QR code is just a tiny square, a pixelated black and white mosaic that can be scanned and read using a mobile device. But these little barcodes are playing an ever greater role in our everyday lives. They became ubiquitous during the Covid pandemic, used for everything from viewing a restaurant menu to showing a vaccination certificate. Soon you may even be able to pay for your meal at a restaurant by scanning a code, without having to reach for your credit card. That’s the goal of Christine de Wendel, co-founder of Sunday, a start-up offering a new contactless payment tool for restaurants. Sunday was founded last year in France and arrived this summer in the U.S., where a portion of its team is based. The company is part American and part French, just like its CEO.
Before moving back to Atlanta – her place of birth – in fall 2020, Christine de Wendel was one of the top women in the French tech sector during the previous decade. She is one of the few to have held top-level positions at two “unicorns,” start-ups valued at more than one billion dollars: the German online fashion retailer Zalando, and the DIY and decoration specialist ManoMano.
Nothing predestined this driven, forty-something businesswoman who peppers her sentences with French words such as génial, fabuleux, and magique, for a career in new technologies. Born to a French mother and an Austrian father – an entrepreneur who moved to the United States “to live his American dream” – Christine de Wendel studied international relations at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and then at the London School of Economics. She also studied at Sciences Po in Paris. “I loved it,” she says. “I was twenty years old and living in the Latin Quarter. It was the dream life in Paris! And I met my husband there.”
A French and American Background
After graduating, she landed her first job at Bain & Company, in a sector far removed from her field of study: management consulting. “I was recruited sort of by chance. I had an unusual profile, but they liked that I had both a French and American background and that I followed a different path from the French business schools.” Now married, she worked in New York for three years: “We were under thirty and exploring the city. It was absolutely incredible!”
The couple eventually returned to France, and Christine de Wendel enrolled in an MBA program at the INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau. Upon graduating, and having only recently given birth to their first son, she was recruited by Zalando. The online footwear and fashion retailer had just arrived in France. “They were looking for managers who understood the culture of the countries they were branching out into, and who could work with the head office in Germany.” She stayed with the company for seven years, moving her way up from purchasing director to managing director for France. The company achieved spectacular growth during that period, expanding its workforce from 100 to over 12,000 people, and boosting revenue from 200 million to 4 billion euros. “Our two other children were also born during those seven years, so it was a productive period in every sense of the word!” The only downside was that she had to travel between Paris and Berlin each week – an exhausting feat.
“When our third child was born, I told myself I needed to find a company with as much potential as Zalando, but based in Paris.” Enter ManoMano, a DIY and gardening start-up that was just beginning to break into the market. The company appointed Christine de Wendel chief operating officer, and saw its revenue jump from 300 million to 1.2 billion euros under her leadership.
Returning to her American Roots
But over time, Christine de Wendel felt a growing desire to return to her roots. “I always wanted my children to grow up in America and for them to learn the values instilled by an American education: optimism, ambition, and self-confidence. My husband and I talked it over, and we gave ourselves a deadline of 2020. Then I left ManoMano, and we moved to Atlanta.” She was familiar with Georgia’s capital, having grown up there herself. But from a professional standpoint, she was “leaping into the unknown.” One advantage was that Atlanta had become a vibrant hub for start-ups, having churned out ten unicorns in less than ten years. It was the perfect spot for her to launch her first company with two Parisian partners : Victor Lugger, whom she met in 2018-2019 through the French-American Foundation’s Young Leaders program, and Tigrane Seydoux.
In the early days of the pandemic, Tigrane Seydoux and Victor Lugger, founders of the Big Mamma chain of Italian restaurants in Europe, introduced a system where diners could pay for their meal by simply scanning a QR code. The idea was to reduce the risk of contamination, but they quickly realized that the system was also a big hit with their customers, who no longer had to wait for someone to bring them the check! The system also allows restaurants to turn tables faster, and diners tend to leave higher tips. The two French entrepreneurs ultimately decided to develop the idea into a company called Sunday, and to place Christine de Wendel in charge of developing the business in America. “We started with a transatlantic mindset,” she says. The project and the pitch attracted investors: After an initial round of 24 million dollars in April, the company raised an additional 100 million this fall. The funds are needed to move quickly and expand internationally: In addition to the United States and France, Sunday operates in the U.K., Spain, and Canada, with a workforce of 170 people. More than 1,500 restaurants already use its application, a figure that she intends to increase tenfold by the end of 2022.
After a decade in Paris, Christine de Wendel finds it “very refreshing” to be working with American investors and entrepreneurs, whose boldness and ambition she admires. She has also noticed one other difference: “In the American start-up scene, it’s not at all exceptional to be a woman. I’ve been fortunate to have worked for some really great companies, but the reality is that there are still too few women in French tech!”
Article published in the November 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.