique résumé.

“I love France; I feel at home here,” says Varza, who became a naturalized French citizen two years ago. However, this passion was not something she was destined to develop. The young woman was born in the United States to Iranian parents who had fled the 1979 revolution and settled in America. She remembers that her mother had a few books in French, but no one spoke the language at home. Varza actually fell in love with French in a Californian school. “Everyone was learning Spanish, and I wanted to do something different. It was my way of being a bit rebellious. Then I became fascinated by the culture and the history.”

She went on to study French literature at UCLA and spent a year living in Bordeaux. After returning to San Francisco, she found a first job at the Agence Française pour les Investissements Internationaux (now Business France). Her role was to encourage American firms to open offices in France. This is where she discovered the world of start-ups and entrepreneurs, as well as the usual clichés about French companies and workers. “I was disappointed to see so much French bashing when it came to doing business in France, particularly from French expats.”

Editor in Chief of TechCrunch France

This was not enough to make her turn away from the country she had come to love. Varza returned to Europe and finished her studies with a double master’s degree at Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics. At the same time, she started TechBaguette, a blog about French start-ups. Thanks to her platform, she was discovered in 2010 by the managers at U.S. site TechCrunch, a leading name in tech news, who offered her a job as the editor in chief of their French edition.

Varza continued to grow her network by cofounding Girls in Tech Paris, a global non-profit promoting women in the highly masculine world of start-ups. “Things got significantly better in a few years. We’re still a long way from parity, but there are far more women launching start-ups. A third of our residents at Station F are women, and five of our programs have at least 45% of female founders or cofounders,” she says, while highlighting that France is paving the way in this area. “I set up the same organization in London but it was welcomed much more enthusiastically here.”

Around the same time, Varza also imported the FailCon conferences from California. In this concept, entrepreneurs publicly share their experiences and mistakes to make failure – a longstanding taboo in the corporate world – less intimidating. “This is another area undergoing a major mentality shift,” she says. Failing is now seen as a necessary learning opportunity. “Around 50% of start-ups go bust in their first two years, but no one should be surprised by this high figure. If you want to have really innovative start-ups, you have to be ready to take risks.”

From Microsoft to Station F

In 2012, Varza was hired by Microsoft to work at its Parisian incubator in the Sentier neighborhood, where she helped the software giant invest in French start-ups. She was in this new position for three years, until Xavier Niel asked her to direct Station F, having previously noticed her work for TechCrunch. “There’s no one better for this job, I’m sure of it,” said the telecoms magnate in an interview with French newspaper Les Echos in April 2017, a few months before the opening of his gigantic tech campus.

Among other things, she has contributed a perfect knowledge of the start-up ecosystem on both sides of the Atlantic. “I think that entrepreneurs have the same DNA wherever you go. They are open-minded, very optimistic, highly creative, and enjoy finding solutions to problems,” she says. There is however a major difference: “In the United States, people are far more transparent about the fact they want to earn money. You hear this much less in France. That doesn’t mean the French don’t want to earn money, it’s just that money is not their main motivation.”

Four years after opening, and despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Station F is doing well. (The “F” stands for “France” or “Freyssinet,” the name of the former railway depot built in 1929 which hosts the incubator.) “We welcome almost 1,000 people every day. That might sound like a lot, but there is enough room for everyone.” As well as the work spaces and conference rooms, the campus expanded in June 2019 with a new building housing almost 600 entrepreneurs, located ten minutes from the main structure. “Only the events side of our activity has stopped,” says Varza.

The pandemic has had another consequence: Varza was unable to return to the United States in 2020. “I haven’t been back to California in four years,” she says. While she “only missed [her] family” at the start, she now admits feeling nostalgic for certain San Francisco neighborhoods such as Haight-Ashbury. “I imagine the city must be unrecognizable after four years.” Nevertheless, France is where she sees herself in the future, without being able to explain why she feels so good in her adopted country. “That’s one of the questions they ask you when you apply for French nationality. But I don’t really have an answer, except that I feel a deep attachment to France. Sometimes you just can’t explain love!”

Article published in the April 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.