Marylène Delbourg-Delphis, one of the first European women to found a technology company in the United States, is an iconic figure of Silicon Valley, embodying women’s empowerment in a traditionally male-dominated sector.

Marylène, who is of Breton and Savoyard origin, has been the CEO of four technology companies in the Bay Area and has helped around thirty organizations as an executive consultant, Board Member, or “shadow CEO” over the years. And she’s not done yet! She is starting a Vistage Chair practice, which involves facilitating private advisory groups composed of about fifteen CEOs, meeting once a month, and providing individual monthly coaching for each member. “The vast majority of CEOs feel lonely and overwhelmed at the top,” she says. “It’s even worse for women. That’s why I would like to include as many women as possible in my group.”

This graduate of the École normale supérieure, who earned a doctorate in philosophy and minors in formal logic and history of science, also stands out as a prolific author, writing on topics as diverse as fashion and perfumes, entrepreneurship, innovation, customer success, and human resources. Her next book on innovation will be published by Georgetown University Press in May: “Beyond Eureka ! The Rocky Roads to Innovating.

Marylène, who was bestowed the French Legion of Honor in 2018 and has also received the “Women in Leadership” award at the latest French-American Business Awards continues to inspire and guide decision-makers and entrepreneurs in the Valley today.

Discover the unique journey of this French pioneer in Tech in Silicon Valley.

 

How did you go from studying philosophy at Normale Sup to entrepreneurship in Tech?

I studied philosophy at Normale Sup and was a student of Michel Serres, a renowned French philosopher and academician. At that time, I was passionate about philosophy, mathematics, and the history of physics. Naturally, I started my career teaching philosophy in Compiègne, Coulommiers, and at the Lycée Henri 4 for five years.

But my interest then turned to the world of fashion. The late 70s was a fascinating period marked by the emergence of great designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, Claude Montana, and Thierry Mugler. That’s how I started writing articles for Le Monde and various magazines.

Faced with a lack of documentation on the history of fashion, I wrote a book on the subject, emphasizing cultural contexts since 1850. It was then that I discovered the world of perfumery, closely linked to fashion, and was initiated into this world by Jean-Paul Guerlain.

At that time, I created the first database on the history of French perfumery for the company Saint-Gobain, specializing in the manufacture of perfume bottles. That’s how I stepped into technology.

The 80s were marked by the advent of the Mac, and I was captivated by its possibilities, especially its interface, which I perceived as the future. So, I decided to move into computing. My time in fashion had allowed me to develop a certain acuity in making a difference between real trends and shiny objects. That’s how I founded my first company in database management systems, first in France and immediately after in the United States with Guy Kawasaki, then Chief Evangelist at Apple. We bootstrapped the organization.

So, I became one of the first European women to start a company in the technology sector in the United States, somewhat accidentally.

 

How did you break through in Silicon Valley as a female CEO in the 1980s?

I had a unique product, which helped me. However, I quickly realized that I didn’t have a typical business profile and I also discovered misogyny in the Tech world at that time.

I was lucky to have the support of Guy Kawasaki. I was proficient in classical English, having translated John Locke into French, but I wasn’t familiar with business English and even less with the linguistic habits of Silicon Valley.

I remained undeterred by obstacles and found ways to overcome them by staying extremely focused. I was passionate and nothing seemed impossible to me. I observed the people around me a lot and asked for advice.

Reflecting on the past, I recognize that I may have been somewhat naive, but I also believe that maintaining confidence in what you’re doing and who you are is crucial. That’s why I’ve always tried to recruit women and help those who start businesses.

 

What have been your greatest strengths in your career?

First, it may be my determination coupled with having sponge-like curiosity and listening to others. Second, I have learned to filter and find alternatives to overcome obstacles. 

The incredible energy radiating from Silicon Valley fosters the growth of these strengths. I quickly grasped the significance of not just observing this vibrancy passively , but to incorporate it within oneself and then communicate it. 

I am also very inspired by the expression “only the sky’s the limit.” It encourages us to overcome our limits, or even forget them.

 

What do you think of the “glass ceiling”?

I find the expression “glass ceiling,” created in the 1970s by Marilyn Loden, too simplistic, even if the image is interesting. Personally, I prefer the more complex formulation of George Sand’s heroine who says that “the ether [had] closed over [her] head, like an impenetrable crystal vault” and discovers that she has “around [her] neck a heavy chain.” This experience reflects more accurately that women often face a series of obstacles, visible and invisible, throughout their careers, rather than a single ceiling.

Women still encounter many ideological and institutional barriers that hinder their professional progression. Unlike men, they are often led to change careers and perspectives due life circumstances. This flexibility, sometimes perceived as a handicap, should, however, highlight a fundamental adaptability for businesses.

Men’s careers tend to be more linear, which can facilitate their access to leadership positions in large companies. However, women’s more varied paths often make them more creative and innovative.

 

What other major lessons have you learned from your career?

It may seem obvious, but I strongly believe that one should not be afraid to take one’s aspirations seriously.

In this respect, I have learned resilience, but also the ability to forgive myself when things do not go exactly as planned. It is vital to be kind to yourself and steer clear of norms that trap you in a “fixed mindset,” inhibiting the development of a  “growth mindset,” to borrow a dichotomy popularized by Carol Dweck.

Women tend to be too demanding of themselves and to succumb to social pressure. I recommend that they consider this pressure as a lever rather than a constraint.

Overall, I’ve observed a generally positive shift in attitudes and an increase in confidence among women.

 

You have just published a book on innovation entitled “Beyond Eureka, The Rocky Roads to Innovating,” which will be released in May. Why did you write about this topic, and what are the main messages to remember?

One of the biggest problems faced by entrepreneurs and business leaders is the confusion between entrepreneurship and innovation. However, they are not the same thing. One can be an entrepreneur without necessarily innovating.

With this book, I also wanted to debunk the misconceptions surrounding innovation, shed light on its complex and non-linear nature, and propose strategies to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Being and remaining innovative  requires flexibility, the ability to change course, to understand and navigate unexpected situations, manage uncertainties and make them understandable to employees.

I devote an entire chapter to the historical scarcity of women  in the innovation sphere, even if a deeper analysis of history allows us to give credit to the achievements of more of them. The reason is that they have rarely been part of the genealogies of knowledge and networks in which innovations are formed. While there has been a gradual increase in their participation,  significant disparity remains between men and women in this domain.

 

Can you tell us about your role as a shadow CEO and Vistage Chair?

When CEOs encounter obstacles, I provide guidance on how I would respond in their situation. My added value is my experience as a CEO and my availability 7 days a week. This is a more “hands-on” and less normative approach than simple coaching.

While CEOs facing problems have solutions at their disposal, they still need a sounding board, someone to exchange ideas with in real-time. Loneliness at the top is often underestimated, which is why the practice of shadow CEO is not very common.

My Vistage Chair practice will be less personalized, yet the underlying principle is profoundly impactful l. It enables CEOs to gain insights from other CEOs who have faced similar challenges—which can help to both de-dramatize problems and facilitate their resolution.

 

Your daughter is an opera singer in New York. How do you think you influenced her career?

I don’t think I influenced her, but I think I gave her the freedom to find and choose her own path.

I learn a lot from my daughter. When she was five, I started looking at the world through her eyes. I discovered many things that I didn’t see before.

Her passion allowed me to considerably expand my musical culture, and I am now very involved in Opéra Parallèle in San Francisco, founded by an extraordinary woman, Nicole Paiement. Opéra Parallèle presents contemporary themes through innovative staging and appeals to a much wider audience than traditional opera-goers.

 

What are your main sources of inspiration?

Always the same: people and an interest in who they are and what they do, reading, landscapes, and the arts.

 

Merci Marylène

 

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