The local French Tech community is familiar with Reza Malekzadeh, the president of French Tech San Francisco since its inception, but we wanted to go a step further and find out how he’s been able to promote what he calls “the brand France”.
In a few words, who are you Reza Malekzadeh?
I’m a partner in the Partech investment fund, where I invest mainly in B2B technology companies focused on infrastructure, cybersecurity, and data center software. I’m also President of French Tech San Francisco, where I try to animate the community and promote the “brand France“.
You’ve spent much of your career in the Bay Area. Why have you set up or participated in no less than three networking associations and been so involved in professional networking?
When I arrived in California, I found that there were certain communities that were very, very strong and very active, like the Indian community or the Israeli community, because they did a great job of helping each other, promoting themselves, and supporting each other. But I also noticed that the French weren’t doing enough. Yet the community had talents and achievements to be proud of.
Of course, I became involved in the HEC alumni network, but by talking to other alumni association representatives, the Polytechniciens, the Centraliens, the ESSECs… I realized that everyone represented a small group of people, but that there was no critical mass for any of us.
So we decided to federate all those groups under the French Alumni’s name and created a participative board representing the different associations to be bigger and stronger. Thanks to this initiative, we managed to have larger events, more exciting content, and finally people got together more frequently.
There were more and more participants at events and a kind of demand, and there was no business model, no mission, and no membership to pay for. When we did an event, we asked each participant to pay a small fee to cover expenses, but everything was in a purely associative spirit.
Then when the French Tech initiative started and when I had the opportunity to meet members of the government, I was particularly impressed by their willingness to entrust this initiative to members of civil society. This clearly underlined the local nature of the initiative.
It was in 2016, on the occasion of Emmanuel Macron’s visit to San Francisco, then Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, that we created French Tech San Francisco. This organization was initially supported by French Alumni but gradually became an independent entity.
At the time, it was important to promote France as a brand, as it had been particularly damaged by the Dailymotion case. The fact that France had blocked the sale of a company was still on the minds of Silicon Valley investors. France needed to be perceived in a more positive manner in Silicon Valley, and today being a French entrepreneur no longer triggers a negative reaction. The local French Tech initiative has therefore performed rather well.
As an entrepreneur or investor, there are plenty of networking opportunities in the Bay Area. Why should one be interested in French Tech San Francisco? What makes it different from FACCSF or FrenchFounders, for example? Are there synergies between these different networks?
Basically, French Tech is a non-profit association with no business model, and all board members are volunteers who give their time. This distinguishes it from other structures that are either for-profit or sell consulting or other services. In addition, whether it’s FrenchFounders or FACCSF, these organizations are not intended to be limited to the Tech industry. French Tech, as it stands in its name, is exclusively focused on Tech, and we only promote the Tech ecosystem and its entrepreneurship.
For some time now, we’ve been working together, sharing calendars, and hosting events with FACCSF and FrenchFounders. We organized Bastille Day in Silicon Valley with FACCSF in July and a panel on Artificial Intelligence in April with FrenchFounders.
Who can join French Tech San Francisco? Is the organization reserved for French companies with a French legal structure?
Absolutely not! French Tech is about promoting the “brand France” as broadly as possible. So it can be a French company setting up in the Bay Area, French entrepreneurs developing a business with foreign capital in Silicon Valley or French people with top jobs in companies like Google or Meta… For example, we’ve got Platform.sh and Odasseva, which are French companies but whose CEOs are based in California, or Pierre Betouin, who co-founded Sqreen, a company that has since been sold to Datadog, and also the founders of SnowFlake… It’s very diverse.
At French Tech San Francisco, we promote French expertise. In the last panel on Artificial Intelligence in April, we featured Frenchmen Luc Julia and Emmanuel de Maistre, and we also had American speakers at the event.
How many people are part of the French Tech San Francisco network?
Without membership or annual fees, our gauge is the number of participants in the events we organize. For the two big annual get-togethers, we draw around 250 people. When we do a content or networking event, we have between 50 and 100 people. Altogether, we have around 2,500 names in our database.
Most of our events take place in San Francisco in order to attract people from Marin County, but we also make sure to do events in Silicon Valley.
Do you see a change in the profile of entrepreneurs over the past two years? Is Silicon Valley still the magnet for entrepreneurs it used to be?
With COVID, there was a pause in new arrivals, because it was just legally impossible to come. At the same time, the conditions for obtaining or renewing visas for non-American nationals became stricter, and this had an impact on the eco-system.
But I have the feeling that arrivals are picking up again, particularly with the AI wave, as French talents are particularly well positioned in this field. Once again, this is attracting a lot of people, including young people.
Some people say that this is the end of the Bay Area, but I don’t believe it. I went through the same phenomenon in 2000 and 2008, and it’s cyclical. Look, traffic is already flowing again on Highway 101!
It’s true that from a macro point of view, entrepreneurs are moving elsewhere, to New York for example, and that Silicon Valley is facing a certain level of competition; but the research labs, the ecosystem formed by startups and universities, the big labs of Google and others, and finally the funds, are still in the Bay Area.
Do you see a change in the profile of French entrepreneurs arriving in the Bay Area? Are you meeting people who are better prepared?
Without a doubt, I’ve seen a huge evolution over the years, firstly because students are doing more and more exchanges abroad, or taking a gap year after or during their studies.
When young graduates arrive, they have more international experience, they speak better English, and they are much more ambitious. Today, the entrepreneurs I see in French Tech really have the ambition to create companies with an international dimension.
If I put on my investor’s hat, given that I invest in enterprise software, infrastructure technologies, or cybersecurity, the reality is that over 44% of IT budgets are in the United States, compared with 20% in Europe, in a fragmented market.
If an entrepreneur comes to see us and aims to stay in France, it’s because he doesn’t fundamentally have a very ambitious revenue target. But if he comes to us and wants to address a global market, and we detect that he has the capacity to sell his product on the American market, that’s a very different story for us investors.
In any case, to come to the United States, you have to be ready for it, and timing has to make sense. One of the models that has worked quite well is for companies that started out in Europe, have customers, prove that their product works, and then leverage these successes to raise money and continue to grow in the American market. Talend is a good example of this, as it is listed on Nasdaq.
The last few months have been all about cyber and AI. As a VC, how do you see the next twelve months in terms of investment? It seems to be all over the place, especially in AI.
It’s a field that’s changing on a daily basis, but that’s what’s exciting. It’s a very, very strong technological revolution that will have very significant consequences for the way we do things.
I see it as a wave of technologies that will be able to help do a lot of things that already exist because there are pure AI technologies, but there’s also the question of how to integrate them into existing processes.
Since AI is likely to change so many things, it attracts investors.
However, there has already been a fair amount of clean-up in the market, as companies often didn’t have the expected growth or the right business model. It’s not yet stable, and the IPO window needs to reopen before we can look at this market more clearly. ARM’s IPO will be a good indicator of market traction. In the meantime, we’re not waiting for it to happen. If there’s less investment volume, it’s because there are fewer files and fewer very good ones. Everybody is more selective, and that’s healthy.
Now that you are back in France, can you share any addresses or things you miss?
- Chef Gary Danko’s restaurant, which I’ve always found exceptional; he’s stayed loyal to his location and it’s always very, very good.
- Cycling in the Bay Hills or Marin County. It’s quite an exceptional pleasure.
- Walking by the water next to the Ferry Building, with the light reflecting on the water. It’s magical!
- And the culture and atmosphere of expatriation. I find there’s a level of friendship and lightness that allows you to develop deeper relationships. I think it’s largely because when you are an expatriate, you don’t have the rest of your life around.
A final word to conclude?
On the associative level, I’d like to add that the American lesson of “give forward” has been very important for me. Thinking that you’ve arrived somewhere, that you’ve maybe succeeded, that you’ve had some difficulties, and then considering why not help the next person who arrives by sharing your own experiences?
I’m delighted to see that things have really improved in the French network, and I’d like to see it carry on.
The French Tech San Francisco 2023-2024 calendar to date is available here