To revitalize poor suburbs, Paris taps underused resource: women entrepreneurs

Hafida Guebli is one of a growing number of women from France’s most deprived communities who are throwing themselves into the start-up world. France hopes creating small businesses there will help both the economy and the community.

Courtesy of HEC Paris
Hafida Guebli, creator of mobile app NEYB’S, speaks at an event hosted by HEC Paris business school in Paris.

Weaving through her childhood cité – or social housing block – in the Parisian suburb of Villemomble, Hafida Guebli passes a gaping hole where the library used to be. It burned down during the 2005 riots that spilled over from nearby Clichy-sous-Bois and left numerous Paris banlieues in ruin.

Ms. Guebli remembers the violence, police brutality, and skepticism of those days.

“A lot of people I grew up with here just assumed they’d end up unemployed or in prison,” she says, pointing up to her childhood bedroom on the 10th floor of her cité, which butts up against the train tracks. “So it didn’t matter if they stole stuff or did this or that … the end result was the same.”

Now Guebli lives practically next door, in the suburb, or banlieue, of Roumainville. And today, raising an 18-month-old son with her husband, she sees the close-knit community of the banlieue – even one on the state's “high priority” list in need of extra aid to build housing and services – as critical.

“The banlieues are one big family,” she says. “There’s a sense of solidarity and so many good things about growing up in this environment.... But everyone wants to get out of here.”

Guebli didn't leave, however, and now she's one of a growing number of women from France’s most deprived banlieues who are throwing themselves into entrepreneurship. Every morning, she crosses the physical and psychological divide between her apartment in Roumainville and Station F, the giant startup campus in central Paris created by tech billionaire Xavier Niel. That's where she's developing an app to help tenants and landlords overcome language barriers – a key issue in the banlieues.

Her project is part of a larger French effort that takes its cues from President Emmanuel Macron. The aim is to get more women to create small businesses from within the country’s most economically and socially stagnant districts. The move is not only allowing more women to become self-sufficient and contribute to the economy, but it’s also helping revitalize the negative and often inaccurate image of banlieues.

“I’m optimistic that France can work toward more social cohesion, but the truth is, people from disadvantaged banlieues generally have more difficulty getting their diplomas and finding jobs,” says Louis Maurin, the director of the French Observatory of Inequalities. “There is a big difference between what the state aspires to in terms of equality and the reality of the situation.”

Joe Penney/Reuters
Apartment buildings are seen in the Cite Raymond Queneau, a banlieue in Bobigny, France, Sep. 4, 2016.

‘Figuring things out on my own’

The French still broadly view the banlieues in a negative light. A study by Odoxa-Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France in 2015 found that perceptions of banlieues residents had not changed much in the decade since the riots. Seventy-nine percent of those polled said les banlieusards were poor and dangerous, while 61 percent said they behaved worse than other young people.

But more recent polls indicate that just as many French people believe that promoting entrepreneurship in disadvantaged banlieues is a way to revive economic activity there, and that women from the banlieues have something to contribute to entrepreneurship.

That’s why organizations like 100,000 Entrepreneurs are trying to reach women early, to get them thinking about entrepreneurship as a serious career path. The nonprofit recently launched a two-week awareness campaign in which 600 women small business owners will visit schools and youth groups across the country to boost a stagnating entrepreneurship rate among women. Of all French entrepreneurs, only 30 percent are women. And in disadvantaged districts, just 2 percent of working women are entrepreneurs.

“The obstacles women in general face to start their own business are compounded for those coming from impoverished neighborhoods,” says Béatrice Viannay-Galvani, CEO of 100,000 Entrepreneurs. “Some have families who say they don’t have the right to work, while others lack the confidence to get started or think running a business is too complicated.”

Guebli could have become a statistic, growing up within a second-generation Moroccan family with non-French-speaking, illiterate parents. While France’s unemployment rate has hovered around 10 percent for about a decade, the rate for those from “high priority” zones is more than 26 percent, according to the National Observatory for Urban Policy (ONPV). Those numbers rise to 29 percent for children of immigrants.

For those facing discrimination or who haven’t followed traditional career paths, entrepreneurship is an increasingly attractive option. For Guebli, it was a move to London at 20 – something her parents assumed would be just a two-week trip – that was a life-changer.

“Companies in London gave me a chance and were open to seeing my potential,” says Guebli, who found a job, apartment, and English school in her first 10 days in the city and ended up staying a year. “But my return to France was disastrous, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get a job. Employers weren't looking at me as a whole person, just a resume. So I thought, I’ve figured things out on my own before, I can do it again.”

Guebli opened an organic teashop, but was forced to shut down after two years in 2015, when terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices – and a Jewish grocery store that was on the same street as her shop. Soon, she was meeting with developers to create NEYB’S.

The app – short for “neighbors” – uses a series of pictograms to help those with language barriers communicate with their landlords on everything from a leaky sink to construction next door. It’s a testament of what can happen when a woman from the banlieue launches a business that benefits her community.

“Information simply doesn’t reach banlieues like mine, particularly for those who don’t speak French,” says Guebli, most of whose childhood friends had parents who were illiterate or didn't speak French. “Unless they see a bill in the mail, they’re not going to read it because they don’t understand.”

Places where positive things happen

Drive, ambition, and innovative ideas are key to entrepreneurship, but experts insist that support is what's essential to women from disadvantaged banlieues. Guebli says she never would have made it without programs like HEC business school’s “Stand-Up,” which supports motivated women entrepreneurs.

Within the program, Guebli works from Station F. She is able to meet investors, clients, and other start-up workers. She has 18 months to get her project off the ground. The timeline is key for people like Guebli, who don’t have family money to cushion the blow. Women, in general, often struggle to start their businesses due to systemic discrimination. A 2017 study by Opinion Way showed that 35 percent of women entrepreneurs need financial support. Yet women in France historically receive fewer bank loans than men. The difficulties are compounded for racial minorities.

“I sold my car and asked people in my cité for financial help to get my business off the ground,” says Guebli. “That’s one advantage of growing up in a close-knit community.”

As French organizations – and women entrepreneurs – work to erase the social stigma of coming from les banlieues, and encourage women there to think bigger, many hope France can attain its goal of getting 40 percent of women into entrepreneurship. If it can succeed, the benefits will be two-fold.

“Women from impoverished neighborhoods have overcome so many obstacles, so when they finally decide to go into business for themselves, they really drive themselves forward and end up going further than anyone,” says Viannay-Galvani. “And when they succeed, it shows that the suburbs are not just places of violence, but places where really positive things happen.”

Those are words to live by for Guebli, who hopes that once her phone app is officially up and running, she will have a product that makes her family and community proud.

“A lot of people I grew up with see me as a UFO, like wow, you ‘made it,’ ” says Guebli. “I think the difference is that I never labeled myself or thought I couldn’t do something because of where I came from. And when I want something, I go for it.”

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